Too Good to Eat?
Valley-raised heritage turkeys are rare but face a
(Updated Sunday, November 16,
2003, 5:38 AM)
A Kerman ranch is gobbling a lot of attention as one of three in
California where rare and colorful heritage turkeys are being raised for
Thanksgiving plates this year.
"We don't want to lose these things," said Rick Pitman as he and wife
Mary walked among the birds who strutted their stuff and fanned their
feathers as if they were richly proud of their heirloom breeding.
The common ancestor for all heritage breeds is the wild turkey, a bird
native to the United States. Cross-breeding with other varieties led to
the heritage turkeys that once numbered in the millions and were eaten by
Americans generations ago. But their numbers have dropped to
near-extinction levels, one reason Pitman's comment about losing the birds
He literally had to put fencing over the yard where the 1,000 special
turkeys are kept. Unlike the commercial, mass-produced Broadbreasted White
turkeys, these gobblers can -- and do -- fly.
And the Pitmans are helping save the birds from extinction by raising
them to be eaten. While that may seem a contradiction, the project
involving Slow Food USA and other organizations is in its second year of
boosting the numbers of these nearly extinct turkeys by hooking up with
about 45 farmers nationwide.
"With livestock, the best way to save them is to give them a job, and
their job is to be on somebody's table for Thanksgiving dinner," said Evan
Kleiman, who leads the Southern California chapter of Slow Food USA.
On Thanksgiving, turkeys from the Pitman farm will be served at Angeli
Caffein in Los Angeles, where Kleiman is owner and chef.
Pitman turkeys also will be on the holiday menu at nationally renowned
Chez Panisse, the Berkeley restaurant where Alice Waters is chef and
owner. Waters is vice president of Slow Food International.
The Pitmans and members of Slow Food, an organization dedicated to
saving the planet's cultural diversity and the savoring of food, pointed
to sharp differ-
ences between the varieties of birds eaten decades ago and today's more
commonly consumed Broadbreasted White.
Mary Pitman said a friend terms the white "the Dolly Parton of
turkeys," prized for its amount of breast meat. But that variety,
engineered for size, cannot fly and has difficulty breeding.
He said the interest in preserving the old varieties comes in part
because today's turkeys are "being inbred." He said the loss of a rich
gene pool could even ultimately threaten the continued existence of the
The Pitmans have Narragansett and Bourbon Red varieties of heritage
birds they are raising this year for the first time.
Kleiman said the meat from the heritage turkeys, which are raised
organically and in a free-range setting, "has a fuller flavor without
being gamey because they are allowed to walk around and have a life."
Their life is about 8 months -- at least twice the normal life of the
mass-produced white turkey.
"The farmers who agreed to raise these turkeys are to be commended for
going out on a ledge and taking a risk without knowing if there would be a
Turns out there is a strong market, with so much demand that most of
the heritage birds processed this year by the Pitmans have flown off the
shelves at stores that include Catalano's Market in Fresno, Bristol Farms
groceries in Southern California and Mollie Stone's Markets in the Bay
Area. They also were sold through Slow Food distribution centers in
The best bet for Valley shoppers looking for one of the turkeys is to
place an order months before Thanksgiving through Mary's Free Range and
Organic Turkeys on the Web at
www.marysturkeys.com or through Slow Food USA. at
"We have an allotment of 25 of the turkeys," said Ralph Rogers, manager
of the meat department at Catalano's. "We have 19 orders already, and one
of those is from San Jose. That person is driving over to pick up their
Rogers said the heritage turkeys are selling for about $5 a pound,
compared to an organic Broadbreasted White turkeys at about $3.50 a pound,
a free-range non-organic turkey for about $2 and a conventional turkey at
Because the heritage turkeys are smaller, weighing no more than about
12 pounds, Mary Pitman said she is providing an additional free-range
turkey at no added cost for buyers of the birds.
Mary Pitman often jokes that on the couple's 25th wedding anniversary,
"I got a turkey named after me. Some women get diamonds. I got Mary's Free
The Pitmans paid $10 for each of the heritage turkey poults, the baby
birds, Mary Pitman said. Poults for the Broadbreasted White cost $1 each.
The Pitmans said their first venture in raising the special turkeys
will not be a moneymaker this year, but they said they have garnered
considerable attention by adding the birds.
Rick Pitman said other California ranchers raising the turkeys this
year include Willie Benedetti in Santa Rosa and Sylvia Mavalwalla in
The Pitmans have spent years carving out various niches for a family
poultry operation that had its beginnings a half-century ago with Rick
Partly because Mary Pitman has battled food allergies and has a
heightened awareness of the need for healthy food products, the couple
started raising free-range turkeys, both organic and non-
organic, without the use of antibiotics.
In five years, the Pitmans' production of free-range turkeys has grown
from 5,000 to about 80,000.
The Pitmans have ranches in the Fresno area and process poultry at
their Sanger plant.
They also have reached out to various ethnic markets and recently have
started exploring the Muslim market for poultry slaughtered according to
Mary Pitman maintains a help hot line for those preparing their
Thanksgiving turkeys, answering each call herself, even on Thanksgiving
"People call and say, 'You're not really Mary, are you?' " Mary Pitman
said. "They think we hire people to say they're Mary.
" 'No,' I tell them. 'It's me. I'm Mary.' "
Whatever the type of turkey and whether it cost $60 or $6, her key bit
of advice is: "Use a thermometer, and do not overcook it."
The reporter can be reached at
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