Not your basic Butterball: People are gobbling up heritage turkeys

Even at $200 a bird, they’re flying off the shelves.

Fancy ladies. —Stephanie Lesnik

When Stephanie Lesnik talks about her heritage turkeys, it sounds like she’s quoting one of Carrie Bradshaw’s monologues in Sex and the City.

“She’s difficult to pin down,’’ Lesnik said, describing of one of her Bourbon Red turkeys. “She will fly away. She’s very close to a wild type of bird.’’

The birds Lesnik raises at Field House Farm in Madison, Connecticut, are as close to wild turkeys as you can get without chasing one down as it wanders across a suburban road. They have fairly small breasts and large, meaty legs, which is how turkeys naturally grew before large-scale agriculture came along, she explained.

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Heritage isn’t just another word for “all-natural,’’ “cage-free,’’ or “free-range’’—these breeds are fundamentally different birds from those shrink-wrapped and ready to go at your local supermarket.

In recent weeks, Lesnik has been inundated with at 10-15 phone calls a day from people looking to buy a heritage turkey to serve at their Thanksgiving feasts. But most of the people calling her don’t really know what heritage turkeys are.

“They’re throwing words around that they don’t understand,’’ Lesnik said. “What they mean is that they just want to know it was well-raised.’’

Unlike standard white turkeys, breeds like the Bourbon Red haven’t been cross-bred within an inch of their lives to optimize meat-to-bone ratios. Those commercial birds have been engineered to grow huge breasts and sit beside feeders, and they’re incapable of reproducing on their own. In order to breed, females have to be artificially inseminated.

Lesnik and her husband are among a group of farmers who, according to Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, have recently begun “putting in the extra time, expense, and effort to raise these colorfully plumed birds that, unlike modern commercial turkeys, can fly, roam freely, and breed on their own.’’ Many breeds almost went extinct, and several are still on the “priority’’ list of the Livestock Conservancy.

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Heritage turkeys are packed with more flavor than your standard Butterball, according to Cook’s Illustrated’s taste test, and Lesnik said they cook in a third of the time. Those facts, combined with the appeal of the humane conditions in which they’re raised, contribute to the huge demand for one of Lesnik’s 50 to 60 birds: She’s sold out for this year, and already has folks signed up to snag one for their 2016 Thanksgiving celebrations.

Yet some people aren’t so into the idea of serving a heritage turkey on the last Thursday in November. The very characteristics that make them desirable to some are what make them off-putting to others, Lesnik said.

“There’s a learning curve,’’ she said. “I have to explain that nothing is wrong, they’re just a dark feathered bird. It’s bony—it’s not the classic, round Butterball shape. And its legs are a different contour. It’s almost a different animal.’’

There’s also the problem of the price tag. These old-school turkeys aren’t cheap.

In order to secure a bird, customers have to put down a $40 deposit. Once they pick up the turkey, which is killed no more than five days before Thanksgiving, they’ll owe the remaining $7.50 per pound of bird. If you order a 28-and-a-half pound turkey like the one Lesnik cooked for her family last year, that’ll cost you $213.75.

But for many of Lesnik’s customers, that’s a small price to pay for not only a better-tasting meal, but for knowing exactly how your bird was raised, that it could find its own food, that it could actually fly, and that it was able to reproduce without the help of a laboratory.

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These heritage hounds also like the appeal of eating locally sourced food — though for many of them, calling Madison “local’’ is a stretch.

“I have people coming from Massachusetts, from Rhode Island, from Connecticut, and New York,’’ Lesnik said. “And they’re coming to get a local bird. That’s as local as they can get. That’s horrible. More people should be raising turkeys.’’

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