It is not uncommon to think that the wild turkeys we see in the woods today are like those of our Pilgrim founders in Plymouth Colony. Like the early American settlers, they seem resilient in overcoming every privation that nature throws at them, from the weather to a growing number of predators. This is thought by many to make these free-ranging forest dwellers tough and stringy – but like a lot of things, it really depends on how you cook it.
We see these turkeys all the time beside the roadways in large flocks of eight to 20 birds, ambling in the fields and forests and occasionally across the road itself in the most unconcerned walk. They are seemingly unaware of the danger involved in road crossings. If pressed by a vehicle they are willing to take flight for 25 feet or more to avoid being hit. Even so, more than one bird has lain decapitated on the local thoroughfares.
As noble as the wild turkey is, they are a rebirth of birds that once dotted the northeastern landscape, and which were completely dispossessed of their nesting and feeding grounds during the 19th century. As little as 40 years ago the turkey, moose, and coyote were completely absent from most of the New England landscape. To the credit of the state and federal forestry services, they have been brought back. There is also some suspicion that both mountain lions and wolves are now following their trail into New England forests. These reintroductions make the forest a bit more dangerous for people than it was 40 years ago, but as long as hunting seasons are allowed these animals will continue to be timid around humans.
The turkey which graced the tables of the Pilgrims was most likely a breed called the Narragansett, which frequented most of New England in the 1600s. It is named after New England’s largest and most powerful Native American tribe, the Narragansett. In 1621, the time of the First Harvest Feast or Thanksgiving, the Narragansett were a force to be reckoned with. What remained of the Narragansett Tribe after King Phillip’s War (1675-1676) was driven from New England and into exile in Canada in ever dwindling numbers. The Narragansett turkey suffered from slaughter and English consumption as well. By 1997 there were fewer than six of them known to exist.
A group known as the Livestock Conservancy saved Narragansett turkeys from extinction by allowing them a large fenced area in which to roam, and protected space to breed in.
Now they are being raised in several places, one of which is Park Hill Poultry in Ithaca, NY, owned by Barbara Martin. She keeps about 100 of these turkeys each year and slaughters most of the flock by Thanksgiving, while at the same time keeping enough birds alive and healthy for the new breeding season.
Each May dozens of new and somewhat odd looking birds are hatched and the cycle begins anew. Soon they will be learning to crack open acorns which, along with domestic grains, is what they fatten up on. These turkeys, by many accounts, are tastier than most grocery-store-bought birds. A good source for heritage turkeys and other foods is localharvest.org.
Have you ever wondered about other heritage foods like vegetables and fruits? Most of today’s foods have been genetically engineered to create large, juicy plants and this genetic engineering has created far fewer varieties than once existed.
Today you can’t even harvest vegetable or fruit seeds from one newly grown crop so that you can plant next year’s crop. The genetically engineered plants grow with seeds that are sterile in order to make farmers and gardeners buy seeds every year. There are companies that sell heritage seed varieties and many living history villages such as Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village cultivate heritage plants every year and have an active heritage seed sale program.
Now there is some food for thought.