Free Bird

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One thousand turkeys waited in boxes in the early dawn last Tuesday for delivery outside La Frieda Meat at the corner of Leroy and Washington. Like orphans, each one came with a letter describing the Kansas farm from which they’d just arrived. At Doug and Betty Metzger’s spread, for instance, Betty cared for “her turkeys as if they were her own children. She even slept in an old van without doors in the middle of the turkey range to oversee and protect them from predators.”

Now her turkeys (and those of three other farmers) were about to be tended to by Sarah Obraitis and Patrick Martins, the founder of Slow Foods USA and the man who helped add one more word—heritage—to the sustainable, locally-grown, organic lexicon.

Martins didn’t invent the term, but he popularized it after meeting a turkey farmer in Kansas who schooled him on Butterball’s sins. The 45 million, crossbred birds “Big Turkey” sells each Thanksgiving are nothing like the Standard Bronze and the Bourbon Red varieties Americans used to eat prior to the 1960s. These heritage birds range and fly and mate on their own and mature slowly—the way animals do in nature, not on factory farms—which is why they (and their farmers) were barely hanging on until people like Martins created a market for them.

Through Heritage Foods USA, the mail-order business founded by Martins and Todd Wickstrom in 2001, people willing to spend $200 for a fully-traceable turkey are actually bumping these birds off the endangered list. It was Obraitis, however, who told Martins that Heritage Foods could help the farmers more by selling to chefs, who appreciate the birds’ denser, more succulent meat. She had just left the non-profit Rainforest Alliance and got to talking to Martins about the usual stuff: “life, food, agriculture.” He later hired her on, and the two began hand-delivering their wholesale meats in a rented U-Haul.

Each week, about 200,000 pounds of meat come through his chilly, fluorescent-lit warehouse, where they are then re-routed to restaurants all over Manhattan in small, refrigerated trucks. Most of the meat is industrial and cross-bred, but 5 percent of La Frieda’s business now comes from Martins’ collective of 40 farmers, who supply him with all sorts of heritage livestock, particularly pork: a box of tails was marked for Momofuko, and a package of ears was headed to (where else) the Spotted Pig.

And of course, last week, there were the turkeys—boxed and stacked on pallets on the corner of Leroy Street and Washington, waiting for delivery. When Martins and Obraitis showed up, La Frieda walked them to the turkeys and told them to sort out who got their deliveries where and when and to pack the truck accordingly.
“Think you can do that in an hour?” he asked, giving Martins a friendly slap on the back. Martins laughed weakly. There were more than 300 boxes on the sidewalk, each with different names in marker on the side—a few marked Craft, a handful of City Bakeries, lots of Gourmet Garages—only they weren’t arranged alphabetically, or even on the same pallet.

Martins, who looks like a mustached John Belushi in his thinner years, was unruffled. “It just takes us a little while to get started,” Martins explained. “But once we do, it’ll go quickly,” he promised. (Not true: it took two and a half hours, even with my help.)

By nine, the boxes were on their way, and we walked to Petite Abeille for breakfast. Over coffee, I marveled at how their fledging business was taking off: They’ve sold 7,000 turkeys (including parts) this year, helped increase the number of breeding heritage turkeys from 500 in 2003 to 5,000 today and are no longer hand-delivering their meat. But Obraitis and Martins were quick to point out the remaining hurdles, like Whole Foods’ decision to hawk “heritage” turkeys for $3.50 a pound—a dollar less than Heritage’s prices. Surely it couldn’t be the same exact meat: Turns out they are selling hybrids—Standard Bronzes mixed with an English Bronze whose lineage dates from 1935—just in case you were curious.

They also have “local” food fascists to contend with: “Everyone’s like, ‘Eat local meats, if it’s not local, it’s not sustainable,’” said Martins. “But when you’re a restaurant doing 1,000 covers a night, how do you follow the values of slow foods? The only way is to support farmers raising food in the right way, and most of our sustainable protein comes from places like Iowa and Kansas.”

“And that is still local,” Obraitis insists, compared to the difference most food typically travels from farm to plate. Unless you’re Dan Barber, I point out, who grows all his own meat on his farm upstate for both Blue Hill restaurants.
“That has to stop being used as an example,” Martins said. “It’s too unattainable for other restaurants. What are you going to say to these other chefs—go get some land and grow your own pigs? Look at Del Posto or Gramercy Tavern—those are the real battlegrounds.”

And with that, Martins and Obraitis paid the tab and headed back to the office to fight the good fight, and fulfill the rest of their turkey orders—all in time for Thanksgiving.

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