Turkey Talk

Money…food…sex. Just a few highlights in a typical day in the life of our [other] state bird.

Big puffy chest, dim little brain, impressive plumage, and a seductive gobble that its Significant Other cannot resist.

As the holidays approach, it seems only appropriate to celebrate the season by paying tribute to that vision of poultry pulchritude, the Narragansett turkey.

Rhode Islanders, meet your bird.

“It was named after Narragansett Bay, where it was first developed,” says Marjorie Bender of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy in Pittsboro, North Carolina. “That’s not that unusual. A lot of breeds are named after places.”

The Narragansett may be proudly ours, but finding one isn’t easy, even in its home state. Local agriculture officials list several turkey farms in Rhode Island but none sell Narragansetts to the public. Officials at Swiss Village Farm in Newport, which protects rare and endangered breeds, say they used to have Narragansetts but eventually gave them to a couple of the state’s historic farms. One, Casey Farm in North Kingstown, reports that its turkeys met their demise in a coyote encounter.

Don Minto of the historic Watson Farm in Jamestown says he doesn’t grow turkeys for sale but has several Narragansetts that he shows off to visitors. He invited me out one day to take a gander.

Owned by the nonprofit Historic New England, the 285-acre working farm features open pastures bordered by ancient stone walls and is close to the rocky shoreline of Narragansett Bay. Minto takes me to the old wooden barn, with antique tools and a large nineteenth-century sleigh suspended in the rafters. Three Narragansett hens peck and scratch along one bay.

Looking at them, you could understand why Benjamin Franklin suggested that the turkey would be a better American icon than the eagle. These birds have a definite fashion sense. Plump with a rear fantail of feathers in white, black, bronze and gray, what especially stands out is their red neck, which turns to bluish white on the head.

Raising turkeys is difficult, Minto says. The hens produce eggs, but coyotes find the nests before the chicks can hatch. Then last winter, a small tragedy occurred when Minto lost his Tom in an unfortunate traffic accident.

Once there were thousands of these birds in Rhode Island and far more elsewhere. When the American Poultry Association recognized it as one of the preeminent breeds in the country in 1874, it was not unusual to find flocks of up to 200 being raised for sale along with a dozen hens for breeding. The birds were self-sufficient, gobbling up a diet of grasshoppers and other insects. They were the perfect centerpiece for the holiday that had been recognized by Abraham Lincoln.

And then the breed almost disappeared. By 1997, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy—which works to protect endangered animal breeds and takes periodic censuses of these breeds—could find only six.

Female TurkeyBlame it on our love for big breasts.

Another breed called the Bronze had long been the most popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the last fifty years, commercial farming interests developed a version of the Bronze, first called the Broad Breasted Bronze and later the Broad Breasted White. These modern birds win the Dolly Parton award for their plentiful buildup of breast meat that many Americans favor. On the other hand, BBBs and the BBWs have other distinctions that commercial farmers don’t want to brag about. Breeders have shortened the legs of the birds so much that it is impossible for them to mate. Instead, all hens are artificially inseminated. They are prone to disease and are sometimes fed antibiotics. In addition, most spend their entire life indoors; the saying that today’s turkeys would drown in the rain is no joke.

Still, they have proved popular for both farmers and consumers because the modern breeds mature in four to five months, as opposed to the eight or nine months it takes the older breeds, a handicap for farmers strapped for time and money. “I can see why they fell out of favor in the commercial world,” Minto says.

It’s a shame, because the Narragansett has a rich history. Turkeys are indigenous to the Americas and it was the Aztecs and others who first domesticated them. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico and Central America, they were amazed by this bird, which could rapidly grow from a small chick into a meal that could feed more than a dozen at a sitting.

Spanish explorers brought the turkey back to Europe as part of their booty and soon merchants were hawking domesticated versions of the American variety across the continent. Different breeds developed, including one in England called the Norfolk Black.

The Pilgrims brought that bird to New England in the 1600s. The area was rife with wild turkeys—as it still is. At some point, a creative resident introduced the wild ones that hung around Narragansett Bay to the domesticated Norfolk Black. Nature took its course, and the new generation became the Narragansett. The breed is one of thirteen identified by the Conservancy, with the others bearing names that sound like professional wrestlers: Jersey Buff, Midget White, Bourbon Red, Royal Palm and the Bronze.


All of these breeds were in danger of vanishing until a few years ago, when they began to mount a remarkable comeback. “The birds were so unhealthy and tasteless that consumers began looking for an alternative,” explains Patrick Martins, co-founder of Heritage Foods USA, a major supplier of so-called heritage turkey breeds, including the Narragansetts. Battered by food recalls and safety warnings, Americans have increasingly become conscious of their food, leading to new support for everything from organic foods to locally produced items.

Heritage Foods has been working with Frank Reese Jr., who runs Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas, to produce heritage turkeys. They sold 800 of the turkeys in 2002. This year his firm hopes to sell close to 15,000.

Other small farms around the country are also beginning to breed and produce heritage turkeys. The latest number of Narragansett breeders in 2006 was forty-two, according to the Livestock Conservancy. Happily, the Conservancy says, the Narragansett’s designation has improved from critically endangered to threatened.

“It is the purchaser who is driving the supply,” said Martins. “No farmer is going to go out and produce a $4-a-pound turkey if they don’t believe that they are able to sell it.”

Yes, heritage turkeys are expensive, and prices will vary. I paid $3.75 a pound (plus shipping) but publications such as Bon Appetit report they can fetch up to $10 a pound.

Consumers have not been discouraged.

“People increasingly want to know where their food is coming from,” says Minto. “People tell me that they want to supply their family with the best possible nutrition, whatever the cost.”

Eventually all discussions about the birds come down to taste. Most who have eaten the Narragansett have relished it.

“It’s phenomenal,” says Minto. “It has an intense flavor.”

Still, a few have suggested that they’re overrated. They complain that the dark meat is tough and that there is very little white meat in the breasts. One writer described how she had been warned to cut off the legs and braise and cook them separately. Unlike commercial turkeys, heritage turkeys actually use their legs and they produce more muscle. The cooking tactic worked, but the leg-less turkey did look a little forlorn on the platter.

Some of this talk irritates Dominic Palumbo, who now runs the Moon in Pond Farm in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Palumbo has raised Narragansetts, including several that went to Swiss Village Farm.

“Americans have become accustomed to very soft meat,” says Palumbo. The texture of a Narragansett is different, but not tough. “When you have this bird you know you are eating meat. It is not baby food.”

Narragansett TurkeysI knew I needed to taste one, but buying it took a little research. Unless you can track down a local farmer who raises Narragansetts—I couldn’t find any in Rhode Island—the only other option is to buy online from a supplier such as Heritage Foods.

Martins of Heritage believes that eventually the turkeys will show up at the more specialized markets that sell organic and specialty items. That day has not come. Plus, I specifically wanted a Narragansett. Fortunately, I was able to make special arrangements through Martins to buy one from a farmer who works with Good Shepherd Ranch in Kansas.

FedEx delivered the frozen fourteen-pound bird promptly in two days. The white plastic wrapper said it was a Heritage Turkey, Free Range Whole Bird.

I’ve found that recipes often disagree about how to cook a standard turkey; the dispute is no different for cooking a Narragansett. One that I came across online suggested that heritage birds are different, and should be cooked rapidly in a hot 425-degree oven. Good Shepherd Ranch recommends a more traditional approach: 325 degrees for twenty minutes per pound. I went conventional with cornbread dressing and hours of basting later it came out brown and exuding flavor.

When I began carving, I didn’t think that the breast was significantly smaller than a traditional turkey. But the leg was distinctly different, with numerous sinews making it difficult to cut. In contrast, the thigh meat was plentiful and easy to slice.

Finally, it was time to sample the bird.

The verdict: delicious.

The thigh meat was especially exceptional, strong and rich in flavor. I had fewer expectations for the breast meat, but even it surprised me with its stronger taste. My companion was delighted by how moist it was. Our guests had often bought locally produced turkeys, although not heritages, for a comparable price. They felt the Narragansett was comparable, if not better. Narragansetts also make good leftovers. We even took the one uncarved leg and cooked it slowly in a crock pot. Again, the taste was amazing. But after all the research it was finally time to stop talking turkey and start eating.

So next time someone tells you they make a better bird, trot out your own version, the Narragansett. It’s worth the effort, and as unofficial state bird, does us proud. Even its leftovers hit the spot, and if anyone dares to disagree, just tell them to… get stuffed.