The Island's plentiful flocks of wild turkeys saunter across roads and stop traffic, treat backyard birdfeeders and gardens like all-you-can-eat buffets, and leave their calling cards on decks and front steps.
As Thanksgiving approaches, many Vineyarders may see wild turkeys in a new light: pests on a platter. If we can't beat 'em, why not eat 'em? A nuisance, to be sure, but more importantly, how would one taste?
Answering this intriguing culinary question became my assignment after I expressed interest in the Island's turkey population during a casual conversation with Times news editor Nelson Sigelman. The next thing I knew, I had agreed not only to familiarize myself with all things turkey but also to cook one. As a city girl who thinks there is no poultry worth buying unless it comes with a pop-up timer, the thought threw me into a tailspin.
It turns out turkeys are one of the few species left on what I would imagine is Mr. Sigelman's list of "1,001 things to hunt before you die." Always looking for new game to conquer, of course he eagerly offered to bag a wild turkey for me.
A few days later, with the gleam of hunting season in his eyes, Mr. Sigelman told me he would not be at work the next morning, because he would be out getting my turkey. When he arrived at the office in the afternoon, he triumphantly presented me with a tagged, limp, undeniably dead tom turkey. I feigned enthusiasm, much like someone praising a cat that brings a freshly killed rodent to the door. All I could focus on were the bird's vulture-like head and neck, and its very ugly, scaly feet.
The deceased tipped the office postal scale at 13.3 pounds. We packed bags of ice around him inside a large garbage bag and sent him home with Times staff member Linda Wood. Her husband, Wes, who is the head farmhand at the FARM Institute in Edgartown, had generously offered to clean and pluck the bird, and give it back to me in ready-to-roast condition. I was so grateful that I offered to cook dinner for the Woods at a later date. I promised not to serve turkey.
After readying about 65 domestic turkeys for Thanksgiving sales at the Farm Institute this year, Mr. Wood definitely is an expert. To prepare my turkey, he rinsed the bird down and then scalded it in water heated to about 140 degrees, which made the feathers easier to pluck. Heating the water took longer than the plucking, Mr. Wood said. Afterwards, he said he refrigerated the bird for at least 24 hours, which allows time for the meat to condition by breaking down chemically, making it tenderer.
Do most roast?
Mr. Wood also offered to freeze and keep the bird for me until I was ready to cook it. That gave me time to ask for culinary advice from him and other Islanders. Mr. Wood said he has found that brining a turkey, which means soaking it in a saltwater solution overnight before cooking it, results in a more tender bird. Any brining recipe, found in most basic cookbooks, will do.
Ben Cabot of West Tisbury said he has prepared and cooked wild turkeys in a number of different ways, and they all turned out to taste good. Unlike domestic turkeys where bigger is better, Mr. Cabot said, "The best trick I found is to pick a smaller one. You don't want a big, huge old tom. The smaller, younger ones are far tastier." Mr. Cabot said his family usually enjoys both a wild and a domestic turkey at Thanksgiving.
Gordon and Ann Tyra of Edgartown have done the same. The first Thanksgiving Mr. Tyra hunted a wild turkey, they hedged their bets by cooking a regular one as a backup. Comparing the results of their "side by side taste test," Ms. Tyra said she thought the wild turkey was better by far. "They're delicious," declared Mr. Tyra, who has been hunting the Vineyard birds for about eight years now. "We just stuff them and cook them the same way as a regular turkey," Ms. Tyra said.
Rocco Bellebuono of Chilmark also chose to roast his first wild turkey about a week ago. To prepare it, he rubbed it down with butter, spices, salt and pepper, and basted it every half hour. "The breast was phenomenal - the rest was definitely tough," he said, although he added that he might have overcooked it just a bit.
"I learned from my first experience. if I had to do it again, I would probably cut the bird up and use the breast," Mr. Bellebuono said. "You can roast the whole bird, but you can't really eat the wings. The legs are more sinewy and tough than regular turkey. If you have someone looking forward to eating a leg, give them a warning."
Roast Turkey Recipe
1 wild turkey
Butter or margarine, softened, with 1 tsp. poultry seasoning mixed in
1⁄2 lb. bacon
1 small onion
1⁄2 cup water
1 cup dry wine
Place turkey in roasting pan. Place peeled onion in cavity of the bird. Brush seasoned margarine over skin on breast, wings, and legs and then drape stripes of bacon over same. Pour 1⁄2 cup water in bottom of roasting pan. Cover pan with double layer of foil or use covered roasting pan. Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes per pound (or at 300 degrees if slower roasting preferred). Baste bird every half hour. During last hour, pour red wine over the bird. Use meat thermometer and recommended internal temperature for poultry.
(Recipe adapted from one found at www.gameandfishrecipes.com)
The Times taste test
After gathering tips from Islanders, I looked for wild turkey recipes on the Internet and rejected ones with Martha Stewart-like complexity or any that involved deep fat frying. I found one that looked doable at www.gameandfishrecipes.com (see box).
After thawing the turkey at home last weekend, on Monday morning, I unwrapped the bird in The Times kitchen and got my first glimpse of its odd shaped and knobby, prominent, high breastbone. I could see why Ms. Tyra had warned me, "It's definitely not a bird you want to carve at the table."
Unlike plump-breasted domestic turkeys, genetically engineered to an almost symmetrical, cannon-ball shape, wild turkey carcasses are not a pretty sight. Minus feathers, feet and face, my turkey now weighed 11 pounds. Seated in the roasting pan on its wings and elongated legs, it took on the disturbing appearance of a small, headless dog. When one of my co-workers saw it, she almost ran from the room. To my relief, once I folded the wings under and turned it breast side up, it looked more like a turkey.
For the sake of time and to stave off restless staff members eagerly anticipating their turkey lunch, I cooked the bird at 350 degrees instead of at 300 as the recipe instructed. Under strict orders from Mr. Sigelman not to overcook it, I paid close attention to a digital cooking thermometer and pulled the bird from the oven as soon as the alarm beeped.
Copy editor Whit Griswold proved he could slice turkey as well as words, and about a dozen Times staffers were game to try it. Although everyone said they were surprised at how similar the white meat tasted compared to domestic turkey, many agreed the dark meat had a more distinct, gamey taste and was tougher. All in all, they liked the wild turkey, as did I.
However, no matter how tasty, I don't know if I could bring myself to make the leap from eating domestic turkey to wild turkey if it meant having to dine on one of the group that frequents my backyard with such regularity that our son named them "Gladys and the Chicks."
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 45 million turkeys are cooked and eaten in the United States at Thanksgiving. Apparently there are a lot of us who find it easier to roast up one of those faceless, nameless, frozen cannonballs.