Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
In May of 1898, the United States Post Office lowered the postage for picture postcards from 2 cents to only a penny. Soon after, the “postal craze” struck and sending colorful picture cards across the country became an enormous fad, particularly around the holidays. Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter dominated, but every event, from Rosh Hashanah to Washington’s Birthday, could be marked with a penny postcard.
A quick search of Etsy reveals a proliferation of Thanksgiving-themed cards from the turn of the century, each with the most fascinating imagery. One features a turkey, recklessly running in front of a waving American flag, a fork and knife already protruding from his body. On another card, a cherubic angel in a chef’s hat sharpens a mean-looking knife over a golden, roast bird. My personal favorite shows a noble, brown-plumed turkey that has just walked into the kitchen. On the table, a full Thanksgiving spread, festooned with American flags, featuring one of his roasted brethren. The live turkey’s pose is active but hesitant, as though he was about to step into the room to make good on a dinner invite when he realizes what’s for dinner.
It’s hilarious and horrifying all at once.
But who is this hesitant house guest — this big brown bird, resplendent with plumage, who is portrayed as the embodiment of Thanksgiving nostalgia itself? Is the turkey on our Thanksgiving table the same iconic bird of these pictures? And are we still serving the same bird that we ate a century ago? To find the answer, I decided to track down an iconic Thanksgiving turkey and meet him in person.
My search led me to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, an hour north of New York City; it’s amazing how fast skyscrapers fade to rocky cliffs when you take the train up the Hudson. A working farm which also functions as teaching facility to train a new generation of young farmers, I discovered that Stone Barns raises two breeds of turkeys for the holiday season: Broad Breasted Whites, the most common Thanksgiving turkey; and a heritage breed, Bourbon Reds.
I was introduced to livestock farm manager Craig Haney as he was herding 160 Broad Breasted White turkeys into a barn. Haney had spent most of his life working at historical agriculture sites before coming to Stone Barns nine years ago, and it’s given him a fondness for heritage breeds.
The Broad Breasted Whites have only been around since about the 1920s. These aren’t at all the majestic birds of Thanksgiving imagery, but these are the birds that will grace most of America’s dinner tables today. As they were moved into the barn, they looked and moved like baby dinosaurs, cooing and gibbering to each other, and stopping occasionally to peck at the ground. Although they each weighed around sixteen pounds, they looked rather scrawny and juvenile in their slim coat of white feathers.
“They are young,” Craig explained. After only six months, the BBWs have packed on enough weight to be ready for the dinner table. Their breed makes them more efficient at converting food into muscle, particularly in terms of breast meat. They were intentionally bred this way, as was their white plumage: “When they’re plucked, a white feather makes the carcass look cleaner.” A dark feather leaves black “pinfeathers” on the carcass when it’s plucked: little black dots that are difficult to remove, and is thought of as aesthetically unpleasing. So while the BBWs may not look like much in the field, it’s their post-mortem aesthetic that’s the most important: when roasted and on the Thanksgiving table, they’re beautiful.
We crossed the farm to look at the other breed raised at Stone Barns, the Bourbon Reds. I surveyed a field of turkeys with deep mahogany plumage, grandly displaying their feathers with fanned tails and puffed up chests; they were picture perfect. In fact, they looked every bit the traditional turkey, right down to the red and blue waddle things on their face.
The Bourbon Reds are an older breed, appearing sometime right around the turn of the 19th century. They’re closer to their wild cousins and act like it; they were a constant clatter of fighting, foraging, roosting, and exploring. Their athleticism affects their flavor. Craig says, “The birds are more active, so the dark meat they have is darker. It makes for a richer flavor and proportionally more dark meat.”
But the Bourbon Reds are expensive to raise: they’re harder to find in hatcheries, and require twice as much time as the BBWs to get to the appropriate weight. That means twice as much labor and money invested. The result is a bird that’s four times more expensive than your average grocery store turkey.
So why is it important to raise heritage breeds? “To hang on to the genetics. It’s important not to put all of our agricultural eggs in one basket.” If a disease comes along, if there’s no variation in the genetic pool, it could wipe out an entire species.
“There are very sentimental reasons as well,” Craig adds, “just preserving some of our heritage and paying respect to it.”
A century ago, this iconic turkey would have also been the roast bird on you dinner table, but that’s no longer the case. Heritage breeds like the Bourbon Red have been fighting a losing battle with the Broad Breasted Whites for most of the 20th century. Only a few determined consumers will seek out a heritage breed this Thanksgiving, and they must be willing to pay a premium price for a dark meat bird. If, like me, you get your turkey at the local grocery store, you’ll be buying a Broad Breasted White.
What hasn’t changed is the significance of the turkey to the Thanksgiving holiday: he is central. The proud image of a Bourbon Red still adorns every grade school pin-board that represents the holiday. And on every dinner table, a golden, steaming, roasted Broad Breasted White will be the main attraction. Each family’s heritage and tradition is expressed in an ever-adaptable litany of sweet potato casserole, fattoush or lasagna — but the turkey is immobile.