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Turkeys and Thanksgiving are synonymous; at least they go together, one with the other.
Wild turkeys probably were part of the first fall celebration that preceded the Thanksgiving we know today. They were on the scene long before the domestic variety we find in the grocery store.
However pumpkin pies and the attractive holiday table were not a part of the earliest celebrations. Ovens weren’t available to bake tasty pies, and nor was silverware. Hungry diners probably tried to be the first to grab for a turkey leg or wing, which were easier to eat. Like the domestic bird, the pies and cookware came later.
Today, if you are lucky enough to have a wild bird for Thanksgiving, you have a special treat, and one that is better for your health than a domestic bird. However, I’m not knocking the tame variety, because I’ll be eating one turkey day.
For this 2011 Thanksgiving, wild turkeys are more plentiful than anytime in modern history. Many of those who managed to bag one during the season probably couldn’t wait to eat it.
In Kentucky, the wild turkey has made a wonderful comeback and, undoubtedly, wild birds will be found on a number of tables this week, but most people like the Junkers will be eating the domestic variety.
So what’s the difference between wild and domestic turkeys?
According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, the domesticated turkey, which most Americans eat every year for Thanksgiving, isn’t as healthy as the one that hunters pursue in the spring and fall.
Most pen-raised turkeys live on ground feed and are given antibiotics to keep them healthy. They’ve also been bred to have more breast meat, meatier thighs and white feathers.
Wild turkeys, on the other hand, feed on acorns, grasses, fruits and plants, which provide them with natural vitamins. And because they forage for what they eat, wild turkeys have less fat content than their domestic cousin.
“It’s no secret wild turkeys, like any wildlife, tend to search for more nutritional food until they find it,” said Dr. James Earl Kennamer, National Wild Turkey Federation senior vice president of conservation programs. “They prefer acorns, seeds, small insects and wild berries.”
Just as there are genetic differences between wild turkeys and the tamed variety, there also are differences in the way they are cooked and prepared.
It is important that wild game is properly field-dressed and frozen. Amy Minish, registered dietitian in Alabama, says an important first step is to field dress the wild turkey — or remove its internal parts — soon after the bird is killed. Doing so helps prevent bacteria from spreading to the meat. She also recommends cooking the turkey at an internal breast temperature of 160 degrees.
Traditionalists say no turkey is fit for the table without its skin, so years ago, turkeys were plucked by hunters or camp cooks after a long day in the woods.
Actually, the decision about whether to skin or pluck really depends on how you plan to cook the turkey. For methods that can dry out the meat, such as roasting, the skin should be left on to seal in moisture. Plucking, rather than skinning, also reduces the risk of freezer burn.
But if skinless is your choice, consider deep-fried wild turkey; the meat will be moist and tender.
Tips for deep-frying your wild turkey can be found in the NWTF’s “Wild About Turkey & More” cookbook. In the cookbook, NWTF volunteers have shared their favorite turkey recipes; many are like heirlooms that have been handed down for generations.
Contact outdoors writer Phil Junker by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his blog at outdoorscribe.blogspot.com.