The delightfully named Bourbon Red heritage turkey. Photo via the Heritage Turkey Foundation.

Carnation resident Paula Butzi tried her first heritage a couple years ago and has no plans to go back to conventional birds. She buys her turkey from the farm down the road from her home and says there’s nothing better than knowing where her food comes from. “I get to watch it grow all summer and know how it’s been raised. The meat is delicious, better than any other turkey, and it’s such a good way to make the holidays that much more special.” 

Heritage turkeys are about as wild as you can get without going out and shooting one yourself. And while these birds have become a sought-after item around Thanksgiving, selling out months ahead of the holiday, buying one can be just as difficult. Only a handful of specialty butcher shops in Seattle sell heritage turkeys. Many that tried in the past had limited success because outside of the small subset of food geeks clamoring for them, they’re not well known. 

“They’re small, they’re really expensive and they really only serve a niche market,” says Russell Flint, owner of Rain Shadow Meats butcher shop on Capitol Hill. “They’re good but I just didn’t think they were an extra hundred dollars good.” 

The average life of a factory farm turkey is spent in giant warehouse with thousands of other birds and really only enough room to just stand in place. Artificial lights keep the birds awake for up to 23 hours a day, which they spend by gorging themselves on grain meal.  The birds get huge, fast. After just 18 weeks they can grow up to 20 pounds and up before they’re slaughtered, injected with brine and sold in a supermarket. Selective breeding has made them so large that these turkeys can’t mate without crushing each other, leaving farmers to handle the deed for them. 

By poultry standards, heritage turkeys live in the lap of luxury. They retain their colorful feathers while their factory cousins are almost completely white since those heritage traits were long ago bred out. And raising heritage turkeys isn’t easy; they require lots of care. Sea Breeze Farm’s head butcher Laura Garaventa said the farm loses about 25 percent of its turkeys every year, be it to sickness or hungry eagles. 

For the first couple weeks they’re literally hand raised, then turkeys separate into small flocks and spend at least part of their 28-week-long lives roaming fields, eating whatever they wish until they’re killed the week of Thanksgiving. The resulting meat tastes of turkey terroir—the particular  combination of grasses and greens they consumed. 

While this all sounds nice (well, except the killing part), it doesn’t necessarily bode well for dinner. First-time buyers are often disappointed that they’re paying up to $150 for a turkey that doesn’t weigh more than 13 pounds. Plus, they don’t have those big, meaty breasts people have been trained expect in a turkey. In fact, they’re small. Really small. Most of the meat is on the legs and great life they lived has made their flesh comparatively lean and dry. Since buying one is usually an experiment, newbies cook them like they would a normal turkey, which dries out the meat even more.

“But I make it a point to let people know what they’re getting into when they come to me the first time,” Garaventa said. “If it’s cooked right it’s some of the best turkey you can get.” 

To get that kind of satisfaction, cooks usually brine the bird or coat it in olive oil, then roast it for for a shorter amount of time. For those who aren’t ready to fork out the cash for such a pricey centerpiece but want something above the conventional Butterball model, butchers at places like Rain Shadow Meats, The Swinery and Dot’s Delicatessen recommend their free-range, organic turkeys as an alternative. Here, more details where to buy a Thanksgiving turkey in Seattle.