Heirloom Holiday Meals


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


By Nicole Davis



The difference is definitely visible: the Standard Bronze that I ordered from Reese’s farm had a narrower breast and longer legs than your typical bird—evidence of a healthy life with lots of free ranging. But was the taste discernibly different? Using sage-infused butter, salt, and pepper to flavor the meat—along with a generous stuffing of carrots, onion, and celery—I roasted it beneath a tent of foil, which I took off for the last half-hour so the turkey could brown. The skin wasn’t as crisp as I would have liked, but the meat was juicy and dense and didn’t fall apart the way “regular” turkey meat can. Even better, it required no basting, because the turkey had lived long enough to develop a lovely, rich layer of fat. Unfortunately, though, my group of tasters didn’t notice any difference in flavor.

This could have more to do with the Standard Bronze in particular than with heritage turkeys in general. Galen Zamarra, head chef at New York’s Mas restaurant, tried Bourbon Reds last year and said, “The flavor is out of this world. I served it to many people who don’t care for turkey, and they all were astounded.” He plans on serving Bronzes at the restaurant this year.

Now that Martins and Wickstrom have helped Reese and other farmers get their turkeys on menus and tables across the United States, the Bourbon Red is officially off the critically rare list monitored by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Yet sales of heritage turkeys account for less than 1 percent of the roughly 265 million birds sold by Butterball and Purdue each year. That’s partly because of the costs involved in raising fully documented animals. My Standard Bronze, for instance, came with a tracking number that told me how long it had lived, what it had eaten, and where and by whom it had been processed (a third-generation slaughterhouse owner named Kevin Kopp). These purebred gobblers average $5 to $6 per pound, versus the average $1 to $2 per pound for regular birds. Martins does not believe that prices will drop. “That’s what food costs,” he says. “But no one’s saying you have to eat heritage meat  seven days a week. I don’t.”

So Martins caters to consumers who are willing to pony up for the occasional heritage bird, and his mail-order company is now one of a handful of businesses that connect small fowl-farmers with consumers. But after turkey, no meat is selling as well as heritage pork. Unlike lean crossbred pigs, such heirloom breeds as the Tamworth and the Gloucester Old Spot are marbled with fat, the way nature intended them to be. “Their taste is stunningly delicious,” says Dan Barber, the chef at Blue Hill restaurants in New York, which feature Berkshire pigs on their menus. “The flavor hasn’t been bred out of them.”

But taste isn’t the only reason some chefs offer heritage meats. “Being a restaurateur, I have some power,” says Zamarra, who buys his pork directly from Flying Pigs Farm in upstate New York. “By making a stand and putting rare meats on my menu, more dollars go toward saving these breeds.” In the process, he’s also educating his patrons. Too many people, he says, don’t know or care where their food comes from. Thanks to the efforts of entrepreneurs like Martins and chefs like Zamarra, we’re learning.

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