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Let's Talk Turkey

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Shopping for your holiday turkey can be confusing without a crash course in poultry lingo. Let's first examine what some of the labels mean. (I'm excluding the standard store-bought birds at mainstream grocery chains.)

  • "Natural" turkey: Contains no artificial ingredients or preservatives, but not certified organic.
  • "Organic" turkey: Free-range birds that have fed strictly on organic grains that contain no pesticides, chemicals, hormones or antibiotics.
  • "Heritage" turkeys: Specially bred and raised, with a richer flavor. Available in limited supply and therefore more expensive.

For consumers in search of natural and organic foods, heritage turkeys are the new rage. What, exactly, makes these holiday birds so unique? Think Pilgrims. Heritage turkeys are carefully fed, raised and produced to offer extremely lean, juicy meat, with an amazingly natural taste. They generally have more dark than white meat, and each plump bird is a member of a rare -- sometimes near-extinct -- species that farmers are attempting to preserve. In short, these birds are raised to be as close as possible to the turkeys the Pilgrims ate almost 400 years ago.

Any turkey's flavor is measured by its age, how it's raised and the feed it eats, according to traditional cooking specialist William Rubel, author of "The Magic of Fire: Hearth Cooking -- One Hundred Recipes for the Fireplace or Campfire." Heritage turkeys, he notes, are usually slaughtered at 7 or 8 months, as opposed to mass-produced turkeys slaughtered at 3 to 4 months. Older birds have an inherently fresher taste, as they have had time to develop strong bones and healthy organs before achieving full muscle mass.

At New York City-based Heritage Foods USA, fresh American Bronze and Bourbon Red turkeys -- "direct descendents of the first domesticated flocks of these varieties," according to the company -- are available in three sizes: 10 to 12 lbs. ($129), 14 to 16 lbs. ($159) and 18+ lbs. ($189). Each bird, raised on the Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas, arrives at your door on Nov. 22. Frozen heritage turkeys, available in the same sizes, are available for Christmas.

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From the Organic Authority Files

Heritage believes every bird should be fully traceable so you can be sure you're getting a product that has been processed under the tenets of environmental sustainability, including strong opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Company leaders want you to know where your food comes from -- no ifs, ands or buts -- in an effort to make these special turkeys accessible to consumers across the country. Each turkey's label specifies where the bird was raised, its age, feeding history (including types of feed), processor name, and location and processing date. As Heritage states, "We believe that it is a tremendous honor to represent each and every farmer and producer and that it is our responsibility to represent them in such a way as to be deemed worthy of that honor. We believe that farming is an immeasurable gift and one that we must not take for granted."

Fresno, California-based Mary's Free-Range Turkeys also specializes in heritage birds for your holiday celebrations. The company, owned by Mary Pitman's family, has been raising heritage turkeys since 1954. Three varieties are available, all of which contain no antibiotics, animal byproducts, preservatives or hormones:

  • Mary's Free-Range Turkey: Large turkeys raised on high-protein grains and allowed to roam freely on large ranches. ("The more an animal moves around, the more interesting its flavor," Rubel notes.)
  • Mary's Free-Range Organic Turkey: Raised on certified organic, high-protein grains, as well as vegetable proteins. Allowed to roam in large, open spaces at a Southern California certified organic ranch. Superior taste.
  • Mary's Free-Range Heritage Turkey: Rare Narragansett and Bourbon Red turkeys raised by small farms that specialize in these birds. Allowed to roam in plenty of open space, with a high-protein diet.

Mary's is no longer taking Thanksgiving orders, but you can find all three birds in certain local markets. Turkeys are available for Christmas, but be sure to preorder so you can add one of these special birds to your organic table. Orders are shipped via two-day Federal Express service on Dec. 13 for delivery on Dec. 15. Two 7-lb. heritage turkeys sell for $50. One 7-lb. heritage turkey costs $30. An 8- to 11-lb. heritage turkey runs $40, while a 12- to 16-lb. bird is $70. All orders carry a $25 shipping charge.

Mary's provides great resources, including instructions on thawing, brining and roasting turkeys of various sizes. The company's website also offers family recipes for both turkey and bread stuffing, as well as gravy instructions.

Bon appétit!

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