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Serving (and saving) heritage turkeys

Slow-food advocates say free-range bird is better -- on palate and for environment

By Paul Payne | The Press Democrat

JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat

David Thode, 11, and his brother Zachary have raised 71 turkeys as part of the Sonoma County Heritage Turkey project. David has raised bronze, Bourbon red, Narragansett and Black heritage turkeys in the Sebastopol flock.

Catherine Thode’s 70 heritage turkeys start to cackle when she creaks open a gate on her Sebastopol ranch and fills their trough with a bag of organic feed.

After eight months of free-range living, the special flock tracing its bloodlines to the days before mass-produced turkeys is eating one of its last meals before ending up on Thanksgiving tables next week.

Thode says her Bourbon red, Narragansett and bronze varieties are more expensive to raise than the industry standard, Broadbreasted white, and don’t get as big.

But she says they taste better and are an important part of the growing “slow-food” movement, which wants to build a market for vanishing cuisine and help the environment in the process.

“We’re so far removed from what happened 50 years ago,” said Thode as she tossed a handful of grain at their busy feet. “We want everything wrapped in plastic and don’t want to get our hands dirty. I feel good about knowing these birds ate right and weren’t mistreated.”

So far establishing a market for the turkeys has proved elusive.

Sebastopol-based Willie Bird Turkeys stopped carrying them in 2006 after a three-year experiment hampered by low demand and inconsistent quality, said Beagle Brodsky, general manager.

People seemed unwilling to pay $7.50 a pound when they could get store-bought birds for less than half the price, he said.

“They are too tough to handle,” Brodsky said. “They are expensive and it’s hard when you get stuck with them.”

But the cost hasn’t dissuaded Thode.

She and her family have joined the grass-roots effort to bring back crops, livestock and even seeds from bygone eras through sustainable farming practices.

Slow Food USA, an international nonprofit organization that promotes the pleasures of the table while educating consumers about sustainable agriculture and indigenous food products like the heritage turkeys, now has about 560 memberships in Sonoma County, and 100,000 nationwide.

In Sonoma County, the focus is on initiatives that include the Gravenstein apple and heritage turkeys. Local foodies latched onto the heritage birds about five years ago, hoping to create a commercial market for them. A handful of families this year are raising 200 birds, which are being sold on the group’s Web site,

The site promotes the meat as “tender, succulent and extremely flavorful.”

Bruce Riezenman, executive chef and owner of Park Avenue Catering in Cotati, agrees, saying he has been serving them to his family on Thanksgiving since conducting a taste comparison a few years ago.

“I think they have a deeper, richer flavor,” he said. “And I find them to be a moister product. The traditional broadbreasted turkey tends to be a little bland.”

Laura Martin, a leader in Slow Food’s Russian River chapter, said the food industry’s emphasis over the past half-century on profit and efficiency has created a monoculture, threatening biodiversity and robbing consumers of tastier food choices.

Slow-food activists are pushing the value of locally produced food. This summer, Martin’s group sponsored a festival for the heirloom Gravenstein, whose fortunes have declined with the rise of grape production.

A Healdsburg chapter has expanded to focus on reducing the number of miles from farm to table with a local garden gleaning project that helps feed the poor.

“I think we have lost a lot of flavor in food by focusing on a single type of apple or turkey,” Martin said. “Our food is being raised for convenience, not flavor. It’s not only good for the environment to have biodiversity, the food just tastes better.”

Heritage turkeys dating back to the time of the Pilgrims have been disappearing. A national census conducted in 1997 by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy found just 1,330 breeding birds in existence and set off major drive to bring them back.

“It was a frightening discovery ,” said Jeannette Beranger, research and technical programs manager for North Carolina-based ALBC. “We were that close to losing them all.”

Today the number is up to around 10,000 breeders, thanks in large part to groups like 4-H and Future Farmers of America who raise the birds for county fairs and poultry shows, she said.

Thode and her sons, David 11, and Zachary, 19, had been raising the turkeys on their own for a couple of years when they got further involved in about 2005.

The Thodes started with 30 Bourbon Reds the first year and had to contend with a hungry bobcat the second year that ate seven of them. The next year they expanded to other varieties and began breeding them.

The birds make their home in various enclosures scattered about their 2.5 acre ranch, where they also raise heritage chickens, ducks and a miniature horse. One Tom used for breeding is more than five years old. Volunteers from the slow-food group will help process and transport the meat.

“It’s a lot of work,” said David Thode. “I don’t like getting up so early.

A downside is the cost. To cover expenses, heritage turkeys sell for $7.50 a pound — about $5 more a pound than a store-bought bird. Some stores go much cheaper than that and use turkey sales to bring folks into grocery stores.

But Catherine Thode said the satisfaction of knowing she is preserving a breed and the anticipation of a savory meal make it worthwhile. She said she hopes others will follow her lead.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or [email protected].



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