Jerry Nelson: Turkey time

Jerry Nelson

by Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

Thanksgiving is almost here, that day when we stuff ourselves until our tummies are as tight as drumheads and we lapse into couch comas. It’s as if Sunday came on Thursday.

Imprinted on our collective consciousness is the Rockwellian image of the ideal Thanksgiving dinner: a roast turkey that’s the size of a Humvee is being placed onto the dinner table by a steel-haired grandmother. The bird has been baked to an impossibly delicious shade of umber or ochre or whatever colors Rockwell had on his palette that day.

Who could hope to improve on this fictional perfection? A person who is somewhat deluded, someone who has a tendency to overestimate his abilities and underestimate all possible future difficulties. In other words, me.

It began one spring day some years ago when I was visiting our local farm supply store. I heard the “peep, peep” of baby chicks; unable to resist, I sought out the source of the sound.

Perusing the small pens of little chicks, I was shocked to discover that one of the pens held a herd of turkey poults. The shocking part was that baby turkeys are called poults. I had always thought they were known as… I don’t know, baby turkeys.

An idea suddenly struck me. I knew how to improve upon Thanksgiving dinner perfection! Instead of a store-bought bird, we could serve a homegrown turkey! A turkey that had been gently nurtured on our farm, then lovingly beheaded and plucked.

I purchased half a dozen baby turkeys and spirited them home. I didn’t consult my wife about it first. There’s no point in asking a question when you already know the answer.

I installed the poults in the brooder room of our old coop. Hoping to avoid an identity crisis, I didn’t tell them that it’s actually a chicken coop.

Within weeks, the poults transformed from cute little balls of fuzz into gawky, semi-feathered, two-legged tennis balls. As they grew, the toms (the boy turkeys) began to develop the uncomely, weirdly-colored faces that their species is known for. It reminded me of my awkward teenage years.

The weather warmed and the turkeys were given the run of the farmstead. The hens were industrious, constantly patrolling for bugs and weeds. The toms focused most of their energies on trying to impress the females. The similarity to adolescent human males was eerie.

As they matured, the tom turkeys’ plumage filled in and became quite striking. The toms spent an inordinate amount of time fanning their tails and strutting about as they showed off for the hens. The hens ignored them and continued to hunt for insects.

Tom turkeys are – let’s face it – bird-brained. As they strutted meaningfully past the hens, I would make my “gobble” call, which, in my opinion, isn’t the least bit turkey-like. Upon hearing my call, the toms would all gobble back at me in perfect unison. I fooled them every time.

A particular tom became aggressive. As I walked past him one day, he hurled himself at my legs in a flurry of beating wings and dinosaur claws. A person may think that a bird who is only knee high can’t be much of a threat. That is, not until the bird decides to bump you off.

The tom had sealed his fate. He would be the guest of honor at our next Sunday supper.

Once he had been dressed for dinner, I considered how to transform the turkey into the most gorgeous and tastiest bird in the history of gastronomy. The best way to do this, I decided, was with smoke.

I arose before sunrise and placed Tommy in the smoker. As the tangy aroma of smoldering hickory wafted across our farmstead, I imagined how I might describe this unparalleled entrée:

“Today we are featuring smoked Thomas of Turkey. He was reared in a free-range milieu where he enjoyed a choice selection of indigenous flora and invertebrates. This sumptuous delicacy features hints of crabgrass along with subtle notes of earthworm and cricket.”

After arising so early, I decided to reward myself with a nap on the couch. Upon awaking some hours later, it dawned on me that the turkey might have been too long in the smoke.

Alas! Poor Tom had been subjected to nearly as much smoke as a Willie Nelson concert. He looked like a chunk of charcoal. The excessive time in the smoker had transformed him into a 15-pound conglomeration of turkey leather.

As I struggled to absorb the enormity of this debacle, my wife patted my arm and said, “That’s OK. I have a backup plan.”

I must admit, those frozen turkey dinners were actually quite delicious.

If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at [email protected] His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.