Heritage Turkey (photo by Rich Collins)I am really, REALLY excited about the turkey I just reserved for our Thanksgiving dinner. It's a Kentucky Bourbon Red heritage breed, bred locally in Breckenridge County. These are relatively rare, because like heirloom vegetables, most heritage breeds have gone extinct since they've been phased out by industrial varieties - the short-lived, quick-fattening, big breasted birds that are so fat they can't even run, fly or reproduce on their own. According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, 99.9% of the turkeys available today are industrially bred birds. Essentially, by buying and eating heritage turkeys, we are keeping the breed alive, and supporting an alternative, compassionate and sustainable method of raising livestock.
In the 1800's, settlers heading west brought the Bourbons to Kentucky along with the long rifle. They were originally bred for their rich flavor, beautiful feathers and good meat yield. Unlike today's factory farmed turkeys, heritage breeds are ruthless, self reliant hardasses. In the olden days, entire flocks were herded across pastures into the market. Since their genetic integrity has been preserved, they are the same birds people generations before me have raised and eaten. And thankfully, over two hundred years later, they are still flying, strutting, scavenging, and mating. They live normal turkey lifespans, eating grasses and bugs and other bird-like meals. Heritage turkeys are said to be very rich and flavorful, but a Bourbon Red is supposedly one of the tastiest heritage turkeys.
Aside from the obvious, I am excited for these two reasons:
1. Martha Stewart (MARTHA!) ordered a Kentucky-raised Bourbon Red for her Thanksgiving dinner this year. So if you think about it, we are not so different, Martha and I. We are sort of like sisters in this way. It's a Best Friends Forever kind of thing we have going.
2. One of my favorite authors and fellow Kentucky native, Barbara Kingslover, recently wrote a book about living in Kentucky, growing all of her family's food and raising livestock (Animal Vegetable, Miracle). There is a chapter about raising Bourbon Red turkeys - it was my most favorite part of the book, for sure. Kingslover is a wonderful writer, and although she was explaining the reproduction cycle of heirloom poultry, she still managed to keep me captivated, make me laugh, and eventually move me to tears. No kidding. (When that miraculous baby turkling's head finally peeped out from under Mamma turkey's feathers? I truly lost it.) Anyway, long before I had made plans to host a Thanksgiving dinner, my interest was piqued. Since reading this book, I've been secretly pining and plotting for one of these bird's entrance into my life.
If you haven't read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingslover has written this lovely turkey essay for Food and Wine Magazine and it is available online for you to read. It's kind of an abbreviated version from her book, so I command you all to read it!