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Food snobs fork over $225 for taste of heritage turkey

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Bourbon Reds can cost up to $225 apiece.

No, we're not talking fancy oak-barrel-aged liquor.

We're talking heritage turkeys, relatively rare breeds of bird raised like their 19th-century counterparts -- free range, natural mating (mainstream turkeys these days are too fat to mate) and slow growing -- all part of the sustainable food production movement.

Tens of thousands of people, it turns out, are willing to shell out the cash for these high-priced turkeys for their Thanksgiving dinner tables, according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Makes you wonder: Are no traditions -- however humble and hallowed by time -- safe from food snobbery?

"The blunt answer is, 'No, no foodstuffs are exempt from food snobs,' " said David Kamp, author of "The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation."

When it comes to heritage turkey in particular, a certain mystique surrounds them, Mr. Kamp said. Starting with their names. Bourbon Red? That sounds like a 1930s prizefighter, Mr. Kamp said.

The foodies who order these almost-worth-their-weight-in-gold fowl tend to have the most intimate knowledge about their "designer turkey," such as its slaughter date.

"With real food snobs, there's a certain fetishism -- knowing everything down to the pedigree of the bird -- that's absurd," Mr. Kamp said.

Food-snob excesses notwithstanding, Mr. Kamp readily acknowledged that we should be grateful that we've distanced ourselves from the dreadful 1950s and 1960s, when mass-produced, flavorless food was at its apex.

How did we get here culturally?

One factor in the emergence of the "foodie" was the 1960s and 1970s counterculture movement, which promoted cross-cultural -- including culinary -- exploration.

Julia Child played a key role in popularizing the preparation and consumption of more sophisticated food.

"She had an everywoman quality that was relaxing and appealing," Mr. Kamp said. "She convinced people not to be intimidated by cooking." French or not.

These days, foodie culture has saturated everything from blogs to television shows (think Bravo's "Top Chef").

Even so, foodie culture in general and the heritage turkey in particular are small potatoes compared with mainstream consumers and food producers.

For example, heritage turkeys might account for about 10,000 to 20,000 of the birds consumed this Thanksgiving. In contrast, more than 46 million conventional turkeys will be eaten, according to the National Turkey Federation.

Butterball is the most popular brand, and broad-breasted white is the most popular breed.

The price difference can be quite steep, with conventional turkey averaging about $1 per pound, while the heritage variety can cost up to $12 per pound.

Is it worth it?

"You can definitely taste the difference, but not everyone likes it," said Andy Smith, culinary historian and author of "The Turkey: An American Story."

Heritage turkeys are gamier and chewier and have to be prepared differently. For example, they have to be cooked at a lower temperature.

"A lot of people prefer a flavorless turkey, because that's what they're used to," Mr. Smith said.

So, yes, it might cost you 12 times as much for a chewier, gamier bird, but -- consider it a contribution to the health of our ecosystem: Mr. Smith and Mr. Kamp agree that the increasing popularity of heritage turkeys helps promote biodiversity.

"Reviving the heritage turkey is a great story," Mr. Smith said. "Without the slow food movement and small farmers, a lot of these breeds might not have survived." Slow Food USA is a national group that aims to increase biodiversity and sustainability in food production.

But with such a large price tag, isn't the heritage turkey inevitably an elitist taste? Not necessarily.

"I think it's a myth that good eating is the province of the wealthy," Mr. Kamp said.

Yes, the heritage turkey is on the pricey side, but other free-range varieties are cheaper.

"And if you have a fairly average turkey, you can always snob it up a bit by brining it," said Mr. Kamp with a laugh.

Speaking of Thanksgiving food myths, Mr. Smith can't resist a parting irony: Turkey wasn't on the table at what was considered to be the first Thanksgiving.

"They ate deer," he said.

Designer venison, anyone?