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The Heirloom Tomato of Turkeys

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Caveny Farm

1999 N. 935 E. Road

Monticello, IL

217-762-7767

On his farm in downstate Illinois, a few miles south of Champaign, John Caveny is tending to his menagerie of rare breeds, among them endangered varieties of lamb, duck, and goose. He has a turkey flock of just under 500 bleating bourbon reds, their backs beautifully feathered in brown and white, their purple heads wrinkled like prunes. Few people have heard of bourbon reds, just as few people know that their Thanksgiving turkey is a broad-breasted white. But though Caveny charges over $4 a pound for his turkeys--four times as much as a supermarket bird--he'll sell out.

His success stems from a movement started a few years ago by Slow Food, the international food organization, to promote heritage turkeys, breeds that predate the rise of industrialized agriculture and are too something--too tricky to raise or too feisty, for example--to be suitable for factory farming. The logic of Slow Food is cannily counterintuitive: the more consumers eat heritage breeds, the more farmers will raise them, and voila--the more stable the endangered lines. As Patrick Martins, the head of Slow Food USA, puts it, "We must eat them to save them." So far the birds are being eaten at least. "They're tender, tasty, and naturally juicy," Caveny says. Half of his customers are repeats.

Slow Food estimates that 18,000 heritage turkeys were sold last year, a 20-fold increase from 2002. That's a trend that might worry industrial producers, who have concentrated on breeding the broad-breasted white into the Dolly Parton caricature of turkeys. The breed arrives at its table weight in three months, half the time it takes nonindustrial birds. Those lost months mean that the broad-breasted white never grows the protective fat a naturally raised turkey would; it's pumped full of salt water to simulate the effect. Meanwhile, years of selection have ensured that their feed goes straight to the breast: the birds are so front-loaded they can hardly walk, can't run, and can't fly. They also can't have sex--their breasts are too big for them to mount. Every one sold in the United States today is a product of artificial insemination.

In the early 90s a survey by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy found that of the nine or ten heritage turkey varieties still extant, fewer than 1,700 breeding pairs remained. That number's now 5,000 and rising; there are more than half a dozen farmers raising heritage turkeys in central Illinois, almost all of them relative newcomers. On Caveny's 30 acres of land, the turkeys, housed in large wire lean-tos, are moved to different sections of the pasture each day. (Caveny had hoped to let them roam entirely free, but he's already lost about 100 this year to coyotes and weasels.) It's been a hotter-than-average fall, which means the turkeys haven't put on as much fat for warmth--what Caveny calls "the finish." Like grapes, turkeys, it turns out, are vintage dependent.

I brought back a nine-pound bourbon red ($37) from the farm and discovered that cooking instructions for heritage turkeys vary widely: I read that my turkey wouldn't tolerate high-heat roasting and that it absolutely needed a high temperature; that brining was necessary and that brining would muddle the taste. After reviewing my notes, I added all the oven temperatures together, divided by the number of recipes, then ignored the result and stuck the bird in the oven unbrined, a negligee of butter over its breast, at 400 degrees for about an hour and a half. It was marvelous. A deep, earthy brown, the sinewy dark meat on the drumsticks was toughened up by exercise. The white meat from the breast held its own--a friend who hates turkey was surprised to find he liked it.

Even factoring in the greater cost--and clearly nothing beats the broad-breasted white for low-cost protein--it seems shameful to trick families into cheerlessly buying the only turkey that they thought existed. Every year, says Charles Bassett of the livestock conservancy, the organization calls the White House, proposing to have the president select a turkey that actually resembles what Benjamin Franklin wanted to be the national bird. "They'd look a lot different than that industrial white the president selects," he says.

Turkeys from Caveny Farm can be ordered at www.chicagocooks.com; Caveny will distribute them at the Green City Market and the Evanston farmers' market on Saturday, November 19 and December 17. For more information see cavenyfarm.com. O'Rourke Family Farms, based in Arrowsmith, Illinois, will also distribute heritage turkeys at the Evanston market on November 19; call 309-722-9208 to order.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Futran.

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