That homegrown American genius and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was of the opinion that the national bird should be the turkey. The other Founding Fathers overruled him, obviously. Nonetheless, the turkey has in a way become the nation's bird - the one most Americans want perfectly cooked and centerpiecing their tables for the two biggest feasts of the year.

The bird many of us will partake of today is no longer the wild turkey that Franklin had in mind, and that the settlers of Plymouth Plantation enjoyed at their harvest feast in 1621, which feast became the cultural ancestor of our Thanksgiving.

Our domestic turkey, which is raised on farms, is a descendant of the wild turkey.

The name is one of those accidents of history. The first Europeans to see the wild turkey mistook it for a relative of the African guinea fowl, which used to reach Europe through Turkey and took on that country's name. So, the new Americans passed the name on to the bird they found here.

Even before the Pilgrims got to the New World, the Aztecs had domesticated the wild turkey and were breeding it for meat and eggs. The Spaniards conquered the Aztecs and, along with their gold, took their turkeys back to Europe. The domesticated bird returned to the U.S. to be bred and eaten.

Turkey for dinner was often a luxury in the 19th Century, as evidenced by the reformed miser Ebenezer Scrooge replacing the Cratchit family's Christmas goose with a splendid turkey in Charles Dickens' 1843 A Christmas Carol.

But as turkey breeding techniques progressed, populations expanded and science brought us the wonders of refrigeration, not to mention continental transportation, more and more Americans enjoyed more and more of the big bird.

Some people say that we have gotten away from the real taste of turkey, since our modern birds never leave the farmyard, and sometimes never leave the pen, and that they are unnaturally crammed with vitamins and minerals. They say free-range, or heritage, turkeys are the way to go for the healthiest, tastiest meal.

Producers must demonstrate to the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside in order to be labeled Free Range or Free Roaming.

Mari Krebs of Steinbacher Poultry Farm in St. Joseph, Michigan, recently told Mlive.com, a Michigan news website, that her family's farm raises turkeys the way they were raised 50 years ago.

Those birds are in danger of going extinct if people don't breed them and eat them, she said. By buying a heritage turkey and eating it, you actually help its survival.

Krebs and other connoisseurs of free-range turkey claim that the umami, or savoriness, of the free-range breeds cannot be matched by domestic birds.

But Karen Ensle, a family and community health science educator at the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension in Union County, New Jersey, and a registered dietician, said that while some free-range birds may taste better and be healthier, others may not.

There is research supporting each side of the argument, Ensle said. Free range birds may not carry chemicals from modern feed, but they could be carrying environmental contaminants. As for taste, well, I know a domestic bird can be cooked to taste exceptionally well.

In the United States, turkeys are not given hormones for growth or any other reason. Some turkeys on the large agribusiness farms of the south and west are given antibiotics. The large farms are also the places turkeys are most likely to spend their entire lives in pens.

But a lot of turkeys are raised on small farms and are raised with knowledge and care, she said. But the most important thing - and we instruct people about this every year - is how you prepare and cook the bird. That's the key to health, and that's the key to taste.

Ensle said that it is the quality of the feed the birds receive which causes plumper, whiter turkeys. Some producers inject  oil under the skin of the bird before freezing it, so that it will thaw more easily and cook up moist.

That's what Butterball does for its turkeys, she said.

But you don't have to buy a Butterball to cook a moist, delicious and safe bird, Ensle said.

It all depends on how you cook it. The rule of thumb is 20 minutes for each pound, she said

With the oven at at least 325 degrees, you cook the bird under an aluminium foil tent, and use a thermometer to check the heat.

You inject the thermometer into the meatiest part of the bird's leg, she said. You want the temperature to be 165 degrees. For the last hour, untent the bird and baste it repeatedly with its own juices. Do those things and you will have a golden brown, delicious bird.

The USDA provides similar instructions on its website. The federal government, however, advises people to cook that essential part of the feast - the beloved stuffing - separately and outside the bird.

The USDA says that because too many people do not know how to properly cook the stuffing inside the bird, Ensle said. But if you know what you're doing, you can still enjoy stuffing the old-fashioned way.

The key is that the turkey must be thoroughly defrosted.

if you're buying a frozen bird, as most of us are, you have to let it defrost from two to four days before preparing and cooking it, Ensle explained. Let it defrost in your refrigerator.

When the bird is completely defrosted, take it out, stuff it and get it into the oven.

Salmonella and other bacteria live in turkeys, she said. If you stuff the bird, then let it sit out of the oven, the bacteria is simply going to spread to the stuffing. It's best to get the stuffed bird into the oven and let the heat kill the bacteria while it cooks the bird and the stuffing.

Deep frying turkeys has become somewhat popular of late. Ensle admits the method can produce a tasty bird.

But deep frying can also be dangerous, as getting any water into the hot oil can cause it to splatter, she said. Also, a deep-fried bird is full of fat. In this era, where we are trying to discourage so much fat in our diets, a nice roasted turkey with less fat and still a great deal of flavor is the better option.