I had a neighbor at one time whom I considered a great hunter. Because he had a significant financial endowment and no longer worked, he had plenty of time to wander through the mountains, tracking, trailing and taking down many creatures.
His wife was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian named Gola, which means winter; (apparently she was born in a historic snowstorm). Gola was an excellent cook and would gut, skin and cook any creature he brought home. I never saw him kill a porcupine or a skunk, but almost anything else was fair game.
Most of the meat they ate came from the wild. Gola had a specific menu. Groundhog, for instance, was always served with creamed dandelions and sour cream. Squirrel came with grape dumplings, a dough she rolled in strips and cooked in boiling grape juice. She taught me about the spice dry rub, which she used on the meat she roasted, which included sassafras, a seasoning used by many tribes.
All this was done in what she called her summer kitchen, an enclosed porch with a huge wood-fired cook stove she used year-round. On the back of the stove sat a pot of what she called drippings, fat from bacon or sausage used for frying.
I think I was most impressed with how she handled wild turkey. She did not waste a bit of it. Her turkey was rather scrawny compared to the portly plastic-wrapped and blemish-free one that I was most familiar with. She dry-plucked it, gutted it, and hung in their shed for a day or so. She cooked the waddle, head and neck along with the gizzard, heart and liver in a soup that was more like a stew, to which she added sweet potatoes.
Turkey feet were an important part of any turkey dinner. She soaked them in a salt and baking soda, and then removed the skin and nails. I never thought about turkey toenails, but it appeared to be the only part of the bird she did not use. I don’t remember finding feet to my liking, and decided that I could waste this part of the bird and have never added it to my bill of fare.
Turkeys admittedly have small brains, and many know-it-alls who have never hunted them consider them dumb. But when it comes to hunting, they are far from dumb. Very wary by nature, they are among the most difficult quarry to target and kill. They seem to have a sixth sense that tells them when they’re being hunted. Many hunters report being perfectly camouflaged and immobile in a blind spotting a group of turkeys who had been coming in lickety-split suddenly stop and sort of sniff the air. Nothing is out of place. There’s been no movement or noise. Yet these birds sense that all is not right.
It happens all the time. There’s no real explanation for it. The turkeys just know something is amiss.
A group of turkeys often travel across my land. Should one of them end up in my pot, you can be sure I will dispose of the head, wattle, feet and toenails. I am a lot of things, but I boast no Indian blood in my DNA and have little desire to be a champion of overly frugal. The wild turkey is great eating, although a bit of work, is well worth it.
Benjamin Franklin in 1784 was disappointed that the eagle was chosen as our national bird. In a letter to his daughter he wrote, “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to is nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
“The Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird and with a true original native of America. He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”
I shall join the 88% of Americans that this holiday will be having that famous Tom and be part the 46 million eating turkey this Thanksgiving. I am now fortunate enough not to have to prepare this significant meal. Kudos to my daughter-in-law, Gloria Bonesteel, New York State’s greatest cook. She will be serving up her finest for our extended family. I am truly blessed.
And I agree with Alexander Hamilton, our founding father who once remarked, “No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.”