Short History - The turkey is native to North America. Long before the Pilgrims landed and had that original Thanksgiving feast, Native Americans of the Southwest had already domesticated the local Mexican breed.
Fattened with corn, these domesticated birds fed the Native Americans, and supplied feathers for garments, blankets, baskets, and ritual objects. Tribes of the Plains and the East hunted turkey with bow and arrow. Turkeys were brought back to Spain by priests who explored the New World with the Conquistadors in the 1500s. Once introduced to Europe the turkey quickly became a favorite. Charles IX of France, for example, is said to have chosen turkey to celebrate his wedding in 1570. Throughout Europe, turkeys provided a reliable source of meat, and were a common sight in the poultry yard, along with chickens, ducks, and geese.
The English settlers brought domesticated turkeys back to the new world with them when they settled New England in the early 17th century, not realizing they occurred in the wild there. By the early 1900s, there were fewer than 30,000 wild turkeys left due to hunting, deforestation and the westward movement of the pioneers. Happily, federal laws, reintroduction efforts, and conservation have brought the numbers back to about seven million wild birds in the forty-nine states.
The appetite for turkey and the standardization of large scale farming has resulted in the modern commercial turkey which has dominated the market for the last 50 years. Breeds like the Broad Breasted Bronze and the Large White are bred to produce a lot of meat quickly. They are larger with a higher percentage of both white meat and meat-to-bone than organic, heritage, or wild birds. This is due to breeding, diet (most of these birds are fed growth hormones and antibiotics), lack of exercise, and water-processing. These turkeys cannot mate because of the unnaturally large breast, shorter breast bones and legs. They cannot walk normally, and have very little muscle as a result. Sadly, these are the turkeys most of us are familiar with, and few have tasted turkey as nature intended it.
With the increasing interest in traditional foods and heirloom breeds, demand for wild and heritage-breed turkeys has risen over the last several years. Supplying this demand has sometimes been challenging, but the number of farms raising them has increased and it's now possible to offer home chefs access to these old breed birds for the holidays.
What sets heritage turkey apart from the flock, are these criteria: they must be able to breed naturally, live seven to nine years, and grow slowly. They are old standard breeds, not modern experiments. Today, there are only seven heritage breeds including Standard Bronze (actually a cross between the Narragansett and Eastern wild breeds developed by early settlers in Rhode Island in the 1700s), Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, Narragansett and White Holland.
Heritage and wild turkeys thrive when raised free range, and fed natural whole-grain diets, without any antibiotics or hormones. The freedom to exercise means they have more muscle than conventional birds. Processing is often by hand instead of machine. The result is a more intense turkey flavor with less white meat and a leaner texture that requires a tad more care in preserving moistness. Especially in the wild turkeys, the breast meat will be darker than conventional turkeys. These birds also tend to be smaller. In fact, heritage turkeys are largely unavailable in sizes over 20 lbs, and wild turkeys rarely grow over 10 lbs. When deciding what size to serve, a good rule of thumb is to plan for one pound of turkey per person.
Preparation is the Key
With their richer tasting meat and moister overall texture, it's easy to assume that preparation techniques for heritage or wild turkey are exactly the same as those used for commercial birds. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that these birds are leaner with a higher percentage of dark meat. This natural balance of dark to white meat actually makes preparation easier. Since white meat always cooks faster than dark, the closer the ratio, the easier it is to roast evenly. Brining, barding, and basting are common techniques in preparing a tasty heritage bird.
The breast meat is smaller (after all, it hasn't been artificially enlarged) and needs protection during cooking. Covering the breast meat with aluminum foil, or cheesecloth soaked in cooking oil while cooking is strongly advised. Remove the covering about 30 minutes before the turkey is done so the breast will brown. Frequent basting is a must, unless you rub truffle butter or olive oil under the skin over the breast, which makes the birds self-basting. Because they are leaner and tend to be smaller, cooking at low temperatures for longer time is also suggested.