Beyond White Meat and Market Freezers
BY Christopher Brooks| NEW YORK TIMES

THE centerpiece of the original Thanksgiving table was probably not a 20-pound roaster, but a much smaller, leaner game bird — like the ones that Connecticut farmers and a few select stores around the state are offering as alternatives to the big birds now crowding supermarket freezers.

Locally raised pintade, a kind of guinea fowl, weigh about three pounds; pheasants are roughly twice that; and quail, at around 12 ounces, are so small you may want to plan on two or more per person. Since most of these game birds come to maturity in free-range conditions, they are considered by some to be more wholesome than their commercially farmed cousins.

“Pheasant is a game meat, and anything like that is a lot healthier for you,” said Robert Wilbur, owner of Sharon Pheasant Farm, in Sharon. The birds are devoid of hormones, antibiotics and additives, and “they don’t have the fat content of those Butterballs you buy at the store.”

Six weeks after Mr. Wilbur’s birds hatch, they are placed outside in pens covered to prevent flight, where their foraged diet of wild greens and bugs is supplemented with a blend of corn and soybeans. A similar process is followed at Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm, in Sterling, where, in addition to seven varieties of turkeys, Rick Hermonot, a co-owner, breeds chickens, capons and geese (as well as pigs and cattle).

“With the exception of our capons, which get a lot bigger than a regular chicken and therefore don’t do well outside, all of our birds are free to roam, raised on pasture,” Mr. Hermonot said.

Ekonk started as a dairy farm, with the hatching of birds pursued as little more than a hobby. “Raising our own chickens, and turkey for Thanksgiving, was a passion the whole family shared,” Mr. Hermonot said, “and now it’s become a part of the business that has really taken off.”

Carol Byer-Alcorace, executive chef at Woodbury’s New Morning Natural and Organic Foods, is also seeing “a lot of interest beyond sort of vanilla poultry.”

“People want to have more dark meat,” she said, “and they want flavors that are different.”

Because pheasants tend to be leaner than commercial chickens, Ms. Byer-Alcorace cautions, they should be cooked at a lower temperature and for a shorter time. “And because they can become dry and tough, you should really butter them up, or wrap them in nicely marbled bacon strips,” she advised.

Ms. Byer-Alcorace’s preference leans toward pintade. “The meat is not stringy, and it has a great, buttery flavor,” she said.

Don Bourdeau likes pheasant the way his wife, Ann, cooks it: in a kind of casserole with onions, mushrooms and sour cream. “One hour in the oven and they’re really good, nice and tender,” he said. But his quail and partridge, which he likens to capon in flavor, are less gamy.

Mr. Bourdeau took up farming after retiring from a telephone company, where he had worked for 33 years. This year, he said, he expects Bourdeau’s Pheasant Farm, in Salem, to produce 30,000 pheasants, 10,000 chukkar partridges, 5,000 quail and 2,000 Hungarian partridges. It is a familiar profession, one that his father pursued for more than three decades, and, Mr. Bourdeau said, “It’s better than sitting in a chair.”

Andrew Puskas, of Kandew Farms in Roxbury, got into selling game birds by accident, said his wife, Karen. He is an avid fisherman and hunter and loved pheasant his entire life. He decided to raise a few birds on his retirement, just as a pastime. “All of a sudden, people started to ask, ‘Hey, can I buy a couple?’ ” Ms. Puskas said. “And that hobby turned into a business.”

The 10 acres of the Puskas farm now yield an annual harvest of about 1,000 chickens, 750 pheasants, 200 turkeys, a similar amount of various kinds of duck, 100 guinea hens and miscellaneous quail and geese. “It can be pretty funny when they all get quacking,” Ms. Puskas said.

And in this business, you take the laughs where you can get them. Despite the increased popularity of buying local, Mr. Wilbur of Sharon Pheasant says that demand for his poultry is not what it once was. “All the people who used to come in and buy game are dead and gone,” he said. “Nobody cooks anymore; they buy fast food or eat out.”

Nearly all of the 20,000 pheasants the farm has bred this year will be sold live to hunting clubs, though it does maintain a stock of Wisconsin-bred birds in the freezer for retail sale.

Craig Floyd’s attempt to promote Delawares, a heritage breed of chicken, also failed to catch on. “The public is so used to having a fat, plump, big-breasted chicken that you can’t sell them something that looks kind of scrawny, no matter how good the flavor is,” he said. As a result, Mr. Floyd’s Footsteps Farm, in Stonington, concentrates its poultry efforts on Cornish cross broilers. “It’s a typical breed that Tyson and Perdue use,” he acknowledged, “but instead of bringing them to market in 6 weeks, it takes me 12 or 15.”

Arthur Hiles, of Groton’s Red Fence Farm, tried selling rabbits and ring-necked pheasants, but he stopped when there was little demand for them. So Red Fence continues to focus on cows, pigs, turkeys and Cornish broilers. “The real difference” in his Cornish broilers, he said, “is that mine are raised in big cages that are moved every day, and because they’re eating bugs and grass, rather than just processed grain, they have a more chickeny flavor.”

Mr. Hiles said the pheasants he raised did not sell well because they were small. Rabbit sales, he said, were affected by consumers’ associations with the Easter Bunny.

“Most Americans won’t eat anything that doesn’t come wrapped in cellophane,” Mr. Hiles said. “And the guy who hurt farmers the most was Walt Disney: he gave all these food animals human personalities, like Bambi, that generations have been raised on.”