Few food traditions are as rooted in our culture as Thanksgiving turkey. But as Americans continue their love affair with fine food, the more discerning are venturing beyond the big mass-produced white birds that have dominated holiday tables for decades. Some are serving up game birds, such as duck, goose, and pheasant. Others who aren't quite ready to give up turkey are buying rare heritage breeds, such as Bourbon Reds, Jersey Buffs, and Narragansetts, with bloodlines that are centuries old.
What's driving the trend? Chefs and foodies say game birds and heritage turkeys simply taste better. David Rosengarten, editor of The Rosengarten Report on food and wine, suspects that many folks don't even like regular turkey meat all that much. Raised in pens, fattened with special high-protein diets, and dosed with antibiotics, the broad-breasted whites found in most supermarkets and at most family gatherings tend to be bland -- even with all the basting, brining, stuffing, and frying home cooks use to eke out flavor and moistness.
Heritage breeds and game birds, on the other hand, feed on diverse, natural sources of food, such as grass and insects. Those raised on farms are given more time to mature and the ability to roam about and be active. Heritage turkeys, unlike their modern brethren, can actually fly. All of those factors give these birds more muscle and firmer, leaner meat, as well as a richer and more complex flavor. (It also makes them more expensive: Heritage turkeys fetch up to $4 a pound, and goose and duck run around $6 a pound, while store-bought, mass-produced turkeys cost just 40 cents a pound or less.) "Once you get to know and like the taste, it's hard to go back," says Theo Schoenegger, executive chef at Patina, a restaurant in Los Angeles that features a game menu every autumn.
For some Americans who grew up with different cultural influences or who live in parts of the country where hunting is popular, game birds are familiar fare. Mark Orfaly, the chef at Pigalle, a restaurant in Boston, says his Armenian grandmother often prepared duck or goose for the family's Thanksgiving feast. "I liked that more than turkey," he says. Orfaly cautions, though, that those birds require "a little more than basic cooking skills."
Indeed, the thought of roasting a goose, pheasant, or guinea hen can cause trepidation even in experienced cooks. Most of those birds are lean, so they're easy to overcook. Experts suggest cooking them at higher temperatures for shorter periods to seal in the juice. They also can be topped with bacon or pancetta to add fat. In contrast, duck and goose can be fatty and are best cooked slowly to achieve moist meat and crisp skin.
If you're planning for a large gathering, goose and capon can be quite big -- up to 12 or so pounds. That's enough to feed at least six. Duck, pheasant, and other birds typically are smaller, which makes them practical for more intimate groups. Another option if you're feeling especially adventurous (or indecisive) is a Cajun novelty called turducken. It's a stuffed, boneless chicken inside a boneless duck, which is then stuffed within a turkey. The tasty package typically weighs 15 pounds to 16 pounds and can cost $120 or more.
Over the past few years the alternatives to typical turkey have become more readily available. You can find heritage breeds and wild game birds at many local farmers' markets and in gourmet or organic retail stores. D'Artagnan, a Newark (N.J.) purveyor of fine foods, offers a wide selection of wild and naturally raised game and poultry in retail stores as well as online at dartagnan.com. The site includes cooking instructions and recipes. The birds are delivered fresh via FedEx (FDX) or UPS (UPS) for $25 per order, or free for orders over $250.
Choose any of these alternative birds for Thanksgiving, and you may be starting a new tradition for your family.
By Amy Cortese