No use of you and me complaining but Thanksgiving just won’t be the same this year. Rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in Darke County, Ohio, and Randolph County, Ind., have conked out a holiday tradition for wife Gosia and me.
Ever since 2015, we have traveled to Chicago to enjoy a feast at the storied Drake Hotel. We would have turkey with all the fixings and a glass of wine for about $25 each in a family-style meal in the Camelia Room. Later, we’d enjoy an evening at the hotel’s Coq d’or Bar with its deep wood paneling and witty waiters who are funny enough to moonlight at a comedy club.
Now, we have to eat at home. Not only are there travel restrictions, but the Drake’s web page says it reluctantly has shuttered Coq d’or out of abundance of caution.
I feel for those of you who will be without a family Turkey Day for the first time due to travel restrictions or a fear of compromising the health of your loved ones. For the first time, you won’t have the crazy uncle in the family — the one who soaks the breast in ketchup — eat 50 percent of the bird before burping, loosening his suspenders, and snoring during the Lions-Texans football game on TV.
Not to mention, chanting for the 364th time, “I guess we’re all full!”
Since my wife Gosia and I are homebound, I came up with the bold scheme to have a Thanksgiving meal just like the Pilgrims had. Chowing down on wild turkey.
That is, until a few hindrances to that dinner popped up.
First, spoilsport, egghead historians with Pile-It Higher and Deeper degrees have written theses claiming that the Pilgrims and their Native American friends might not have scarfed wild turkey at all. Unlike the Drake, no Pilgrim menu for that first Thanksgiving was ever preserved, if indeed it ever existed.
For all we know, the first Thanksgiving might have been a pitch-in. They probably, like the rest of us, implored Gov. William Bradford: “Whaddya want us to bring, Billy Boy?”
He might have begged a couple of Wampanoag braves to bring a slab of venison. Mrs. William (Dotty) Bradford might have brought a dish of those ghastly, tasteless, teenie onions. John Alden maybe, forsooth, offered to contribute Mac on Velveeta. Etcetera.
The next hindrance was that when I went online to order a field-raised legal bird, my eyes bulged as if I smoked seven packs a day, and I don’t smoke. One online seller wanted $159.99 for an 8-pound bird, $217.99 for a 12-pound bird.
And no trimmings.
My social security luxury monthly payment dictated that Gosia and I pick out a traditional Kroger bird, and that’s what’s cooling her heels in our freezer.
But twice in the last week, Gosia and I have spotted a flock of wild turkey in a patch of woods near our Union City manse. She snuck up on the shy bird, which lacks the sense of scent, but boasts incredible eyesight, to snap a couple shots on her phone before the wary critters scampered to safety.
That’s when I became curious to know a bit more about these feathered neighbors. Thus, I turned to my longtime buddy, Ben O’Neill, who is a Franklin College associate professor of wildlife biology and a knowledgeable hunter and conservationist.
To begin, there are multiple types of wild turkey: our local Eastern, the Florida or Osceola bird, the western Rio Grande, Merriam’s (Rocky Mountain), and Gould’s from the Southwest. Below the border exists the long-spurred Ocellated wild turkey. They congregate in flocks of six to 50 birds.
Ben calls the abundance of today’s wild turkey one of the greatest American success stories. “Overexploited in the 19th and 20th centuries, they were locally extirpated,” Ben said.
Healthy flocks of birds were tapped by conservationists and relocated beginning around 1960. “Now in the twentieth-century we again have a healthy population,” he said.
He, like most hunters, goes after gamebirds in the spring. A Jake is a one-year-old, immature bird often misidentified as a hen. Most desirable birds on a hunt are Toms of two to three years, though some wily turkeys can survive to age five or more years.
He hunts at sunrise. He uses a shotgun, while a friend of his has gained proficiency with a recurve bow.
The Toms vacate their tree roosts then and commence gobbling to attract females for breeding. They move fast to any female who answers with a receptive yelp.
Naturally, Ben relies on a yelp mouth call, hoping to lure a fat Tom to an imagined tryst.
When successful, he dresses the turkey in the field or takes it home and dresses it after the meat cools. He smokes the medium-dark breasts and legs, uses the wings and other parts to make a stock.
Ben saves the feathers, beard and tail. What better way to drive home a class lesson than by “show and tell?” Known for his work with students on public conservation projects, Ben also is well-published and a former Franklin College scholar-of-the-year.
By the way, the first official Thanksgiving began in 1863. President Abe Lincoln thought the holiday might bond the North and South after the Civil War ended.
“Have some more whiskey and a bit of dressing, General Robert E.?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” replied General Sherman, the host. “I’m sorry I burnt the bird.”
Incidentally, there is an oft-told myth that Ben Franklin wanted to name the turkey our national bird,
Not so. The credit goes to Charles Thomson, secretary of Congress, who designed the Great Seal in 1782, choosing the bald eagle over the wild turkey
What happened is that Franklin lamented the choice, dismissing the eagle as a dirty bird that lived off the prey killed by nobler hawks.
I’m glad that turkey became the traditional main dish for Thanksgiving.
I can’t imagine myself sticking a fork in a Butterball eagle.
Happy Thanksgiving. I am grateful for your readership.
Hank Nuwer is newly moved to Union City, Indiana — about one block from Darke County. He retired July 1, 2020 from the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism after 18 years. He is the author of the historical novel Sons of the Dawn: A Basque Odyssey, which makes use of his experiences as a young reporter trailing a large band of sheep with Basque herders from Spain. A longtime magazine freelance writer, he shares his reflections on the people and places he finds in Darke County. His wife, Gosia, a native of Warsaw, Poland, is a freelance photographer and longtime accountant.