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Native Food: Holiday Turkey

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In November 2005, I enjoyed one of the most memorable meals of my life at the beautiful historic tavern Randall’s Ordinary, built in 1685, owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Mashantucket, Connecticut. In honor of the release of my cookbook, New Native American Cooking, and Thanksgiving, the tribe hosted a six-course dinner and hired a chef to prepare my recipes. Therefore, I could speak about Native food as it was being cooked and served.

After a delicious starter of hearth roasted popcorn, Maryland crab cakes, corn fritters, and wild mushrooms in a puff pastry, followed by a succulent venison stew, we enjoyed the main entree of the event, Randall’s Ordinary Harvest Meal. The chef prepared a smoked turkey dinner on an all-stone antique hearth. Cut-with-a-fork tender, the turkey was perfectly seasoned and paired with gravy. Sides included cornbread and wild rice stuffing, as well as mashed sweet potato with scallions and succotash.

The wild turkey—a well-camouflaged, wary bird that walks as silently as a falling leaf—is truly Native to the Americas. The Abenaki word for wild turkey is nahamak. The bird tends to run smaller and taste slightly more gamey than the domestic turkeys of today. The heritage wild turkey is generally available only through hunting in designated areas or ordering from special breeders, such as

Low in fats, and mostly polyunsaturated fats, turkey is a healthy food that I believe we should eat more of year-round, rather than reserving it for the holiday season. It is a good source of Vitamins B1, B6, zinc, folic acid and potassium, not to mention only 220 calories per 5-ounce serving—all attributes that help to keep blood cholesterol low.

Remember that turkeys freeze well and come in handy. One day in January, when the snow is falling heavily and coating the roads in blankets, and you think you need to go to the grocery store, you won’t have to leave your warm home. You will have several days of good eating in the freezer.

Whether you roast turkey in the oven or over an open fire on a spit, it is especially delicious if soaked in a brine first for a day or even two days. You will need a large plastic tub to do this, one that will hold a large bird and cover it completely.

Turkey Brine

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1 cup kosher salt
1 gallon stock, vegetable or chicken
½ cup light brown sugar
½ tablespoon allspice
1 tablespoon black pepper
½ tablespoon ginger
1 gallon ice water
1 apple, cut in chunks
1 onion
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon sage

Combine all and pour over turkey to cover. Add more water or stock if necessary.

Keep in a cool environment until ready to roast. Then cook as usual. An 8-12 lb. turkey will take 4-5 hours at 325 degrees.

Ground turkey is readily available today and makes excellent meatloaf, burgers and meatballs, as well as other items that were exclusive to ground beef for so long.

Turkey Meatloaf

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2 pounds ground turkey breast
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 cup stuffing, herbed or cornbread
1 apple, cored and chopped
2 eggs
½ cup water
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black papper

Put all ingredients in a large bowl. Work with a wooden spoon until ingredients are intergrated and hold together. Form a loaf in a large baking pan. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Serve with gravy and mashed potatoes.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.