Picking a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving can become as involved as selecting the proper bottle of wine. Just like wine, there are issues of pedigree, terroir, flavor, panache and, of course, price.
Every November, I am tempted to rhapsodize about the gourmet moment that occurs when the roasted turkey arrives at the Thanksgiving table. But after standing downwind of a flock of aromatic turkeys, as I did during visits to a couple of local turkey farms, expressions of ecstasy tend to fade.
Nonetheless, the birds have their allure, especially the heritage turkeys, the ones that look like they could have palled around with, or been hunted by, the pilgrims.
There is a great deal of interest lately in acquiring a Thanksgiving turkey that has been raised in your agricultural neighborhood. The Maryland Department of Agriculture's Maryland's Best Web site (see box) lists 39 turkey farms that sell fresh, locally raised turkeys.
Heritage birds, at about $6 a pound and up, are perched at the top of today's turkey pyramid, followed by the less expensive ($4 to $2.59 a pound) Broad Breasted Whites, and then the standby Butterballs and other frozen supermarket birds (price varies, but can be as low as 65 cents a pound).
I met a few heritage turkeys, some Narragansetts, at David Smith's Springfield Farm in northern Baltimore County.
I made the November trek up Yeoho Road in Sparks to view the turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, lambs and cattle that Smith and his family raise on their 67-acre farm. Smith, a retired Army officer turned farmer, seemed eager to show me his birds. As for the turkeys, they tolerated my visit, greeting my every utterance with an immediate, loud group gobble.
If you were going to make a pin-up poster of a turkey, the Narragansett would be a good pick. They have red heads, dark feathers, colorful wattles and eye-popping snoods, a fleshy appendage above a tom's beak.
These Narragansetts live well. They reside in a roomy pasture and have fewer travel restrictions than mass-produced turkeys. Some recidivist birds fly out of their fenced pasture, Smith told me, only to voluntarily return.
They dine on farmer-provided grains and nature-provided bugs and worms. They have more dark meat, smaller breasts and, their followers say, deeper flavor than other turkeys. They cost anywhere from $5.75 a pound, Smith's price, to $10 a pound if acquired from national online sites such as igourmet.com.
Getting a heritage bird requires advance planning. Smith takes reservations for his heritage birds months in advance. This year, all the 400 heritage turkeys that Smith is raising on his northern Baltimore County farm are sold and there is a waiting list. Customers can sign up now for a heritage turkey for next Thanksgiving. But for this year, other turkeys, with lesser pedigrees, are available.
Some Broad Breasted White turkeys also roam Smith's pastures. With their white plumage, they are not bad-looking birds, but they are a rung or two down on the glamour scale from heritage turkeys. It is like an average-looking guy being compared to George Clooney.
As their name implies, these birds yield a lot of white meat. Some of Smith's Broad Breasted Whites enjoy the same lifestyle as the heritage birds. This makes them "free range and pasture-fed," giving them a certain panache in the turkey hierarchy. The free-ranges sell at $4 a pound, whereas their house-bound kin go for $2.75 a pound.
I became acquainted with another flock of Broad Breasted Whites at Tom and Karen Albright's farm on Sweet Air Road in Phoenix. These resided in what I would call a turkey townhouse, a combination of sheltered quarters abutting a caged outdoor yard about the size of the backyard of my downtown Baltimore rowhouse. Once again, I stood among the turkeys. I was glad I wore boots.
These turkeys, Tom Albright told me, are fed homegrown food, a mixture of corn, soybeans and oats harvested from his farm. Albright got into the turkey-raising business last year, forming a partnership with two other area farmers, Tom Reynolds of Farmer Tom's Farm Fresh Turkeys in Reisterstown and Steve Weber of Weber's Cider Mill Farms, in Parkville. This year they will raise 3,000 birds in three flocks.
"Raising turkeys is a good way to help keep the farm going," said Albright, who also raises cattle and grows produce that he sells at area farmers' markets.
After months of feeding, the birds are ready for market. About 10 days before Thanksgiving, they are processed at a plant that Reynolds, with help from Weber and Albright, built last year in Reisterstown. The processed turkeys are kept cold but not frozen. Albright sells many to customers who have placed orders with him at his stand at the Sunday morning farmers' market in Baltimore. Reynolds and Weber sell theirs at their farms. All sell for $2.59 pound.
Customers like the fact that their turkeys are local and have not been given antibiotics, Albright said.
"These days, people want to know where their food comes from," he said. Karen Albright added, "People want to know how the turkeys were raised, and they are pleased that the birds see daylight."
Frozen supermarket turkeys remain the most popular and least expensive of birds. Mass-produced on large poultry farms, these turkeys are processed weeks before Thanksgiving, then frozen. They are sold, sometimes at a loss by supermarket chains, at prices as low as 65 cents a pound.
Proponents of heritage and other fresh turkeys say that the flavor of these birds is unsurpassed.
"Once you have tasted the fresh bird, you won't go back to frozen," Albright said.
"The heritage birds," Smith said, "are outside exercising their turkeyness, eating bugs, worms and grass, and that makes a huge difference in their taste."
However, in turkey taste tests conducted by America's Test Kitchen, publishers of Cook's and Cook's Country magazines, the self-basting Butterball brand turkey, a frozen supermarket bird that is injected with a salt solution, scored well against fresh turkeys.
The key to a good-tasting turkey is brining, the testers said, noting that self-basting turkeys are enhanced with a salty broth that keeps the meat moist and juicy.
"If you prefer a natural or heirloom turkey, be prepared to brine," advises the November 2009 issue of Cook's Country.
Fans of fresh turkeys, such as Susan Fisher, scoff at the notion that supermarket birds taste better than her favored fresh bird. Fisher, an associate professor of foods and nutrition at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., said the Butterball does well in these tests because its taste is familiar, not better.
"The tasters think that is what a turkey should taste like," said Fisher. This year, as she has done for the past several years, Fisher is serving her family a heritage turkey. This year it will be an 8-pound Narragansett that she bought from a North Carolina farmer at $6 a pound.
While maintaining that the flavor of the heritage bird is superior, Fisher also contends that there are bigger issues at play during Thanksgiving than the mere mouth feel of turkey meat.
Buying a bird from a local farmer who has raised the flock in an environmentally sensitive way helps make the meal an extraordinary event, she said.
"The turkey will have had the life of a turkey, not caged nor raised in a crowded, mass-production facility," Fisher wrote in an e-mail. "It is what we think of when asked what does a farm look like, not the reality of where today's food comes from. That seems more fitting for Thanksgiving."
Where the birds are
Albright Farms: : 3505 Sweet Air Road, Phoenix; 410-329-3269, albrightfarms.net. Offering Broad Breasted Whites, $2.59 a pound.
Farmer Tom's (Reynolds) Farm Fresh Turkeys: : 427 Cockeysville Road, Reisterstown; 410-526- 6892, rfarmfresh.com. Offering Broad Breasted Whites, $2.49 a pound.
Springfield Farm: : 16701 Yeoho Road, Sparks; 410-472-0738, ourspringfieldfarm.com. Offering Broad Breasted Whites, $2.75 a pound, and pasture-fed Broad Breasted Whites, $4 a pound. Heritage turkeys, now taking orders for next year, are $5.75 a pound.
Weber's Cider Mill Farm: : 2526 Proctor Lane, Parkville; 410 -668-4488, webersfarm.com. Offering Broad Breasted Whites, $2.59 a pound.
More information: : For a complete list of the state's fresh turkey farms, go to marylandsbest.net