Wild Turkey


Celia Wedding’s turkey hen image came from the same key plate the artist used in creating the three-color print on this issue’s cover. Learn more about the artist and her process click here.

A good choice for the
sustainability pilgrim’s Thanksgiving

By Erik “Daemon” Ferry
Illustration by Celia Wedding

For those who have what it takes to get ’em, there’s a flavorsome, healthful, thoroughly organic, and environmentally appropriate source of harvest-season poultry running amok in the East Bay hills.

We are of course talking wild turkeys.

Introduced as a game bird from the ecologically similar Texas Hill Country by our department of fish and wildlife beginning back in the 1950s, the birds have done very well here in the Golden State. So well, in fact, that they’ve become infamous for erupting from the leafy hinterlands to wreak minor havoc ranging from sturm und drang at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories to mugging miniature schnauzers for their kibble in swanky Danville backyards. There’s also some evidence that, in numbers, wild turkeys can erase certain native invertebrates and reduce the availability of acorns, a key seasonal food resource for indigenous wildlife.
The nerve. Something must be done.

On the other hand, wild turkeys probably didn’t ask to be brought here. Like any wild creature, their lifeways are fascinating and exquisitely attuned to the nuances of their environment, and they thrive wherever a trickle of water, a few tall trees for roosting, and a scrap of forest and meadow can be found.

And they are tasty, though like all wild game, their meat must be treated with respect in order for its culinary virtues to come forth (guidelines and recipes follow). The nutritional content and balance of wild turkey flesh is highly favorable: under 5{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} fat (and virtually all of that unsaturated), over 25{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} protein, abundant B-6 and B-12 vitamins, rich in iron and other healthy mineral content, and under 60 mg of cholesterol per 100 g, which is low even among game meats. Thus far, California’s wild turkeys have been as safe to eat as any poultry and they certainly live far more wholesome lives than do their benighted factory-farmed kindred.
But ahem, first we must obtain one.

 Want to learn more about depredation permits for wild turkeys, hunting regulations and requirements, or hunting methods and equipment?

  • nrm.dfg.ca.gov/WIR/About.aspx
  • dfg.ca.gov/huntered
  • fgc.ca.gov/regulations/current/uplandgamebirdregs.aspx#300a1g 
  • nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=23229

The Harvest

A member of the North Berkeley gang of wild turkeys.

A member of the North Berkeley gang of wild turkeys.

There are two feasible methods. The first would be to hunt them during the official spring and fall hunting seasons. The second would be to contact landowners (and by extension, friends of landowners) who have a nuisance turkey problem. These folks can obtain special depredation permits from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. (Tip: Many such permits are issued to wine country growers.)

The niceties of harvesting wild turkeys are beyond the scope of this article, but references provided here will help with everything from regulations to butchering. In the meantime, here are a few pointers to get the neophyte started:

Passing one of the affordable, widely available accredited hunter safety courses qualifies you for the basic state hunting license and required Upland Game stamp (For $50 per year total; you can take five birds annually.)

Wild turkeys may look easy to take when they’re lounging around regional park picnic areas, but out in the woods they’ll be quick to suspect your intentions and will teach you a whole lot about camouflage and stealth.

Whether you choose firearms or archery, you’ll need to develop a high level of accuracy. Wild turkeys have a lot of moxy and are surprisingly difficult to bring down. Wounded birds suffer needlessly and are going to make themselves very hard to find.

There’s no appreciable public land available for hunting in the East Bay. But private land offers more birds and few or no other hunters. Try soliciting friends who have property, or do some homework and request access from other landowners. Virtually any tract near a mix of oak woodland, stream corridors, and meadows in the East Bay is going to have turkeys.

Hunting, conducted with respect for self, land, and quarry, is one of the activities that helped to make us human. It reminds us at a visceral level that life, death, and the grand march of Gaia’s seasons are inextricably entwined.

Want to learn more about depredation permits for wild turkeys, hunting regulations and requirements, or hunting methods and equipment?

  • nrm.dfg.ca.gov/WIR/About.aspx
  • dfg.ca.gov/huntered
  • fgc.ca.gov/regulations/current/uplandgamebirdregs.aspx#300a1g
  • nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=23229

What Then?

Let us now presume that you’ve been successful and have a bird on the ground.

It is important to gut your prize ASAP and definitely within four hours of downing it, not only for meat safety but also for meat quality. The quicker the carcass cools the better. Draw and either pluck or skin the bird as you would with domestic fowl, and rinse the body cavity and crop area thoroughly. Cut the tough-to-pluck, virtually meatless outer two joints off each wing and just keep the “buffalo wings.” The giblets are worth saving, just as they are for domestic birds, and you’ll have to clean the gizzard.

Want to learn more about gutting, plucking, and skinning?

  • youtube.com/watch?v=nRSM32-xDPs 
  • youtube.com/watch?v=ItFuoypN9TE 
  • youtube.com/watch?v=3PDC8S0Y7-E 

It’s important to note here that roasting a whole adult wild turkey is a losing proposition because of the vastly different cooking-times needed for the light- and dark-meat portions. The white meat, even from a hoary gobbler, cooks right quick. Dark meat cooking-time for all poultry is, however, a function of the bird’s age, and any wild turkey you might harvest during either the spring or fall seasons will have already passed tender youth. The dark meat will need at least two hours of immersed simmering (and probably double that). Given this discrepancy, you will want to section the dressed turkey as you would a domestic fryer.

Note that adult male turkeys taken in the spring will have an odd, jellylike fat layer (called the sponge) attached to the front edge of the breast. Unlike the comestible creamy yellowish fat on the rest of your bird, this stuff is no good. Cut it away with a sharp knife and bury it under the zucchini vine. (Avoid giving raw turkey parts to pets because they can transmit internal parasites.)

A small but persistent fraction of California wild turkeys carry salmonella bacteria. Since the wings and dark meat cuts need long, slow cooking anyway, caution pertains mainly to the mighty fine but easily overcooked breast meat. Just ensure that the core temperature reaches 135°, then remove from heat. This way your residual heat rise of 5–10° assures the death of all bugs without eliminating the precious moisture content. A pale pink tint in the center indicates the sweet spot between safety and drying out.

Thus forewarned, to some recipes:

Barbequed Breast of the West. (Photo by Erik Ferry)

Barbequed Breast of the West.
(Photo by Erik Ferry)

Daemon’s Barbequed Wild Turkey Breast

Makes 6 hearty portions

This is for a typical tom turkey breast half, which weighs two pounds and is roughly 1½ inches thick at its deepest point. Adjust for larger or smaller pieces.

Coat both sides of the breast liberally with Daemon’s Badass Barbeque Booster (see recipe above) an hour ahead and allow to marinate at room temperature (or up to 24 hours in the fridge). Leave the skin on the outside of the breast as it helps to reduce moisture loss and has a slender but tasty (high omega-3) fat layer beneath.

Once the grill surface is well heated, place the breast skin-side down and leave just long enough to put a good sear on that side, 2 to 4 minutes. If using briquettes, a shallow mound about the diameter of the breast cut is plenty; you won’t need a long fire. Also, keep in mind that you can substitute your oven broiler for the barbecue.

Flip the breast, baste the seared side with more Booster and expeditiously sear the other side.

Turn breast over and baste again, then pull to the coolest part of the barbie (briquettes) or turn down to 300° and close the lid, leaving for 10 minutes or until your meat thermometer registers 135° and a cut through the thickest portion of the breast reveals a pale pink strip.

Remove from heat and allow turkey to rest for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with sea salt, then slice and serve.

Daemon’s Barbequed Wild Turkey

Leg and Thigh Quarters

Serves 2–4

I know, given the previous recipe, you are thinking, “how redundant.” But most recipes for slow-cooking wild fowl leave you with either a straight-up braise or conversion to chile and pasta sauces, and there are many excellent examples already. (Try the braise in Jesse Griffiths’ wild game masterpiece, Afield, for example.) But here we have a sneaky way to take an obdurate meat that is usually thought impossible to barbecue and make it shine over the coals:

Cover two turkey leg-and-thigh quarters in liquid and bring to a low simmer. Add a chopped onion; a few teaspoons of fresh or dried thyme, basil, rosemary, or sage; a tablespoon of honey; and a tablespoon of Worcester sauce (more for the resulting stock than for the meat).

Simmer the quarters at the lowest bubble your stovetop can manage for anywhere from 2 to 5 hours (again determined by the bird’s age at harvest), or until the meat is fork-tender. Don’t shortcut this step, as the very lean meat will only get drier and tougher the longer it is on the grill. Remove and pat dry. Note: You’ll be left with 2+ quarts of what is now a dandy all-purpose poultry stock in your kettle.

Coat both sides of the simmered turkey parts liberally with Daemon’s Badass BBQ Booster (recipe on previous page) and let marinate for an hour at room temperature or up to 24 hours in the fridge.

Heat up your barbecue with lid off. Here, as for the previous recipe, a low mound of coals no more than the two leg quarters’ nested diameter will be plenty if using briquettes, as this will go even faster than the white meat treatment. On upper heat, quickly sear each side of the leg quarters and baste each seared side again.

Immediately pull the quarters to the coolest part of the barbecue (if briquettes), or turn down gas models to 300°. Close the lid and allow to cook for another 5 to 7 minutes (but no more than that, due to concerns over moisture loss).
Remove, let rest for 10 minutes, then separate the thighs and drumsticks for smaller portions if you like.

Note: Space doesn’t permit a recipe for our wings but they can be stewed, braised, or prepared for a finish broil or barbecuing like the leg quarters. Happily they will need only 90 minutes to 2½ hours to become tender. •

Daemon’s Badass BBQ Booster

½ cup olive oil
2 heaping tablespoons of aoli, Vegenaise, or in a pinch, mayonnaise
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary, sage, or basil
1 tablespoon maple syrup, agave syrup, or honey
1 tablespoon minced fresh or powdered dry garlic
1 tablespoon black pepper

Combine all ingredients and blend or whisk until the lumps are out and the consistency is even. Paint it on and blaze away.