A Spring Thanksgiving
I saw my first wild turkey about 15 years ago. It was a shock to see a bird that large take wing in our yard and then land on an ash-tree branch 80 feet overhead. My jaw just dropped.
Since that first sighting, the turkeys have made a big comeback around here. We live in a part of Connecticut where the rural zoning requires at least two acres per house (known locally as the ruburbs). This zoning leaves plenty of open land for wild things. We live in a hardwood forest and routinely see deer, raccoons, fox, skunks, and lots of turkeys. They walk by the house, as many as 20 strung out in a long line. Many times I’ve cast a culinary eyeball toward that flock, and pondered pulling a hunting license to learn firsthand the difference between the store-bought couch-potato turkeys and the sleek gobblers trekking out back. Pondering is as far as I’ve gotten.
And then one Saturday, returning from my weekend trip to the hardware store, I pulled in the driveway and spotted a pile of feathers. It looked like a pillow had exploded. I needed a closer look, and as I jumped out of the truck I saw her—a magnificent hen turkey—in a heap on the gravel driveway. Her neck was broken, and a big bite had been taken out of her back. She likely fell victim to the coyote that killed a yearling deer in the same place last winter. The coyote had probably retreated into the woods when I pulled into the driveway. I could practically feel its eyes on my back when I picked the bird up by her feet and carried her into our kitchen. She was still warm.
I’d never cleaned a turkey before, so I called my pal Kevin Ireton to get his counsel. He knows how to handle a shotgun, so I figured he’d know where to go in with the knife. He didn’t know either, but he did offer this piece of advice from a famous North Carolina naturalist, Eustace Conway, on eating animals that have been dead for an indeterminate period of time: “If it still has fleas, it’s probably okay.” That was a comfort.
Like any modern survivalist with a DSL line, I went to the google. In ten seconds I found www.wildturkeyzone.com. I downloaded their cleaning instructions, and started heating water. Turkeys have over 5,000 feathers, and cleaning them begins with a dunking in hot water (140 degrees) to loosen them up. But first, remove the wings.
I confess to some unexpected emotions at this point. When I buy the supermarket turkey, I’ve subbed out the up-close-and-personal part of being a carnivore. I’m not wondering what knife I’ve got in the drawer that will take wings that span five feet off a wild bird. But now I was, and I felt uncomfortably clumsy doing so.
Wings chopped off and feathers pulled, I made a slit across the bird’s backside, and reached into her belly to pull out organs, entrails, and what looked to be the early stages of a clutch of eggs. A humid, vaguely sweet aroma hung in the air, and the images before me toggled between birth and death. I was getting to know dinner in an entirely different way, and it made me wonder what other connections to the real world that I’ve missed, without even knowing it. It was a surprising, unintended consequence of picking up this dead turkey, and wanting to eat it.
Years ago, a turkey recipe in Fine Cooking caught my eye.. Here was a chance to try it out. I mixed up a gallon of the maple-flavored brine, and let the bird soak for two days.
I fired up our Big Green Egg, a ceramic cooker made for slow roasting, and put the bird on a rack over a drip pan. Three hours and a stack of waterlogged oak chips later, our backyard turkey was ready for the table.
The white meat was remarkably mild, with way more texture than a domestic turkey. No surprise there, I suppose. This turkey had used those muscles. The dark meat, however, seemed to be from an entirely different creature. It was astonishing—rich and smoky, swirling with juicy undercurrents like the andouille sausage at a Cajun restaurant. We ate the turkey in mid-May, the day after Mother’s Day, an early Thanksgiving gift from the forest.