Heritage turkey breeds would be extinct if people didn't raise them. And farmers won't raise them if people don't eat them. Breeds like the Narragansett that were close to extinction a decade ago are making a comeback as people choose to go with the darker, gamier meat.
A decade ago there were fewer than 100 Narragansett turkeys being raised on a few hobby farms. The gamy-tasting meat has a flavor that most Americans have never tasted. "They're delicious," says Slow Food USA's Josh Viertel.
"And they're at risk of being gone forever."
Why? the vast majority of grocery-store turkeys are the big-breasted favorite, the Broad-Breasted White. That became the dominant turkey in the 1960s, and is still what most people think of when they think Thanksgiving.
But the heritage breeds are making a comeback, and the fact that more people appreciate that gamy taste will be the secret to their salvation. Viertel says: "You've got to eat them to save them!"
It's probably much too late to get your hands on a heritage breed turkey this year. But Viertel says the success story here is that there is now a much bigger market for these birds than even a few years ago. The population of Narragansetts has grown 350 percent from 2001 to 2008.
Much like the well-known Endangered Species List, Slow Food USA has created a list of endangered foods. The US Ark of Taste catalogs 200 foods that the group says are in danger of extinction. The Narragansett is on the list.
With endangered wild animals, conservationists look to set aside or preserve habitat. But Viertel says there's only one way to save the more than 180 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction.
But not everyone is a fan of dark meat. An intense gamy meat may be tasty to one, but deeply unsavory to another.
"I totally understand," Viertel said, "Thanksgiving is not about beating people over the head with a holier-than-thou moral stance."
Lots of families want the the big-breasted white meat bird they've grown up with. But if heritage birds come up, Viertel says, "it's a good opportunity to educate people about how food is grown in our country."
In the United States, 75 percent of meat is produced and marketed by a handful of big corporations. And while this keeps prices low, Viertel argues that it's ultimately bad for competition and bad for animal health.
Not everyone will agree, so let the debate begin. But first, pass the stuffing.