Nowadays, you can walk into any supermarket during the summer and find at least a few heirloom tomatoes. After years and years of bland, mealy tomatoes imported from Mexico, finally, we are rediscovering heirloom produce, breeds of fruits and vegetables that were selected by past generations for their unique, superior flavors. In the meat industry, heritage breeds are like to heirloom produce and, just as there are many varieties of heirloom tomatoes with distinct appearances and flavors, there are many breeds of animals that have been selected by generations before us to have different behaviors, appearances, and flavors. In short, heritage breeds are traditional livestock breeds that were bred over time to develop traits that made them well-adapted to their local environment. However, those adaptations are particular to the kind of farming practices that were prevalent 100 years ago and beyond. Heritage breeds are not well-adapted to the rigors of modern agriculture and so they are generally passed over by our modern agricultural system in favor of newer breeds that have been selected to withstand the rigors of industrial production. That’s why we don’t see them at the store very often.
A little history: at the birth of our nation, Americans were subsisting on a diet of wild meats and vegetables grown in individual and communal gardens. As the colonies grew, the meat packing industry grew, but not as we know it today. Colonists harvested, salted, smoked, and packed their own small supply of domesticated meat in order to trade it with the West Indies for products like sugar and molasses. As we all know, the industrial revolution meant two big things: (1) many, many people left farm life in order to live and work in cities and (2) innovations in transportation and industry led to increased production of all kinds of goods, not just meat. For the meat industry these two factors meant that demand for meat increased in cities, where people couldn’t raise their own animals, a demand which coincided with the birth of the railway system. With the advent of refrigerated railway cars, the industrial meat complex was born. Since then, ranching operations have been increasingly confined to more and more isolated areas, as out of the public’s sight as possible. Heritage breeds have become rather uncommon, as they’re not suited to confined feeding operations. We’ve replaced them with our own breeds that have been selected to gain weight quickly, survive confined conditions, and demonstrate docile behavior. Conventional breeds have become so distinct from their predecessors that they often lack the desire to procreate or the ability to do so.
Aside from the industrial revolution, something else has impacted the way we’ve selected breeds to raise here in the US- health fads. In the eighties and nineties, as most of you know, there was a movement against fat and red meat. In reaction to this move, pork producers began breeding leaner and leaner pork. That’s why our pork chops taste nothing like those meaty, fatty chops our grandparents used to serve us. Heritage breeds have distinct flavors and fat profiles that make them unique, and tasty.
Turkeys make for a great, relatable example, since almost all of us eat turkey at Thanksgiving. All domesticated turkeys are descendants of wild North and South American turkeys. However, the conventional turkey breed that is most commonly raised in the US right now is called the Broad Breasted White, which has been selected over time to be so docile and fast-growing that it’s incapable of reproduction and often can’t stand correctly, or fly. Now, if you’ve ever been chased by a wild turkey- and I have, that’s a different story- you know that those guys are fast-moving, fearless, and capable of flying to great heights. Heritage breed turkeys - like the Bourbon Red and the Black turkey- still exhibit most of their natural characteristics and, most importantly, have unique flavor profiles and superior quality meat. The meat is different, that’s for sure, but most people find that, when they taste a heritage breed turkey, they can’t believe how much flavor is there.
One last note about heritage breeds: it is essential that we work together to maintain these breeds. Centuries of our ancestors’ work has gone into selecting them to be highly adaptable to certain conditions and, despite their superior flavor and adaptability, many of these breeds are at risk of extinction. Once gone, we cannot get them back for centuries, if at all. Many ranchers and farmers are raising and reviving heritage breeds - and some never stopped raising them at all! While this meat may cost more, it’s important that we support their efforts. You may find that you fall in love with the distinct flavor profiles and characteristics of heritage breed meats.