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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Heirloom foods enrich the holidays

Ah, the holidays—a time for family, favorite foods—and the frenzied rush to put up the tree, buy the gifts, mail the cards, bake the cookies, host the parties. Can't someone just make it STOP? Well, actually, yes.

Natural foods aficionados are embracing a pair of culinary trends that honor the time and passion involved in creating a wholesome, flavorful meal. The slow food and heritage foods movements are especially popular at the holidays, when people want to prepare something extraordinary and also take time to savor the moment.

"That's when we most closely associate foods with the day—the Thanksgiving turkey, the Christmas ham. It's a holiday that revolves around the dinner table," says Patrick Martins, co-founder of Heritage Foods USA and the founder of the U.S. office of Slow Foods International.

Turkeys are the most widely known heritage food. But pork, lamb, bison, beef and chicken are all available in heritage breeds. So are grains like wild rice and various beans. Heritage, or heirloom, foods are those that were raised decades, if not centuries, ago—before modern agriculture began cultivating animals and plants for certain genetic traits. In the case of turkeys, that trait is large breasts. Unfortunately, say critics of the practice, the birds can barely walk, much less procreate, and the lack of genetic diversity exposes such species to disease and eventual extinction.

If ecological sensibility insn't what's bringing consumers to the holiday heritage table, perhaps it's the flavor. That's where slow food and heritage food intersect. "Slow Foods is promoting and celebrating the regional cuisines and products from around the world. It's not mistaking frenzy with efficiency," Martins says. It focuses on local, seasonal and organic foods that reflect the world's cultures. People who adhere to the Slow Food ethos tend to have a passion for nuance and flavor.

Yet the taste of today's conventional Large White turkeys bears little resemblance to the succulence that graced Thomas Jefferson's table. Heritage turkeys, says Martins, are richer and more marbled. "They taste the way they should taste, the way they might have tasted 100 years ago—before the industrialization of our food supply."

The bottom line

At the Park Slope Co-op in Brooklyn, N.Y., heritage turkeys are available only during the holidays. It's the time when consumers are most likely to splurge for an exceptional meal. Good thing, because these birds don't come cheap. "They're very high priced, and we're all about good food for cheap," says Jennie Hicks-Miller, meat and chicken buyer for the 12,000-member co-op. "I think that there's a lot of press about [heritage turkeys] and people want them, and some people are willing to spend $5 a pound for them."

Hicks-Miller says this year, she's getting her American Bronze turkeys from upstate farmers rather than through Heritage Foods USA, where she purchased last year's inventory. "I know the farmers that I deal with. Their prices are down," she says, noting that this year's birds will cost her less than $3 a pound. Hicks-Miller says she supports "getting birds that are treated well" and "doing that with people that I know."

Martins doesn't begrudge Hicks-Miller that option at all. "Our goal is not to dominate the market or to be the only option to eat," he says. "It doesn't have to be through us. We're a movement trying to push the envelope."

He does defend his prices, however. "Our prices are what food really costs when raised the way they're supposed to be raised. That whole 59-cents-a-pound turkey means that something seriously went wrong with the process."

And the market for such products is no longer a tiny niche. "About 15,000 [heritage] turkeys are being raised this year; four years ago there were about 400 of them," Martins says.

In theory, that should drive down the price. "The actual food won't cost less to raise but they may be able to slaughter more in a given day or get bulk discounts on the feed," Martins says.

Feeding the slow food fever

Martins compares the slow food and heritage movements with another popular food movement. "Anyone who says that heritage foods and ethically raised foods are not growing is making the same mistake as people did in the '70s when they said the organic movement is not going to take off." He notes that the trend toward people becoming more aware of what they eat began with fruits and vegetables, moved to dairy and other staples and now is becoming apparent with meat.

And to those who claim that promoting heritage and slow foods is elitist, Martins has this to say: "Tell the struggling family farm that it?s elitist and see what they would say … they are probably suffering more than anyone. You have huge companies selling unhealthy food to the poor and getting rich. Meanwhile you have very small family farms selling excellent food to the rich and staying poor. What slow food is trying to do and heritage food is trying to do is bridge that gap a little bit. Good food needs to be made cheaper, and cheap food needs to be exposed for how bad it is."

Think globally, act now

Retailers who want to carry heritage turkeys for the holidays should put down this article and call immediately, Martins says. For any other heritage foods, ordering a week in advance is usually sufficient.

"All our food is fresh except for beef and bison," Martin says. But one retailer, who declined to be named, said his store stopped selling heritage chickens because they arrived frozen and in layers of packaging, and he felt that he couldn't in good faith sell a $25 chicken to consumers who were expecting something fresher and greener. "Our turkeys are frozen," Martins acknowledges. "Just after Thanksgiving we freeze them; before Thanksgiving, they're fresh."

And if you're concerned about consumers eating the last survivors of a breed brought back from the edge of extinction, stop worrying, says Martins. "The panda bear and the Bourbon Red turkey have different destinies. The goal of the panda bear is to be put in the zoo. The goal of any animal, any livestock whose job it is to be food, is to be eaten." While that may seem an unsavory notion to some, Martins justifies it: "No one is raising pigs for any other reason than eating. Individually, the pig might be unhappy that we exist, but collectively as a species, it's their only way to continue. Our goal is to save these foods by eating them."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 10/p. 26, 28

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