Catherine Thode?s 70 heritage turkeys start to cackle when she creaks open a gate on her Sebastopol ranch and fills their trough with a bag of organic feed.
After eight months of free-range living, the special flock tracing its bloodlines to the days before mass-produced turkeys is eating one of its last meals before ending up on Thanksgiving tables next week.
Thode says her Bourbon red, Narragansett and bronze varieties are more expensive to raise than the industry standard, Broadbreasted white, and don?t get as big.
But she says they taste better and are an important part of the growing ?slow-food? movement, which wants to build a market for vanishing cuisine and help the environment in the process.
?We?re so far removed from what happened 50 years ago,? said Thode as she tossed a handful of grain at their busy feet. ?We want everything wrapped in plastic and don?t want to get our hands dirty. I feel good about knowing these birds ate right and weren?t mistreated.?
So far establishing a market for the turkeys has proved elusive.
Sebastopol-based Willie Bird Turkeys stopped carrying them in 2006 after a three-year experiment hampered by low demand and inconsistent quality, said Beagle Brodsky, general manager.
People seemed unwilling to pay $7.50 a pound when they could get store-bought birds for less than half the price, he said.
?They are too tough to handle,? Brodsky said. ?They are expensive and it?s hard when you get stuck with them.?
But the cost hasn?t dissuaded Thode.
She and her family have joined the grass-roots effort to bring back crops, livestock and even seeds from bygone eras through sustainable farming practices.
Slow Food USA, an international nonprofit organization that promotes the pleasures of the table while educating consumers about sustainable agriculture and indigenous food products like the heritage turkeys, now has about 560 memberships in Sonoma County, and 100,000 nationwide.
In Sonoma County, the focus is on initiatives that include the Gravenstein apple and heritage turkeys. Local foodies latched onto the heritage birds about five years ago, hoping to create a commercial market for them. A handful of families this year are raising 200 birds, which are being sold on the group?s Web site, www.slowfoodrr.org.
The site promotes the meat as ?tender, succulent and extremely flavorful.?
Bruce Riezenman, executive chef and owner of Park Avenue Catering in Cotati, agrees, saying he has been serving them to his family on Thanksgiving since conducting a taste comparison a few years ago.
?I think they have a deeper, richer flavor,? he said. ?And I find them to be a moister product. The traditional broadbreasted turkey tends to be a little bland.?
Laura Martin, a leader in Slow Food?s Russian River chapter, said the food industry?s emphasis over the past half-century on profit and efficiency has created a monoculture, threatening biodiversity and robbing consumers of tastier food choices.
Slow-food activists are pushing the value of locally produced food. This summer, Martin?s group sponsored a festival for the heirloom Gravenstein, whose fortunes have declined with the rise of grape production.
A Healdsburg chapter has expanded to focus on reducing the number of miles from farm to table with a local garden gleaning project that helps feed the poor.
?I think we have lost a lot of flavor in food by focusing on a single type of apple or turkey,? Martin said. ?Our food is being raised for convenience, not flavor. It?s not only good for the environment to have biodiversity, the food just tastes better.?