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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Pacific NW Cover Story Lynda V. Mapes

Pilgrims Progress

On the road back, heritage turkeys offer food for the table and the Earth

Ah yes it's nearly Thanksgiving, the annual showcase of a Dolly Partonesque turkey so blanderized by industrial-style production it can be like eating sawdust with butter.

Turkey used to have taste. But that was before turkeys were genetically honed to be not much more than a giant hunk of white meat on stubby legs. Today's conventionally-raised turkey is a freak of nature that, left on its own, would not live a year.

Most turkeys eaten by Americans today are a single variety: the Broad-breasted White. It's a bird bred to grow fast, with huge amounts of breast meat. It's so top heavy in the cleavage it can't walk right; the most it can manage is a waddle. It can't fly, jump or run. And it's so corpulent and misshapen the poor thing can't even copulate; Broad-breasted Whites have to be artificially inseminated.

Many an exasperated cook will also avow that gravy is the best friend of the cottony meat of this mass-produced bird, raised entirely in captivity, beak clipped to keep it from pecking its fellow inmates.

It didn't used to be this way. The turkey of today's table is but a ghost of a rich palette of choices and flavors our grandparents enjoyed. American Bronze, Royal Palms, Bourbon Reds, Chocolates, Slates and Spanish Blacks are just a few of the breeds that graced their tables. Now those breeds are exotics, rarities raised by only a few farms around the country with a niche in so-called heritage breeds.

But the popularity of heritage turkeys is on the rise, as word of mouth, so to speak, spreads about the turkey that actually tastes good.

"I got sick and tired of the industry freak birds," said farmer Joel Huesby, who raises a strain of American Bronze heritage turkeys at Thundering Hooves, his fourth-generation family farm in Walla Walla. The turkeys are the smallest part of the livestock business at Thundering Hooves, which also sells beef, pork, lamb and chicken.

All of the farm's animals, including the turkeys, are raised outdoors, on organic pastures. A radical act in commercial farming these days. And the turkeys at Thundering Hooves are a far cry from the Broad-breasted Whites: "Welfare birds!" Huesby calls them, because the factory-farmed birds don't forage for themselves.

Not so with his heritage turkeys. On a recent afternoon the gleaming, iridescent birds flew, ran and hopped around a fenced, grassy pasture. The turkeys nailed bugs with their beaks, grazed blackberry bushes, and zipped up on rooftops and fence posts to roost.

Bronze, gold and green highlights in their feathers glinted in the sunshine. Their quiet conversation — a sleepy, contented sound somewhere between a purr and a hum — erupted now and again with raucous gobbles.

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Pity the Broad-breasted White, engineered to grow to market size in just a few months, so fast it can't even develop the full-throated gobble of an adult.

The Huesby family will sell only about 150 of their heritage turkeys this season, holding the rest back for breeding stock. But even at $4.99 a pound, compared with conventional turkeys so cheap some stores give them away, the heritage turkeys are the star of the farm. Thundering Hooves sells out of them every year.

Executive Chef Jerry Traunfeld of the HerbFarm restaurant in Woodinville knows why.

"It definitely has more flavor than the modern turkey, which has just been bred to be some kind of monster to grow really fast and have this huge amount of breast meat," Traunfeld said. "And they are beautiful when they are cooked, they are a nice, small size — and you get a lot of crispy skin."

Traunfeld orders Thundering Hooves heritage turkeys every Thanksgiving. Not just any bird, after all, would do for his nine-course holiday dinner that goes for $189 per plate and up, including wine.

Traunfeld's Thanksgiving 2006 preparation: Thundering Hooves turkey three ways: poached breast on king bolete mushroom bread pudding; confit of leg on mashed delicata squash with shallot, and herbed crepinette on cabbage with quince. All paired with cauliflower fenugreek soup with slivered scallop; Montana paddlefish caviar on sea urchin flan; gently roasted black cod with carrot lemon-thyme broth and three colors of beets, and so on. And on, and delectably on.

Some of the satisfaction in serving a heritage bird is psychological, Traunfeld said. He likes keeping small, local farmers in business. And he wants a diversity of livestock breeds in commercial production.

"I think it's important to keep some of those heirloom heritage things going; we don't want to lose that gene pool," Traunfeld said. "To me it's also just that it's great to have more diversity. It makes things more interesting."

HUESBY'S HERITAGE flock got started with a frantic call from a turkey farmer in Oregon ready to retire — and slaughter his flock.

Huesby couldn't bear to watch grower Mark Wishard snuff out his eponymous Wishard strain of the original Unimproved Standard Bronze turkeys, so he decided to load up the trailer and head down to Oregon. The birds were special: genetically isolated by Wishard for some 50 years, they still carried many of the natural characteristics of their wild cousins.

Jeannette Beranger of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy in Pittsboro, N.C., says more Americans are paying attention to heritage breeds, including turkeys.

Her organization has set standards for heritage breeds. To be worthy of the name, a heritage turkey must be able to reproduce on its own. It must be able to live outside and sustain a lifespan of at least five to seven years, depending on the turkey's gender. And it must be slow-growing — reaching marketable size in no less than 28 weeks, about double that of the Broad-breasted White.

It's the turkey of the Pilgrims: A turkey that can fly, run and, yes, reproduce with alacrity. Now there is a national symbol even better than the bald eagle, or at least Ben Franklin thought so. And then there is that gorgeous plumage, fractals of color gleaming like stained glass in the sun.

Beranger says she has seen a relative resurgence in heritage breeds. The organization does a census each year and counted 8,800 heritage turkeys nationwide in 2006, up from 1,300 heritage birds of all breeds combined in 1997.

"People woke up and realized we were about to lose all of our heritage breeds," Beranger said. Food writers' discovery of the birds' superior taste helped. "Once you have a heritage bird, you won't go back," she said. "It's not something dull you have to cover with gravy."

Heritage turkeys fit into the philosophy of his farm, Huesby thought, with an appeal so retro it was downright forward thinking. Imagine: raising turkeys outdoors, on unadulterated grass, all the way to maturity. This was the turkey for Thundering Hooves.

Three mountain passes and two snowstorms later, Huesby's farm was in the turkey business, with a vintage wooden incubator thrown in for good measure. But getting the turkeys and all the gear home from Oregon proved just the first challenge.

For starters, the family was still in the throes of inventing a whole new way of raising and selling meat.

The Huesbys were among the first to sell chickens at farmers markets in Seattle, under new regulations devised by King County. And they helped pioneer on-farm slaughter practices that allow them to sell meat by the cut directly to customers, with USDA approval.

Some of what they had to learn was dealing tenaciously with bureaucracy. And some of it was about coping with animals allowed to be, well, animals.

Clarice Swanson, Huesby's sister, has day-to-day charge of the heritage turkeys. As she watched them scratch and fuss and gobble, she said she has learned a certain respect for their independent ways, even though it means opening the pasture gate to let the turkeys back in after they fly out, then anxiously run back to join their buddies.

"Somehow they know how to fly out, but not to fly back," says Swanson, a mother of four and not easily fazed. "But I would much rather raise these than those white fatties." No fan of the Broad-breasted White, she.

But she's also no purist. Swanson appreciates the occasional fast-food pig-out. "I stop at KFC now and then; I can't criticize that of which I occasionally partake," she said.

But she also sees keeping heritage birds in commercial production as work with value. "What we are doing is just one more piece of the puzzle.

"I suspect most people don't want to know very deeply where their turkey comes from. But there are a lot of people who want to know where their food comes from, and that it was locally grown and humanely raised."

For the Huesby family, that's meant launching a bit of a revolution in farming practices. Not for nothing do they call their farm Thundering Hooves. "It's not just a name," Huesby says. "It's a movement."

SMOKE FROM burning wheat stubble rose in the sky as Huesby had what he likes to call his epiphany in 1994.

"It was like Paul on the road to Damascus," said Huesby, whose buttoned-up, bookish looks belie a salty tongue and messianic fervor. "I felt something inside me change."

He had grown up on a traditional cattle and wheat ranch outside Walla Walla, using chemicals and heavy equipment just like everybody else. But for Huesby, that wasn't cutting it.

As the black column of smoke boiled, Huesby said he figured it out: Farming as he knew it — with high debt, high fertilizer and herbicide costs, low prices and even less control over his own future — was going nowhere.

"I had worked very hard, and I got nothing. I was a price-taker, not a price-maker. Up with the smoke went my ideas about doing this in the commodity world. I vowed to myself never to do it the same way again. I didn't know what would come. I just knew I didn't want to do this anymore."

Huesby took stock: His farmland was exhausted, like a drug addict, he says, ruined by decades of chemical addiction. The soil was dependent on expensive, regular doses of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, and declining in health to the point that it did little more than prop up the plants.

"The model I was in didn't have any kind of future," Huesby said. "It was grow more volume to buy more equipment and spread those fixed costs. And I wasn't in control of any of it."

He started reading. Studying. Asking questions, and getting braver. A survivor of a near-death car crash in 1987, he felt freed by having faced his own mortality. "I already took the ultimate risk. Everything else is a gift."

Huesby wrote out a kind of personal Declaration of Independence with red ball pen on yellow legal paper. His goals were deceptively simple: He wanted to make a good living from farming. Provide a nurturing environment in which to raise his family. And he wanted to leave the soil, crops, livestock and people who depend on them in better condition than before.

His was a radical manifesto: "We should not comply or follow the crowd just because everyone else is. No lemming effect. We can jump off our own cliff." Huesby wrote that with a firm hand.

Over time, Huesby ditched the chemicals and converted his fields to certified organic pastures to sustain his herds of cattle and flocks of poultry. Huesby even used draft horses for plowing, until what he likes to call the wreck of the century put a stop to that.

Before long, Huesby had mortgaged his house and taken on the bureaucracy to sell his meat outside the box. It took, he soon discovered, an even bigger box: A slaughter trailer, custom made on the farm, so his animals can be butchered right on the farm, under the eyes of USDA inspectors.

He stood inside the trailer holding a 400-page notebook with 12 index tabs of regulations he had to follow to earn that purple USDA stamp. "The first time that happened, I almost cried," Huesby said. "Putting on that purple stamp, 'USDA Approved,' that was cool."

Earning USDA certification enabled Huesby to sell his meats by the cut, direct to consumers, putting more money in his pocket than would ever be possible with the retail middleman.

Huesby for years sold his meats at Seattle farmers markets. He's since given that up, and instead offers a range of choices, from buying over the Internet (www.thunderinghooves.net) and shipping the meat UPS, to home delivery by a Seattle grocery store, and even Seattle-area buying clubs.

In Walla Walla, customers can buy all of the company's products, from smoked bacon to lamb chops to dog food, from its butcher shop and retail store in town.

"It's the only place in town where you can get clean meat," said customer Chris Petit, as he put together a selection of sausage, pork and lamb chops on a recent afternoon. "To me it's just common sense that it's healthier. We seek them out, and we are very thankful they are here."

Thundering Hooves has just as avid a following on the west side. Charles Finkel and his wife, Rose Ann, even buy their dog food from Thundering Hooves, at $1.99 a pound. Their Boston terrier, Derby, plagued by wheezing, was cured once she switched to organically raised, raw food, Rose Ann said.

Regular heritage-turkey customers, they say for them the turkeys are about more than food.

"It's about the pleasures of the table and the social responsibilities of the table," said Charles Finkel, owner of Pike Brewing Co. in Seattle. "I think we have responsibilities as humans to be kind and humane to our fellow species. And the Broad-breasted White turkey can't even fly." To him, heritage turkeys also just plain taste better.

"Turkey to me was a turnoff. I never liked the taste of turkey my entire life. Until I ate the heirloom turkey."

But that's no surprise to Frank Reese.

HUESBY'S TURKEYS are heritage turkeys. But Reese, a Kansas turkey farmer, raises veritable museum pieces. He says he can trace the genetic line of his turkeys all the way back to the days of the pilgrims.

Heritage turkeys are only beginning to get the recognition they deserve, said Reese, regarded nationally as a father of the heritage-turkey movement. To him, the Butterball turkey, with its pop-up plastic thermometer, is nothing to celebrate.

"The turkey industry is all about efficiency and money. My whole mission is to preserve the genetic diversity of chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese," Reese said. "We used to have 250 varieties of poultry in this country. Today we have basically one of chicken, and one of turkey, all bred for the same characteristic: a rapid-growing, large-breasted bird."

His heritage turkeys are muscular, fast and sleek, flashing with color and, he claims, the winners of taste tests year after year. He bemoans the lack of rules and regulations, such as labels with enforcement to back them up, to set heritage birds apart in the marketplace.

And the turkey today gets no respect, he said, because of the frozen turkeys purveyed by industrial growers. "They can be thrown off buildings and shot out of cannons. Or you can bowl with them. Or give them away at the church Bingo, or at the supermarket for buying 20 pounds of groceries. The industry and factory farms did it to themselves."

To Huesby, heritage turkeys are a piece of the change he's trying to bring about in the way people grow and eat food. Raising animals that roam around outside, feed themselves on pasture and reproduce naturally — a return to the farming practices of the past — isn't a step backward, but forward, Huesby said.

When his farm turns 100 next year, he likes to think the heritage turkeys will have helped his family stay on the land by raising healthier, more tasty food. "That's the revolution I want to lead," Huesby said. "A revolution based on taste, seasonality and re-establishing the health of our bodies, the environment and our animals."

Lynda V. Mapes is a Seattle Times staff writer. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.

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