Mouthful - All-American bird

A post-T-Day plug for next year's turkey of choice

Now that the day of patriotic feasting has passed, I'll come right out and say that I'm not an avid devotee of turkey. In fact, it's my least favorite meat.

The big bird has been absent from most of the Thanksgiving meals I've cooked in the last decade. I had a mid-'90s stretch as a vegetarian, but since I always enjoyed the sides more than the turkey on Turkey Day, I didn't feel the least bit deprived. When I rejoined the omnivorous side of the Force, I still skipped the turkey. Last year I made a crown pork roast.

But this year, I tasted a bird that has made me a convert. Two words: heritage turkey.

This latest trend/cause in the food world has been covered extensively in the media this year, and for good reason. I know this sounds like jargon straight out of a PETA campaign, but consider this: Each year Americans consume 269 million genetically engineered turkeys known as "Broadbreasted Whites." They get their name from the fact that their bosom is so ample that they can barely stand and they have to be artificially inseminated to reproduce. Nice life, huh?

Pre-1950s, the indigenous population of poultry was far more varied. Domesticated turkeys had evocative monikers like Standard Bronze, Black Spanish, Royal Palms and Jersey Buffs. Then along came the age of American agribusiness. Demand for free-ranging, normal breast-sized turkeys from independent farmers plummeted. Last year, there were about 5,000 heritage turkeys available to consumers. As a result of the publicity around these gobblers, the number doubled this year.

On Nov. 20, Virginia's in Cabbagetown hosted a dinner as a benefit to Slow Food Atlanta (Slow Food is an international organization dedicated to supporting local, seasonal and organic foods and preserving culinary traditions). The centerpiece of the meal was Bourbon Red turkey, one of the most popular heritage breeds making a comeback to the Thanksgiving table.

Y'all, this was unlike any turkey I'd ever tasted before. Instead of flabby, grainy slices of the bland white meat that I take pains to avoid, this white meat had a deep poultry flavor. It was juicy and pleasantly toothsome. I wouldn't call the dark meat gamy, but it definitely had more kinship to duck than to chicken, and was the highlight of the meal (but hey, I'm a dark meat kinda guy). Was it a profound, alternate-reality version of the turkey most of us know and love? No, but it had the flavor that most of us imagine when the burnished bird emerges from the oven, before it disappoints us with its innocuous, industrialized taste. It was turkey-plus.

So, here's the deal: Heritage turkeys are now, happily, in growing demand. There are wait lists. If you're interested in securing a heritage turkey for your 2004 T-Day feast, get on Slow Food's mailing list at turkeys@slowfoodusa.org. Not surprisingly, they do cost more (anywhere from $4 to $6 per pound, versus the standard supermarket variety at around $1 per pound). Judging from what I've sampled, it's worth it.

Looks like I've found myself a new tradition. My dinner guests will be in for quite the delicious surprise next Thanksgiving.

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