Holiday 2010: Birds of Paradise

story by Lee StabertIf you’re making your holiday turkey selection based on personality, then a heritage breed Red Bourbon is probably the way to go. As we approached their enclosure at Griggstown Quail Farm in Princeton, NJ, the colorful birds moseyed on over to say hello. They gobble-gobbled, the males fluffed their feathers into that familiar crown (an embellished childhood hand come to life), and the army of birds intently followed our path as we traversed to a dry patch of land.
A few years ago, Slow Food Central Jersey encouraged Griggstown to experiment with the heritage turkeys. They started with 50 birds, and this year they’re raising 700. “The Red Bourbons are very friendly,” explains Griggstown chef Matthew Systema (who also runs the farm store and manages a portion of the wholesale business). “The white turkeys couldn’t care less.”
It was true. Their monochromatic cousins barely gave us a passing glance. Huddled together in their open-air barn emitting a low hum of cackles, the white birds were foolishly eschewing the adjacent fields thanks to a recent nighttime hawk scare and a celery raid by a few of Griggstown’s meddlesome cows. “Now we can’t get them to come out of the barn,” says Systema with an appropriate mix of amusement and exasperation.
Though these white turkeys are the same breed as your average Butterball, the end result is far superior. The free range birds are given all-natural feed—free of hormones, antibiotics and growth stimulants.  “It’s pretty much how you raise them and how you treat them that leads to a better bird,” explains Systema. “There’s almost a marbling effect in the turkeys, as opposed to the fat staying on the outside and running off during cooking. The moisture stays in the bird, so it’s almost impossible to overcook them and have them dry out. The reason for that is how much exercise they get—from going outside—the grain, and giving them all the tomatoes and other leftover vegetables from our produce fields.”
The turkeys aren’t technically organic—their feed doesn’t come from a certified organic field—but they’re raised in a sustainable and humane way. “Most turkeys in a traditional house are given one square foot,” says Systema. “You can feed a bird organic feed, but if you still cram it into a barn, what are you getting out of it? You’re getting an organic bird that’s been caged up.”
Griggstown sells both varieties of birds plain, brined (a 24-hour soak in kosher salt, brown sugar, honey, water, coriander, fennel seed and star anise) and “oven ready” (packaged in a roasting pan and stuffed with garlic and herbs). Griggstown also offers pheasants and geese. You can order directly from the farm (for pickup at Headhouse Farmers’ Market) or through the Fair Food Farmstand.
Fair Food is offering multiple options—in addition to Griggstown, they’re facilitating sales for Koch’s Turkey Farm (Tamaqua, PA) and Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-op (most of their birds are coming from Spring Water Farm in Paradise, PA).
The Co-op is an organization of over 60 organic farmers in Lancaster County. Kevin Tucker, the Co-op’s meat maestro, seconded Systema’s insistence that lifestyle has a huge impact on taste. Their member farms go a step further than free range, giving all their birds access to pasture where they’re encouraged to forage as much as possible.
After talking to the turkey experts, it becomes clear that personality might not be the best criteria for selecting your bird, but lifestyle probably is. You’ll get a more delicious meal, and support a local sustainable farmer. Gathering your family around an animal that was respected in its life and treated with care upon its death
adds another level of interconnectedness to a holiday feast. It’s a teachable moment—and a tasty one at that.