We eat across a narrow range of plant and animal species; within that slim range, thousands of once-plentiful varieties and breeds are disappearing. Over the last century, we lost about 1,000 livestock breeds. More than 2,200 will be extinct by 2020, according to the United Nations food agency. That's two a week. Tastes, traditions, cultures and genetic diversity are vanishing along with them.
This matters. Genetic diversity provides a reservoir of responses to changing environments, diseases and consumer desires. And, typically, older, genetically robust breeds are being displaced by modern hybrids developed for industrial production rather than for the needs of traditional farmers or diners' taste buds. A spectrum of flavors, in pork, in chicken, in chickpeas, have vanished and we will never taste them again. They are being replaced by a mundane homogeny.
In Vietnam, the H'Mong cattle are down to an estimated 14,000; in Madagascar, another important cattle breed, well-adapted to Madagascar's climate, is vanishing. And similarly with the remaining 50 Turopolje pigs in Croatia.
And here in the United States? Tasteless pork and cardboard chicken rule. The Navaho-Churro sheep of New Mexico is in danger. I could go on. I will go on. But let's talk turkey.
Many Thanksgivings ago, I gave up on turkey, even the fresh free-range birds that show up twice a year in local specialty grocery stores. I switched to capon. This was purely a matter of taste, not some obscure rebellion against the oppressive traditions of the Thanksgiving meal. I hadn't been enjoying the taste, dry and flavor-challenged, of turkey. I wasn't liking what I learned about the Broadbreasted White, which is, almost assuredly, the turkey in your supermarket meat case, frozen or fresh. Bred for quick growth and an overabundance of white meat, the Broadbreasted White can barely walk, can't fly, can't breed (except by artificial insemination), and is subject to numerous ailments and numerous medications for those ailments. Its gene pool is so shallow that, should a disease arise in its midst, the whole breed might go. (Not that that's a bad thing.) And there's not much similarity to the tall, wily, athletic turkeys of yesteryear, nor real kin to Ben Franklin's nominee for national bird.
Last Thanksgiving, instead of capon and capon potpie leftovers, we roasted Bourbon Red turkeys (and Bourbon Red leftover potpies). They were locally raised. And the really good news is that their taste was superb--rich, meaty, not exactly gamy, but reminiscent of game birds like the pheasant. And they look like birds, not blimps.
Here's how we scored. Last year, a few days before Thanksgiving, a half-dozen cars were suspiciously weaving slowly around a parking lot in Chapel Hill, their drivers clearly searching for their connection. Suddenly, they converged on the newly arrived pickup truck, whose bed was filled with heavy waxed cardboard boxes. Gerry Cohn and Jessica LaMontagne were delivering. I had found out about Gerry and Jessica's Matzah Rising Farm from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. ALBC was helping the Slow Food Ark Committee identify turkey breeds. Four turkey breeds were ushered onto the Ark: the Narragansett, the oldest turkey variety in the United States (fewer than 100 last year); the Jersey Buff (500), the American Bronze, and the Bourbon Red.
Of course, the mere fact of being welcomed onto a metaphoric Ark doesn't save any breed. But as a result of the Slow Food movement's efforts at making a market for them, 3,000-plus turkey orders have been placed. Consequently, the population of Ark turkeys tripled; if they triple every year for the next 20 ... well, you do the math.
But wait, the news gets even better. This year we Piedmontees have access to locally raised heritage turkeys, because Matzah Rising Farm of Snow Camp, my source last year, is raising even more Bourbon Reds this year. This year, Gerry says, the turkeys will be averaging a bit older and bigger--27 weeks and about 18 lbs. You can e-mail (email@example.com) them for details and to reserve a bird and arrange the rendezvous. Jessica and Gerry work hard at sustainable agriculture and at returning farming to a regional activity; the feed they use is local as are the pie ingredients.
Did I mention they sell holiday pies, too? If you want to visit Matzah Rising Farm, they're having an open house on Oct. 26 from 1 to 4 p.m. Again, e-mail them for details.
So, this Thanksgiving help save this breed, eat much better-tasting turkey and support local agriculture.