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Heritage Turkeys Make A Comeback, But To Save Them We Must Eat Them

Narragansett turkeys have free range of 12 acres on Dana Kee's Moose Manor Farm, located along the Potomac River in Maryland.
Allison Aubrey/NPR
Narragansett turkeys have free range of 12 acres on Dana Kee's Moose Manor Farm, located along the Potomac River in Maryland.

Heritage breed turkeys are making a comeback.

These birds taste more like the turkeys that Native Americans and settlers ate in the 17th century, compared to today's Butterball turkeys.

Just 20 years ago, some heritage turkey breeds were nearly extinct. For instance, in 1997 there were fewer than 10 Narragansett breeding birds left. Today, there are more than 2,000, according to a new census from The Livestock Conservancy.

"It's impressive," says Richard McCarthy, executive director of Slow Food USA. The Narragansett is enjoying a remarkable revival." Other varieties, including the Midget White, the Chocolate, and one known as Lavender, have rebounded as well.

So, what's driving this resurgence? Part of the story is flavor. "The taste is very robust," says Dana Kee of Moose Manor Farms, who raises Narragansetts. "It's not just a vehicle for gravy."

Kee says as more people look to connect with where their food comes from, her farm is beginning to thrive.

"People love a story," says Dana Kee. "They like to know the history of a thing." So the story of the Narragansett draws her customers in. The birds "were likely brought here by what we would call the pilgrims," Kee says.

Well, not exactly.

The early settlers from England actually brought their own live turkeys with them when they sailed crossed the Atlantic. "The [colonists] were looking to recreate the familiar," says culinary historian Kathleen Wall of Plimoth Plantation.

When these British turkeys mated with the native, wild American turkeys, their offspring produced the heritage breed varieties we have today.

Dana Kee with her heritage-breed birds.
/ Allison Aubrey/NPR
Allison Aubrey/NPR
Dana Kee with her heritage-breed birds.

In 1929 L.E. Cline, the author of Turkey Production, described the beginnings of the Narragansett breed:

"The early settlers of the Narragansett Bay came from England and quite naturally brought their domesticated livestock ... among these were the Black Norfolk turkeys. ... Since the country surrounding Narragansett Bay was inhabited by the native wild American turkey, the blood of the Black Norfolk and the wild turkey were soon blended."

Kee says the demand for her birds is growing. She sold her Narragansett turkeys for upwards of $6 a pound. "And I sold out about two days after I posted they were available."

Heritage breeds don't have as much meat as the Broad-Breasted White Turkey, the most widely available commercial bird. And they cost six times as much. But Kee says they're worth the premium because of the care and time that goes into raising heritage birds. Her Narragansett turkeys hatched last spring. Compare that to the Broad-Breasted White birds, which tend to reach butchering weight in about three months.

Slow Food USA's McCarthy says putting a heritage breed on the holiday table creates a broader context for the American Thanksgiving meal.

"The New World experience with food is one in which we bring parts from our past, but here we make something together that is new and different," McCarthy says.

People seek out these heritage turkeys just as they seek out heirloom tomatoes and apples — for variety and flavor. But, it goes beyond just taste. Preserving these foods protects the bounty of tomorrow.

McCarthy says these heirloom foods also hold the genetic material that could form the building blocks of a future food supply — especially if disease or climate change makes today's commercial crops and livestock vulnerable.

"In almost every case, if we continue to eat and value these foods, then they have a future."

So, in order to save breeds like the Narragansett turkey, we must eat them.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.