Michelle Voetberg, center, searches for a turkey at Whole Foods Market… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
By long-standing tradition, the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner has been purchased rock-hard, frozen and cheap.
That's starting to change. Turkeys are going Godiva.
The same passion for eating that brought us gourmet food trucks and swelled ratings for TV cooking shows has boosted demand for top-drawer turkeys with fancy names and even fancier price tags — up to $150 for a prized Bourbon Red heritage variety.
"People want a bird that has a name, a provenance, a pedigree — a bird you can brag about," said Kathy Gori, a 60-year-old screenwriter who splits her time between Sonoma and Santa Monica.
Lindsay Calev of Redondo Beach usually steers away from pricier items at the store, but was willing to pay extra for a Diestel brand organic turkey at Whole Foods.
"I don't eat organic every day of the year — wish I could afford to," said Calev, 28, who helps create graphics for advertising. "But Thanksgiving is a time where we're really valuing the food we're making. I was willing to spend a few extra dollars for that."
If you haven't bought a premium bird by now, it's probably too late. Many purveyors say they are sold out.
"My phone is ringing nonstop," said Mary Pitman, whose family raises heritage turkeys, the priciest of the elite varieties, on a farm near Fresno. "Everyone's on a mad hunt for heritage turkeys and there's almost not enough left for my own family. It's the most sought-out bird in the U.S."
Despite the growing appetite for premium varieties, most of the 46 million turkeys that the National Turkey Federation says Americans will gobble down this Thanksgiving will be acquired for as little as 50 cents a pound at local supermarkets.
The trade group doesn't break down sales of the fancy fowl, but retailers, farmers and customers all say that demand is soaring.
Heritage Foods USA, which sells turkeys online and ships via FedEx, said it sold out of all 6,000 of its heritage birds, despite a $150 price tag for a 22-pounder. Sales of the bird are up 82% since last year, the company said.
Whole Foods, which operates about 300 upscale markets nationwide, said sales of organic turkeys have tripled in the last three years and now account for about 40% of the chain's turkey sales.
"Customers are much more into food now than they were a few years ago because of food magazines and TV shows," said Theo Weening, global meat coordinator for Whole Foods. "People want to know where the bird comes from, what breed it is, how it's been raised."
Standard frozen turkeys, which are sometimes kept in cold storage for six months or more, generally cost less than $2 a pound. Some supermarkets have even given them away as part of a buying incentive for customers.
Beyond that, there are four major upscale varieties.
Free-range fowl, which have access to the outdoors, start at about $3 a pound. Next up the ladder are organic gobblers, which usually sell for at least $4 a pound and are certified by the USDA for their chemical-free feed and processing.
Heirloom turkeys are the next rung up, and are a type that date back more than a century to the earliest domesticated breeds.
Heritage turkeys cost the most, at about $6 to $12 a pound. They are comparable to the wild breeds used for the original Thanksgivings and are allowed to live months longer than most turkeys, helping them develop more flavor and dark meat as a result of heavy outdoor running and flying.
According to the Heritage Turkey Foundation, there are a limited pool of breeds — including Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff and Black Spanish — that are considered to be heritage birds.
"They're a tiny, tiny fraction compared to the industrial turkeys that are being raised," said Roger Mastrude, president of the foundation. "There is more demand than there is supply."
The birds are also more expensive to raise because it takes up to 30 weeks to get them to market weight, nearly double that for a supermarket bird.
"The price of corn and fuel is just about killing us," said Pitman, the Fresno-area breeder who markets her fowl under the name Mary's Turkeys. "We're hoping that our chickens help us break even."
Turkey enthusiasts say that the upper-tier turkeys tend to be less dry and have more flavor, though some say the heritage turkeys can be a bit on the gamy side.
"It all goes back to taste," Weening of Whole Foods said. "There's a huge difference."
Food writer and nutrition expert Kristin Wartman, 32, said her mother recently drove from Irvine to the Hollywood Farmers Market to pick up a heritage turkey for the family's holiday meal.
Most turkeys sold for Thanksgiving emerge from cramped factory farms, where they're pumped up with antibiotics, Wartman said. She's co-founded an effort she's calling Occupy Big Food and has racked up 700 signatures on an open letter calling for shoppers to boycott the popular Butterball brand.
Butterball did not respond to requests for comment.
With all the hubbub over high-end turkeys, Kelly Lee of Silverlake decided to buy a Trader Joe's brand turkey raised with no hormones and on natural feed.
But family tradition calls for a bird bought hard as a bowling ball from the supermarket. So she picked up a frozen turkey too.
"They're so good," said Lee, 33, who runs BussBuss.com fashion blog. "I grew up with Butterballs, so to me, that's Thanksgiving."