Memories of the Beltsville Turkeys
This Thanksgiving season, I read, more folks are looking for small turkeys. The news brings back mixed memories.
I (Bernie) was born in Washington, D.C. when my parents lived in a small apartment on K Street. (No, not upscale lobbyist K Street, rather the unassuming residential one.) But they wanted more room for a growing family, so they moved us out to a remote place in the country: Beltsville, Maryland.
Known only for its USDA Research Center, the town back then was mostly vast stretches of farmland and homes with acreage. It had one general store. It was rural.
To keep us connected to our city roots, we were sent to parochial schools in D.C. There, we quickly learned that our new home was considered a backwater of illiterates by the more "cultured" city folk. They referred to us as "Beltsville Turkeys", a small breed of bird developed by the Research Center.
Not being the combative sort, I got even the best way I could in a competitive prep school - better grades. The moniker was quickly dropped and the "cool kids" suddenly wanted to befriend me - if only to copy my class notes. So the barbs quickly subsided and the indignity eventually forgotten.
Until this week. Apparently, this is the year of the small turkey. With more families hosting smaller groups, the demand for large birds is way down. And, consequently, there is a shortage of small turkeys. Grocers are desperate for smaller birds as we downsize our gatherings this thanksgiving.
This brought back memories of the esoteric Beltsville turkey. I did some research to see where we could find one. It turns out, it is all but extinct. An ambitious effort by the USDA provided affordable protein during the 1930s. A heritage bird (naturally reproducing), it averaged 9-12 lbs., required less feed, was free-ranging, and easily fit into the small refrigerators and ovens of the time. Grown commercially in the 1940s and 50s, they were extremely popular and showed promise for developing Third World agriculture.
However, the U.S. market dwindled in the 1960s and 70s as progress brought "bigger is better". The breed fell out of favor as consumers wanted bigger roasters. Commercial restaurants and delis preferred the larger birds because there were more "slices per bird." Todays commercial turkey is a hybrid strain bred specifically for faster meat production. They are artificially inseminated, raised in confinement with automatic feed systems. The Beltsville is not available commercially, and is now raised only as an "exotic" breed.
Which is a shame, because it could fill a lucrative niche in the market - smaller turkeys, raised naturally - something more and more of today's consumers find appealing. While turkey is popular throughout the year - not just at Thanksgiving, the challenge is finding a smaller bird when you don't have as many guests to feed.
It's time. Let's hear it for the return of the Beltsville Turkeys!