Heirloom Holiday Meals


Heritage pork and turkey are a tasty, eco-friendly alternative to your typical roast.


By Nicole Davis



There are only about 2,500 Tamworth pigs left in the United States, and I’ve just braised the belly of one of them. That may sound destructive, but my dinner is actually the Tamworth’s saving grace. The purebred pig is among the 150 heritage or heirloom animals now endangered by the agribusiness’s decision 60 years ago to cross-breed livestock for fast-growing, cheap meat. Now, 123 years after the Tamworth first arrived on our shores, the British breed has been corralled to the edge of extinction by the more than 100 million crossbred swine processed every year. Fortunately, when we buy from small farmers and purveyors of heirloom animals, we help to preserve these breeds, which heritage-meat entrepreneur Patrick Martins calls the “panda bears, spotted owls, and koalas of the food world.”

This unusual animal-rights movement first took off with turkeys. Martins, cofounder of the online food store Heritage Foods USA, helped put heirloom meats on the map when he and co-owner Todd Wickstrom started Slow Food USA’s “Heritage Turkey Project” in 2001. Their mission was to help these disappearing birds proliferate, thereby helping preserve genetic diversity.

Now that diversity is in decline, because agricultural powerhouses like Butterball raise only one type of bird, known as the Broad-Breasted White. Selectively bred for 30 years to have the maximum amount of lean white breast meat, these puffy-chested birds are too top-heavy to walk around or mate. (Even the free-range variety have a hard time ranging.) To perpetuate their flocks, producers of Broad-Breasted Whites must artificially inseminate the oddly shaped animals. Some life.

Over on Frank Reese’s farm, though, turkeys act like turkeys—running, flying, ranging, and mating without human interference. Reese, a small-scale farmer in Kansas, raises five turkey breeds (Narragansett, White Holland, Black, Bourbon Red, and Standard Bronze), selling them through Heritage Foods USA’s Web site and a few local stores.


“There’s a protocol inherent in the definition of ‘heritage,’” says Martins, who wants to ensure that the term does not lose meaning, as the labels “all natural” and “hormone free” have. To be truly heritage, a breed must have a long, purebred lineage in the United States and be raised sustainably, with pastures to roam in, good food, few or no antibiotics, and no help whatsoever in the mating department. Most often heritage animals are endangered, too, though some are simply rare compared to the number of industrial-breed birds.

“To say the meat is organic would just be one small piece of what we’re promoting,” says Martins. Heritage meat also benefits small family farmers like Reese, who can’t compete with “Big Turkey.” Heritage breeds take more time to reach market weight and to reproduce than their crossbred brethren, and time equals money. So why does Reese go to the trouble?

“Because the birds are going to go extinct if we don’t do something,” the farmer explains. “And I knew if people ever tasted them, they would see the difference.”

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