Hunt your dinner and eat it, too: Wild game on the Thanksgiving menu?
Wild game harvested during hunting season makes for a free-range Thanksgiving centerpiece
Forget the long grocery store lines. The elbow-to-elbow aisles. The quest to get the very last parking space the day before Thanksgiving, only to find that the last turkey in the freezer aisle is already on it’s way to someone else’s dinner table for Thanksgiving.
Consider, instead, a show-stopping centerpiece gobbler from the great outdoors. It just might be the most sustainable meat on the market.
“There’s been a fairly substantial movement for finding organic meat, and the whole concept of organic plays right into hunting,” said Matt Yamashita, an avid turkey hunter and district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “That’s about as free-range and about as hormone-free of an animal as you will ever find.”
It’s a bit too late now to secure a last-minute wild turkey for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner; the fall turkey hunting season ended in October. And in Yamashita’s family, the appetite for turkey often seals the bird’s fate long before November.
“When we harvest one, it never lasts until Thanksgiving,” Yamashita said. “They’re typically fairly anxious to get it on the table as soon as possible.”
But those looking toward next year’s menu already may be pleased to learn that the wild bird will freeze just as well as its cousins in the grocers’ freezer aisle and can easily last from the spring or fall hunting seasons to the holiday meal.
Just don’t expect it to behave like its grocery store counterpart when it comes to cooking, Yamashita said. Because wild turkeys spend their lives roaming on varied terrain, they have a more muscular build that cooks differently than a Butterball turkey might.
“People will put them in a deep fryer and think that it’ll turn out the exact same as they were hoping and it doesn’t, and they’re disappointed when it turns out a little less than satisfying,” Yamashita said.
Faced with such quandaries, many home cooks turn to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife offices as a wild game proxy for the Butterball Turkey Line.
“Our officers here locally, we receive those kinds of calls all the time,” Yamashita said. “‘‘Hey, I just harvested my first turkey — what am I supposed to do with it now?’ Preparation is a little bit different.”
A good salt brine will do the trick, said Jerrod Hollinger, who owns the outdoor guiding service and retailer Aspen Outfitting Company. He also recommended cooking the wild bird — which has more dark meat and a smaller, learner profile — at a lower temperature for a shorter period of time.
“It’s pretty amazing how different the two animals are,” Hollinger said. When it comes to preparing a wild turkey for the first time, “the internet’s definitely your friend.”
His family has often included wild turkey on their Thanksgiving menu — and it’s not uncommon to see a hunted bird side-by-side with its store-bought brethren as part of an ongoing wild-versus-domestic holiday turkey battle.
“We all fight over the dark meat,” Hollinger said. “The wild turkey is pretty amazing.”
Alas, the turkey faceoff is on hold this year for Hollinger’s household; despite a few turkey sightings, it’s pheasant that will be on the menu this year.
Though the wild turkey population in the Roaring Fork Valley is “very abundant” even in urban areas, Yamashita noted, they can be tricky to track down on the public land where hunting is permitted during the season.
Some hunters are instead opting for other wild game on the Thanksgiving table.
Tom Menas, a guide for the Aspen Outfitting Company, said he had some success during deer season and plans to serve up a venison sirloin this year. Travis Elliott, assistant town manager for the Town of Snowmass Village, will have elk and goose on the menu.
And Elliott’s coworker Max Rand, a facilities maintenance specialist for Snowmass Village, will dish up elk and mule deer — plus a store bought turkey for old time’s sake. Rand wasn’t able to score a wild turkey this year, but he already has next year’s Thanksgiving in mind; he’ll try to snag a wild bird again during the spring turkey hunting season.
But no matter what makes it to the plate this Thanksgiving, those who serve wild game on the holiday menu see hunted meat as an act of sustainability — a way to get one step closer to “living off the land” as Rand and Menas put it.
After all, it’s easy to know where your food comes from if you’re the one who shoots it.
“Part of our thing has always been the respect of the animal that you hunt,” Hollinger said of his family’s wild game traditions. “Taking it full circle and going from the field to the table is a really fun part of the whole experience.”
Kaya Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.