Domesticated turkeys, by contrast, were thriving. Central American Mayans may have been the first turkey domesticators, tending two distinct turkey species long before the Spanish arrived. Southwestern peoples, including the Taos, Zuni, and Hopi later kept turkeys as well, largely for their ornamental feathers. European explorers transported turkeys back to their homelands and domesticated turkeys soon became widely disseminated in Spain, Germany, France, Italy, and England. Some were eventually transported back to the colonies; the Mayflower is believed to have carried some domesticated turkeys. Early settlers commonly raised them on American farms.
From this complicated past, several varieties have emerged, although there is understandable uncertainty about their precise origins. (Note that the American Poultry Association, the official arbiter of poultry breeds, currently does not recognize the various types as distinct breeds, recognizing only turkey "varieties.") The most successful have been the Bourbon Red, Standard Bronze, and Narragansett. The latter two are believed to descend from a strain developed in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay region. The line was probably a cross between turkeys brought from Europe and wild American turkeys. Narragansetts and Standard Bronze turkeys, even more so, closely resemble wild turkeys, with Narragansetts being slightly smaller with feathers lighter and grayer in color.
Another significant variety is the Bourbon Red, a turkey that tends to be a bit smaller than other domesticated varieties, with mostly brownish-red feathers and areas of white on the wings and tail. As one might expect, this variety was developed in Kentucky (as well as Pennsylvania) in the late 19th century. Bourbon Reds are believed to be the most prevalent heritage variety on U.S. farms today.
Heritage turkey meat is prized for its succulence and flavor. When Gourmet's somewhat skeptical former senior editor, Jane Daniels Lear, tested one in her kitchen, she concluded, "The turkey was fabulous, its terrific flavor amplified by the fact that it was beautifully moist and tender."
What makes individual birds true "heritage turkeys" is somewhat up for debate and in the beholder's eyes. But there are things that can clearly be ruled out as legitimate. Especially troubling is a turkey often referred to as a "bronze turkey," which looks, superficially at least, like the Standard Bronze but has only 1/16 of heritage-breed genetics. The other 15/16 are Broad Breasted White, the variety used by every industrial turkey company in the country.
When I asked Frank Reese, the Kansas-based godfather of American heritage turkeys, for his opinion on what makes a turkey authentically heritage he said he's seen many false claims of early lineage. He considers the American Poultry Association (APA), which has set standards for U.S. poultry breeds since 1874, the only valid certifier of true old varieties. "I don't use the term 'heritage' myself," he told me, "because anyone can make that claim. I call them 'standard bred,' meaning they meet the APA standards. That has 130 years of power." Reese's own turkeys (and chickens) have been certified by APA, a process that required APA officials to visit his farm.