As Thanksgiving approaches, the image of a tasty tom turkey with all the trimmings comes to mind. But the turkey on the average American’s table today is more an industrial product than anything our ancestors ever would have imagined eating. In fact, today’s modern mass-market turkey has been so intensely selected to efficiently produce breast meat that it no longer can mate naturally or produce fertile eggs without artificial intervention.
Historic turkey breeds still exist that retain essential characteristics for survival, reproduction and great taste.
In 2005, to secure the market for historic breeds of turkeys, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy defined the term Heritage Turkey. According to this definition, Heritage Turkeys mate naturally, have long, productive outdoor life spans, and have a slow growth rate. The goal of the definition is to preserve the genetics of breeds that may take longer to grow-out, but, ultimately, have a superior flavor and vibrant history.
Heritage turkeys are still perfect for small farms and homesteaders – and if sufficient numbers are raised, the word “turkey,” when used as an adjective, might connote the opposite of its contemporary meaning.
Descended from a cross between native Eastern Wild turkeys and the domestic turkeys brought to North America, the Narragansett is named for Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, where the variety was developed and became the foundation of the turkey industry in New England. According to early accounts, it was not uncommon to find flocks of 100 to 200 birds. The Narragansett was recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) in 1874, and, by the early 1900s, its numbers had declined. In the past 10 years, interest in the Narragansett has grown as small farmers and poultry enthusiasts strive to recapture the biological fitness, survivability and superior flavor represented by the breed.
The breed’s color pattern contains black, gray, tan and white. The Narragansett’s beak is horn colored, its head is red to bluish-white, and its beard is black. The shanks and feet are salmon colored. The standard weight for young hens is 14 pounds and for young toms is 23 pounds. Narragansetts have traditionally been known for their calm disposition, good maternal abilities, early maturation, egg production and excellent meat qualities. As the market niche for heritage turkeys continues to grow, this breed’s numbers will continue to improve.
In the early 1960s, Dr. J. Robert Smyth at the University of Massachusetts developed the Midget White turkey. The Midget White never became widely popular, nor did it ever become standardized by the APA. Soon after its development, the birds went to Dr. Bernie Wentworth at the University of Wisconsin, but, in 2005, the flock was dispersed. The breed’s fate now is in the hands of individual breeders.
The Midget White has the appearance of a miniature version of the commercial Broad Breasted White turkey, but it is still capable of mating naturally. Due to its broad breast, the Midget White has quality meat characteristics, making it a fine table bird. Midget White toms average 13 pounds, and hens average 8 pounds at market weight. Many breeders suggest the Midget White is a likeable, friendly bird that is unafraid of people or pets. Its small size makes the bird an ideal fit for the small homestead or farm.
The Buff is a historic variety from the mid-Atlantic region named for the beautiful color of its feathers. Though never hugely popular, it was accepted by the APA in 1874 and used in the development of the Bourbon Red variety in the late 1800s. By 1915, the Buff was removed from the APA’s Standard of Perfection and ultimately became extinct. In the 1940s, interest grew once again in creating a buff-colored turkey. The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Millville initiated a program to develop a small to medium market turkey. The birds, called “Jersey Buffs,” were developed through pedigree breeding and selection from crosses of Black, Bourbon Red and Broad Breasted Bronze varieties.
The Jersey Buff has rich, reddish-buff body feathers. Tail feathers are white with a light buff bar near the end. Young toms weigh about 21 pounds, and mature hens about 12 pounds. For both, the shanks and toes are bluish-white or flesh-colored, the beard is black, and the eyes are hazel. The Jersey Buff is a calm bird and easy to work with; ideal for a small-scale or hobby farm.
The Royal Palm is one of the few turkey varieties not primarily selected for meat production. With its striking appearance, relatively small size and excellent foraging abilities, this bird is ideal for use on small farms and homesteads. The Palm color pattern first appeared in the United States in the 1920s in a mixed flock of Black, Bronze, Narragansett and wild turkeys on a farm in Lake Worth, Florida. The Royal Palm was recognized by the APA in 1971.
Royal Palms are white with a sharply contrasting, metallic black edging on the feathers. The saddle is black, which provides a sharp contrast to the white base color of the body plumage. The tail is pure white, and each feather has a band of black and an edge of white. The turkeys have red to bluish-white heads, a light horn beak, a black beard, and light brown eyes. Young Royal Palm toms weigh 16 pounds, and young hens are 10 pounds. While the breed’s numbers are growing, it is still in need of quality stewards.
In the 1500s, when early North American explorers returned to Europe, they didn’t leave the New World empty-handed. In addition to the riches and gold, they returned with a curious black turkey from Mexico. Over many decades, black turkeys became popular in Spain where they were known as “Black Spanish,” and in England, especially in the Norfolk region, where they were known as “Norfolk Blacks.” The Black turkey made the voyage back to the Americas with early European colonists, and it was crossed with Eastern wild turkeys, forming the basis for the variety in the United States. This variety was commercially viable through the early part of the 20th century. In fact, a Turkey World article from 1937 states that Blacks were bred in large numbers along the East Coast, their popularity enhanced by selection for a calm disposition, rapid growth and early maturation.
The plumage is a lustrous, metallic black with a greenish sheen on top and a dull black undercolor. Standard weight is 23 pounds for young toms and 14 pounds for young hens. The beak is black, the wattle is red, changeable to bluish-white, and the shanks and toes are pink in adults. Eye color is dark brown. The Black turkey is in need of more stewards. Renewed interest in the biological fitness, survivability and superior flavor of the Black turkey has created a growing market niche.
In the early 1930s, most turkeys raised in the United States had dark-colored plumage, were medium to large in size, and had a narrow breast without substantial meat. A 1936 survey found that 87 percent of home consumers wanted a dressed bird (blood and feathers removed) weighing between 8 and 15 pounds that was meaty, well-finished and free from dark pin feathers. To answer this consumer demand, the U.S Department of Agriculture research center in Beltsville, Massachusetts, began a turkey breeding program. From 1934 to 1941, researchers developed what is now known as the Beltsville variety. Accepted into the American Poultry Association standard in 1951, the Beltsville’s market success was short-lived. Though it made a great bird for the family, the hotel and restaurant industries demanded a larger bird with more meat. By the 1970s, the changing market sealed the Beltsville’s fate leading to near extinction.
Today the Beltsville Small White is quite rare and kept primarily by a few exhibition breeders. Young Beltsville hens weigh 10 pounds, and young toms weigh 17 pounds. Their plumage is white, with the head ranging from a red to bluish-white. The beard is black, the beak is horn colored, and the eyes are dark brown. Shanks and toes are pinkish white. Beltsvilles have good reproductive qualities, including the ability to mate naturally, so they could be selected, bred and maintained by small-scale producers. Numbering fewer than 500 breeding birds in the United States, the Beltsville Small White, once a staple of the American dinner table, is quickly becoming a historic pastime.
Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Bassett Hound and Orange Tabby, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.