There is no evidence that the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags dined on turkey at that quasi-mythical first Thanksgiving in 1621. The surviving accounts say only that fowl was on the menu. Nevertheless, in America turkey has become inextricably entwined with Thanksgiving.
This year, as in most years in recent memory, grocery stores have worked hard to lure shoppers in with bargains on frozen turkeys, even creating loss leaders - turkeys priced at or below the store's cost in hopes that the customer will go on and fill the shopping cart. Last week, at Stop and Shop one could buy a regular frozen turkey for 49 cents a pound or a premium brand for 89 cents.
Elsewhere, prices ranged from $1.99 a pound for a Butterball, to $4.29 for an organic free-range bird. On Monday, the Tisbury Farm Market still had a few fresh (that is, not frozen) turkeys for $2.89. Skipper Manter of West Tisbury sells his turkeys for $3.75, but you have to be one of his regular customers to get one, and there is a waiting list.
Not everyone this year could afford even 49 cents a pound. Betty Burton, coordinator of the Family to Family program, which delivers Thanksgiving baskets to families in need, reports that requests were way up. She and her volunteers had planned on about 110 to 120 families, but 170 showed up at the First Baptist Parish Hall last week. She says that in addition to the elderly and the disabled, other families are so pressed by the current economy that they would not have had a Thanksgiving at all without help. The turkeys came from the Massachusetts food bank, Whippoorwill Farm donated some carrots, and Chilmark Chocolates added a small box of candy to each basket.
The rest of the contents of the baskets came from donations of $25 or more from Islanders responding to the slogan, "One family helping one family." Reliable Market provided Family to Family with the fixings at a discount and also honored coupons distributed by Ms. Burton when the supply of baskets was exhausted.
Ms. Burton reports that Family to Family has raised enough money to cover expenses, but she cautions, "People will have to dig deeper for Christmas, because we want people to have a Christmas dinner, too. These are tough economic times." Family to Family is not connected to the Red Stocking Fund and mostly serves different families.
Meals on Wheels doesn't deliver on holidays, but for Thanksgiving, the town councils on aging step in and provide a turkey dinner to about 40 clients who will not be celebrating with family or friends. Heather Fauteux, Meals on Wheels director, will deliver up-Island; Roger Wey, Oak Bluffs COA director, and others volunteers will visit Oak Bluffs residents; Dottie Duarte, Jill Parker, and Bill McConnell will feed Tisburians; and Susan Desmarais will serve Edgartonians.
One source of a turkey dinner may be found roaming about Martha's Vineyard, raiding bird feeders, fouling decks and driveways, threatening Chilmark police officers, and generally striking most Vineyarders as a nuisance. Whether the big ungainly birds are wild turkeys or merely feral domestic turkeys, or a hybrid of both, is undetermined. Certainly the Vineyard's roaming turkeys do not exhibit the wily stealth that makes the true wild turkey a challenging prey for hunters. Turkey hunters in the Ozarks would be shocked to see Vineyard housewives unsuccessfully shooing them away with brooms. The late Craig Kingsbury used to report that he harvested turkeys by going out early in the morning to where they were roosting in a tree, reaching up, and grabbing them by the legs. No expensive turkey-call needed.
Regardless of their true provenance, Vineyard wild turkeys are delicious. It can be reported that West Tisbury turkeys are far superior in flavor to their domestic cousins, which rely on grandma's gravy recipe for any taste at all. The breast meat of a wild turkey is similar in flavor to the dark meat of a domestic bird.
On a platter, the sharp triangular shape of the wild turkey breast looks odd, because the animal has not been bred to look like a beach ball and taste like air. Because plucking a wild turkey is a labor-intensive task, many aficionados are content to skin the breast and remove the two halves from the bone, much as wild geese and ducks are often prepared for table. The legs and wings of a wild turkey contain so little meat that some consider them not worth the trouble. Because wild turkeys actually use their wings and legs, the meat can be tough.
There is a small problem with a wild turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. It is illegal to hunt them at this time of year. There is a one-month open season in the spring and a one-week season at the end of October. A Thanksgiving wild turkey would theoretically require shooting weeks or months ahead and freezing until this week. However, there is no great public outcry in favor of enforcing this particular game regulation.