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The Virtuous Turkey

For Thanksgiving this year she ordered a free-range, organically fed, politically correct Standard Bronze. Then she got to know her bird.

November 20, 2005|Shawn Hubler | Shawn Hubler is a Times staff writer who last wrote for the magazine about competitive yoga.

Here's what I know so far about my Thanksgiving turkey: He's brown, he's big and he runs like that kid in "Napoleon Dynamite."

Also, if he's the one I think he is, he kicked butt the other day on another turkey. Turkeys fight, as it turns out. They fight like baggy-eyed drunkards. They belly-bump and flap up in each others' faces and apparently don't stop the hassling until the whole gang appreciates what one or another of them was saying about dibs on the good corn or whatever. I share all this because I've spent some time watching turkeys lately, via a live web cam in Kansas. I've been logged on since last month, when an item of Internet gossip about celebrity sightings at health food markets made me simultaneously hungry and star-struck. One click led to another, and soon I was spending $169 for a turkey that everyone who was anyone supposedly ate for Thanksgiving last year.

I was excited. This was an A-list turkey. A virtuous turkey. Supposedly Chez Panisse and Emeril served this turkey, or at least its relatives. Suffice it to say I ended up with a receipt promising Thanksgiving week delivery of an 18-pound, free-range, organically fed, mail-order Standard Bronze, a rare bird that made such a splash last year that there's some concern now about counterfeits on the market.

The receipt came with a certificate of good provenance and good karma. Not to mention access to the Turkey Cam.

It's mounted on a barn owned by Frank Reese Jr., a fourth-generation farmer near Lindsborg who breeds rare and endangered poultry and sells the results through a company called Heritage Foods USA. The company is a spinoff of the nonprofit Slow Food USA, the American arm of the anti-fast-food movement that started in Italy in the 1980s after a McDonald's opened in Rome's Piazza di Spagna. Its initiatives encompass such issues as biodiversity, food safety and the fate of the family farm.

Heritage Foods was launched four years ago as a sort of virtual farmer's market to help bring back so-called heritage livestock, standard breeds of pigs, chickens, lambs and turkeys that were common on family farms as recently as the 1930s but that, like the family farms themselves, have all but disappeared.

Reese, a friendly, knowledgeable man who works as a nurse anesthesiologist at two rural hospitals to subsidize his 160-acre Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch, agreed to be interviewed by phone about the birds of his youth.

"Do you really want to know this much about our Thanksgiving dinner?" one of my kids asked as I dialed Reese's number. Well, if someone had gone to the trouble of installing a Turkey Cam, I wanted the back-story. Was this the future of food shopping? The New New Thanksgiving?

Could be, though Reese mainly just seemed to be a guy who really, really likes poultry. He said his first chores as a child involved taking care of the chickens. He used to sneak off to the turkey barns while his dad and uncles showed cattle at livestock shows. His first report in grade school was titled "Me and My Turkey."

"I loved how they strutted," he recalled. "I was fascinated by their size and colors, and there were all these varieties--Narragansetts, White Hollands, Standard Bronzes, Bourbon Reds." By the time he was 8, he had his own flock and was trading tips with "the turkey masters," old bachelor farmers who had won international acclaim for their champions. ("None of the turkey masters ever got married," said Reese, who is 57 and single. "I don't know what to say about that.")

By 1997, the traditional breeds of turkeys were nearly extinct. A census by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy that year found only 1,335 breeding birds in the United States. The reason: The market for meat and poultry had become dominated by a handful of breeds genetically engineered to suit the specifications of factory farming. The Thanksgiving turkey market, for instance, is still almost entirely supplied by the Broad Breasted White, a super-sized, super-fast-growing, docile bird with a freakishly large breast and short legs that is generally raised in confinement.

Reese called the Broad Breasted White "a machine," and said of it: "Don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against it." (He did, however, paint an interesting image of industrial turkeys: "Picture a person who's 4 feet tall and weighs 400 pounds. Now put 10,000 of 'em in a room and picture the health problems they'd have.")

Anyway, his heart was with the "old-time" birds. Indeed, one of his mentors, on his hospital death bed, had begged Reese to take care of his by-then-rare turkeys. The timing was right, because conservationists, chefs, food connoisseurs and devotees of the Slow Food movement had started asking some now-familiar questions about the shortcomings of mass-marketed edibles in this country. Did we really want all turkey to taste alike? Did we really want to risk losing diversity in our food supply and ecosystem?

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