Gobble, Gobble, Bang!

How I killed Thanksgiving dinner

Here I am in Maine, having relocated in April after spending my first 34 years around major cities like New York and San Francisco. Strange things happen here, such as wild turkeys wandering out of the woods behind your apartment complex. Even stranger, you develop the desire to shoot and eat them. Maybe I wanted to fit in. Maybe it was inspiration from Michael Pollan’s hunter-porn account of killing a pig in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Maybe it was a Thanksgiving thing. Whatever the case, I was driven to hunt. For others considering killing their own food, here, in brief, are the way stations on my path from latte-drinking, Volvo-driving urban sophisticate to bloodstained rural sportsman:

Hunter Education Course:

A state requirement. We learned the 10 commandments of safe hunting, none of which, oddly, is “Thou shalt kill.” Nor was one “Go to Wal-Mart,” but it may as well have been, because that’s what the instructors kept telling us to do, as in: “You can get this compass for six bucks at Wal-Mart.” I scored 100 on the final exam, but that’s not as impressive as it sounds, given that one of the questions involved identifying a trigger. The 14-year-old girl next to me passed with a score in the low 70s. Bless her heart, and the hearts of those who hunt anywhere near her.

The Range:

I did so well with a rifle that I brought the bullet-riddled target home to show my wife, which I think may have reversed whatever jolt of manliness I had earned firing a gun for the first time. I didn’t do so well with the shotgun, which is what you use to hunt a turkey.

The Guide:

Mine was David Wilson, who also sells trapping supplies out of his home. When I met him to scout, he said, “Come in, as long as you don’t mind the smell of skunk.” Skunk essence was one of the trapping lures on his shelf, along with red fox urine, bobcat meat, and the anal gland of a coyote. I wondered why he hadn’t said, “Come in, as long as you don’t mind being confronted with the anal gland of a coyote.” He told me to go to Wal-Mart and buy “camo,” then he let me take a couple of shots at a milk jug in his backyard, which brings me to:

The Range:

I didn’t get much better at shooting, but I did eventually learn to stop saying “Pull” as if it had a question mark after it.

The Hunt:

Dave and I traipsed for hours around rolling farm fields and woods and saw four different turkey flocks, but never got close enough to take a shot. At 3 p.m. I said we better knock off because I was getting sunburned. I imagine every sportsman in Maine has heard by now about the out-of-stater who ended a hunt because he forgot his Banana Boat.

The Other Hunt:

I befriended a local farmer with a lot of land and went out myself with a rented gun the next day to hunt it. I settled in at sunrise, well camouflaged and determined to stay perfectly still for at least a couple of hours. A few minutes later I got up for a stroll, at which time two turkeys and I startled each other and they flew away. By midafternoon, having stalked three other flocks unsuccessfully, I discovered the secret to patience in the woods: napping. Not long after I woke up from a nap, I saw a flock of turkeys pecking contentedly a few hundred yards away. I crept through the woods and shot one in a heart-pounding ambush. Killing that turkey felt like one of the most serious things I’ve ever done. See Michael Pollan for the profound effect that this action can have on a man. I will say I had to finish the job with my gloved hands, and I was deeply affected by the sound of the bird’s death rattle.

After the Hunt:

I did a Google search on “how to clean a wild turkey.” It was complicated, so there was a lot of shuttling from counter to desk, hands covered with blood and feathers, trying to page forward with my elbow. A day later I browned my hen in duck fat, then did my best to channel Molly Stevens, braising the turkey in onion, carrots, fennel, ginger, garlic, morels, bay leaves, thyme, cloves, star anise, roasted cumin seeds, chile flakes, Marsala, orange juice, and chicken stock. It didn’t have the silky tenderness of a normal braise, but it was a privilege to eat. Plus, there were two tough birds in that room.

Published October 26, 2007

Illustration by gregma

Alexander Lane writes freelance journalism from Maine, New York City, and the Pacific Northwest. He formerly covered the environment for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, after stints as a rock guitarist and a line cook.

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