heirloom heritage turkey

When Ben Franklin proposed that the noble turkey should be our natural bird, he wasn’t thinking of the Broad Breasted Whites, bred by the USDA to be overweight, dumpy, pale creatures raised in squalor for maximum meat production; no, he was nominating the Standard Bronze, the Narragansett, the Black Spanish, the White Holland—real turkeys, the kinds that were raised by our forefathers and graced the table at that first Thanksgiving.

It’s true that you’ll invest more in a heritage turkey, but with your commitment to natural, local, organic foods, a plain old Butterball just isn’t going to do for your Thanksgiving feast. But where to find a locally raised, heirloom bird worthy of becoming the centerpiece of your festivities? We’ve rounded up some of the best choices, no matter where you live.

There are many varieties of heritage turkeys or heirloom breed turkeys to choose from, but they all have a few things in common. First, they tend to be smaller than the supermarket varieties that have been breed specifically for quantity of meat (usually breast meat), but many people believe that heritage turkeys have more flavor than commercial varieties—especially in the dark meat.  

Also importantly, heritage turkeys are generally raised with care in much smaller farming operations than supermarket turkeys. Many of the farmers who raise these birds pride themselves on allowing the animals to thrive in a more natural environment, allowing them to roam and eat more as they would in the wild. These birds grow more slowly, and are often free-range and even allowed to reproduce naturally (supermarket turkeys are sterile). 

But the one thing that truly defines a heritage turkey is its bloodline, which can be traced back hundreds of years to the first domesticated flocks in our country. These were the birds the pilgrims and native cultures ate, but commercial production nearly wiped them out. In a sort of strange catch-22, the only way to save these breeds of birds is to buy them and eat them—so that farmers will continue to raise them and the bloodlines won’t disappear forever.

Thankfully, in this Internet age, it’s actually not that hard to find a beautiful heritage turkey for your feast—if you know where to look:

  • Local Harvest
    One place you might start your search for an heirloom bird is the Local Harvest website; there, you can search for farmers in your area raising and selling heritage breeds and contact them directly. If there isn’t a farmer selling heritage turkeys in your immediate area, you can also order one online from their e-store.
  • Whole Foods Markets
    For pure convenience, your local Whole Foods is hard to beat. Not every turkey at Whole Foods is a heritage breed, but every one comes from a farm where animals are never caged, never crated and always raised with care. You can check out the store’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating System to find out more about your bird before you buy.
  • Heritage Foods USA
    A favorite of Mario Batali, these turkeys can be traced back to the mid-1800s! You can buy fresh (which sell out quickly) or frozen birds delivered straight to your door.
  • D’Artagnan
    Known for their foie gras and wild game, D’Artagnan also sells heritage turkeys—and bone-in turkey breasts for smaller gatherings (but hurry if you want one; some of the smaller sizes were already sold out at the time of this writing!).
  • Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch
    Committed to preserving vanishing breeds of heirloom poultry, the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch offers several sizes of free-range, vegetarian-fed heritage birds, including whole smoked turkeys.

image by whiteoakart