STILL BILL—NIMAN NAILS IT
Our heritage turkey from Bill Niman’s BN Ranch was really expensive. And it was not nearly as chesty as your typical supermarket bird, the aptly named Broad-Breasted White. Sleeker and more streamlined (nice gams!), it reminded me of that great Spencer Tracy line from the picture Pat and Mike: “Not much meat on her, but what’s there is ‘cherce.’ ” In other words, it had the proportions of a wild turkey, which can run, fly, and do everything else nature intended.
That’s all well and good. I mean, I’m delighted that heritage birds—pre-industrial, traditional breeds that enjoy a long life on pasture—only have one bad day (and, as the saying goes, it’s a doozy). But in every turkey of this kind I’ve ever had, the flavor has been canceled out by toughness. Maybe there’s a reason these breeds aren’t widely raised anymore, I’ve thought, and braced myself for a lightning bolt from the God of Local and Sustainable.
Now, I’ve known Bill and his wife, Nicolette, for years, and they are not to be underestimated. Still, I was deeply skeptical about whether tenderness and juiciness—two qualities prized in this day and age—could be achieved in turkeys with such an active, outdoorsy lifestyle. It’s a lot to ask, when you think about it.
But leave it to Bill—who has the most recognized name in the humanely raised “good meat” business—to nail it. It’s old news now, but a few years ago, he walked away from Niman Ranch, the hugely successful meat company he founded in the 1970s. Angry and exhausted after a protracted battle with a new management team over animal protocols and the bottom line, he left without a corporate executive’s golden parachute, without most of the herd of breeding stock he’d built up from scratch, and without a backward look.
Bill reinvented himself with BN Ranch (he is not allowed to use his surname to sell meat), a handful of cattle, a large herd of goats—a meat he thinks has a promising future—and 250 heritage turkey chicks from renowned breeder Frank Reese, of Lindsborg, Kansas, who can track his flock’s lineage back more than 100 generations. Bill, a kindred spirit, pays as much attention to genetics as he does to animal husbandry and how the birds are processed. (If you want to read more about life on the BN Ranch, check out Nicolette’s blog on theatlantic.com.)
The turkey was fabulous, its terrific flavor amplified by the fact that it was beautifully moist and tender. (My very basic, no-frills, no-brine cooking method—just salt, pepper, butter, and basting—only goes so far.) There wasn’t quite as much white meat as you would get from a Butterball, say, but there was an elegant sufficiency. Interestingly, the breast meat wasn’t the dazzling white (like the teeth of a Grade B celebrity) of a commercial bird; it was creamier in color. It looked, and was, delicious.
Admittedly, there is no getting around the cost of one of these birds—$110 for a 12- to 14-pounder at Preferred Meats. But when I think of what people routinely plunk down for a standing beef rib roast, for instance, or porterhouse steaks, I feel thrifty, not extravagant.
After all, we’ve gotten four stellar meals (the main event, turkey soup, plenty of sandwiches, and—my favorite—turkey Tetrazzini) out of our bird, plus a few quarts of glorious stock to see us through a winter’s worth of soups, stews, and chili. We did not waste a scrap of that bird. If it had come with the feet attached (I’m just sayin’, Bill), I would have dried them in the oven and given them to our favorite voudou priestess for Christmas. Even the neck still looked unbelievably meaty after giving its all to the stock. I can’t vouch for how it tasted, though. Sam got me settled in front of the TV with a drink, hid in the kitchen, and very quietly ate the whole thing.