Many years ago, a friend stopped by my house to invite my family and me over for Thanksgiving dinner. We stood on my front porch on a clear, cool October day and discussed which wines to serve. Then I asked Henry what the main course would be. “Wild turkey!” he said.
I was skeptical. Henry had grown up in Queens but now lived alone in a rented cabin deep in the woods, miles from town. Southern Oregon was a new and exciting world to him, one that he said he loved very much. Since his arrival in midsummer, he had spent much of his free time gathering edible plants and berries and trying to learn to hunt and fish — “becoming a genuine Westerner,” as he put it, “learning to live off the land.”
I’d taken him fishing three or four times to the Rogue River, where he happily landed a few previously stocked trout. Because he was determined to hunt upland birds, I’d also lent him a single-shot 20-gauge shotgun, showing him how it worked, and teaching him how to avoid killing himself or anybody else with it. Henry believed that his dog, Ahab, would help him find birds, but Ahab was a friendly, untrained mutt from Queens. Though I thought it was next to hopeless, I pointed out areas not far from Henry’s cabin where blue grouse often fed on elderberries in the fall, and — so that he could recognize a grouse if he was lucky enough to see one — I bought him an illustrated paperback bird book at a used book store. If he ever did come across a grouse and recognize it before it flushed, I figured his odds at hitting it in flight at no better than 1,000 to 1.
Turkey? I thought. “Really?” I asked.
“Damn right! It’s in the freezer!”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Up on the top of that hill where the elderberries are, where you told me the grouse hang out. But a turkey’s way better than any grouse! That’s what I’m serving, the turkey! We’ll be like the Pilgrims! It’ll be a real holiday meal!”
In those days, I ran between 60 and 100 miles per week and was always hungry, and I regarded Thanksgiving Day as my annual marathon of eating. So to get in shape for this Thanksgiving I skipped breakfast, ran 10 miles, and then skipped lunch.
Henry served us dinner. The roasted turkey was oddly shaped and remarkably small, and when he carved it, the meat looked too dark to be turkey. But I was as famished as I’d ever been and, as always after a run, my body craved protein. So I took a rash and impolite first bite. Never in my life had I tasted anything so vile. Unable to swallow, I spit that mouthful onto my plate.
Everyone at the table stared at me, Henry with his head tilted to one side, as if bracing an invisible telephone against his ear. No one spoke. I took a long swallow of the Riesling, both to cleanse my mouth and buy some time. “I don’t think this is a turkey,” I said at last. “I’m sorry to say so, but it can’t be.”
An uncomfortable discussion followed. Henry admitted he had shot the bird off the top of a tall dead Douglas fir. We consulted the illustrated bird book, and he reluctantly acknowledged that the creature on the platter was not a turkey; it was a turkey vulture. The mistake was understandable; the vulture’s naked red head clearly resembles that of a wild turkey, hence the name. Unfortunately, a bird’s flavor is largely determined by its diet — in this case dead and often decomposing flesh along with internal organs, feces included — so the foul taste was inevitable.
Despite the way they taste, I respect turkey vultures. They are splendid creatures, a species that kills nothing and fulfills its crucial ecological niche to perfection. On summer afternoons, I love to spend the lazy hours watching them from our house on a hill in the Bear Creek Valley. Circling and soaring on inverted wings, using thermal updrafts, as graceful as any bird that flies, they experience a wild freedom that no earthbound creature can know. And high in the sky, far from a dinner plate, is exactly where they belong.
With the meal now a vegetarian one, we did our best to have a happy Thanksgiving.
Before the year was over, Henry gave up hunting and fishing. Over the next couple of years, he embraced diverse passions: a macrobiotic diet, landscape painting, taekwondo, growing weed, as in marijuana. Finally, he and Ahab returned to Queens. I think they will be happy there.
Michael Baughman writes and runs in Ashland, Oregon. His most recent book is a novel titled Grower’s Market.