Thanksgiving can certainly be done without turkey – in fact, lots of families choose any other meat besides the gobbler. But for some, nothing suits the tradition quite the same as a big bird in the oven (with apologies to PBS).
But like many domesticated species, the turkeys commonly sold in grocery stores are about as far-flung from their roots as you could imagine them to be, and still be turkey. Domestication of turkeys began in Mexico, the earliest known record of which comes to us from the Maya about 100 years BC. Over the centuries, the domesticated turkey became a pale white bird that many say pales in comparison to its wild brethren.
The wild turkey, which is generally the one you see pictures of around this time of year, is a noble-looking specimen that Ben Franklin once gushed had qualities much better suited to be the emblem of the United States. The most common species, the ocellated turkey, sports the iridescent green feathers that old Ben found so fetching.
Domesticated turkey tend to be much larger than the wild ones, the most modern varieties having pronounced breasts because, well, we just dig breasts in this country. They have a completely different diet than wild turkey: domesticated turkeys tend to eat an enriched pellet diet of corn and modified nutrients. Wild turkey eat a much more various diet, including nuts, insects and berries.
So, how does this affect taste? Well, wild turkey tend to live longer than domesticated turkey for obvious reasons. And that longer life means more fat on the older gents than the young ones. The result is more flavour and what many describe as surprisingly tender meat for a wild animal – wild animals working their muscles more tend to have stringier, chewier meat. Also, the diet of the bird is going to have a dramatic impact on its taste, and the varied diets of wild turkey make it difficult to be too specific on their tastes. What one clutch of birds eats may not be the same as the next.
Also, a word on the modern trend of “heritage birds.” These birds are basically a re-domestication of the standard wild species, which includes a number of custom breeds. While these birds certainly look the role of a wild turkey, the diet and exercise of these birds is closer to that of any other variety of domesticated birds. In short: same diet, less meat. To each their own, but it is difficult to imagine how this is an improvement on the standard domesticated bird.
Finally, it is worth noting that the wild turkey is something of a modern environmental stewardship success story. As recently as the early 1900’s (some of us were born in that century), the stock of wild turkeys hovered around a paltry 60,000 continent-wide. But a successful program of trapping birds in densely-populated areas and releasing them in less-populated areas has ballooned that population to well in excess of 6 million delicious, delicious animals.
So don’t feel as though you’re threatening a species! Your carnivorous lust only extends to one bird per season. Plenty to go around!