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A Humboldt Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving here in America, a day of infamy for turkeys. At my place in Humboldt County, northern California, turkeys learned their lesson a few years ago, when five fine specimens of Meleagris gallopavo—wild turkey to you—wandered onto my property. I assume they forgot to check the calendar. Under California fish and game regulations, you can shoot them legally for two weeks around Thanksgiving.

Out came my 12-gauge, and I loosed off a shot that at some 100 feet did no discernible damage, and after a brief bout of what-the-hell-was-that the turkeys continued to forage. A fusillade of two more shots finally brought down a 14-pounder. I hung him for four days, plucked him and by Thanksgiving’s end he was history.

Wild turkeys hadn’t been seen in California since earlier in the Cenozoic era, but in recent years two ranchers in my valley imported a few and now they’ve begun to appear in our neighborhood in substantial numbers. I’ve heard reports of flocks of up to 100 wild turkeys 15 miles up the Mattole River around Honeydew, an impressive quantity though still far short of the thousand birds counted in one day by two hunters in New England in the 1630s. The taste of wild turkey? Between you, me, the drumstick, and my dog Jasper, it was markedly similar to farm-raised turkeys, though of course superior to the flanges of blotting paper consequent upon the familiar overroasting of store-bought turkey at low temperatures for 10 hours. I’m for high heat and about three-and-a-half hours for a turkey of average size, though not for the dirigibles they use to raise on a farm in Loleta, near here, which turned the scales at 40 pounds.

Scene from Santa Teresa County Park

Wild turkey, Mattole Valley, Humboldt County, California.

Globalism has its alluring sides. It was good that turkeys, potatoes, and peppers got to Europe (though I have my doubts about the squashes, which evoke the bland horrors of pumpkin pie). That was early globalism. It was much more rapid in those days. The speed with which New World foods spread across Europe and Asia is astounding. The first Indian housewife got the basics for what we regard as part of the eternal Indian diet — curry — in about 1550, and within five years it was on every household menu in India.

The Spanish brought turkeys back to Europe from Mexico, and by the 1530s they were well-known in Germany and England, hailed at the festive board as part of tradition immemorial. The Puritans had domestic turkeys with them in New England, gazing out at their wild relatives, offered by the Indians who regarded them as somewhat second-rate as food. Of course, wild turkeys have many enemies aside from the Beast called Man. There are swaths of Humboldt and Mendocino counties where coyotes and mountain lions now hold near-exclusive sway.

Ranchers running sheep used to hold off the coyotes with M-80 poison-gas canisters that exploded at muzzle touch, but these are now illegal, and the alternatives are either trapping, which is a difficult and time-consuming job, or getting Great Pyrenees dogs to guard the flock. But the coyotes are crafty and wait till the sheep have scattered, then prey on the unguarded half.

And not all Great Pyrenees have that essential sense of “vocation.” My neighbors down the river, the Smiths, who raise sheep, had a fine Great Pyrenees, Esme, partnered with the idle Tofu. Esme would rush about protecting sheep while Tofu lounged under the trees near the homestead, reading the paper and barking importantly whenever cars drove up.

Before she died in childbirth, Esme produced Baxter, taken by my neighbors up the river, the Weaver-Wrens. Baxter grew bored at the Weaver-Wrens. I would see him trotting down the road, then up every driveway to gossip with the locals. Jasper would run him off, and Baxter would never make a fight of it but collapse instantly like a vast white eiderdown, paws in the air and throat exposed.

It’s ended well for Baxter. He rapidly ingratiated himself with a new couple on the road, implanting in their minds the notion that he would be a good match for another vast white dog, Grendel, already in their possession. He correctly perceived they were from Berkeley, where he knew that at last he would be able to get a decent shampoo. They commute to the Bay Area and I hear that Baxter is now a familiar flâneur on Shattuck, pausing to review the menu outside Chez Panisse before crossing the road to greet the pizza crowd next to the Cheese Board.

I’ll have to check with Baxter, but doubtless turkey is on the menu at Chez Panisse for Thanksgiving. Most Americans, even the stylish crowd at that fabled restaurant, won’t eat anything else on the big day.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck (where a version of this essay appears) are available from CounterPunch.

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Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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