(For parts 1 and 2 of this irregular series, see the September archives.)
I imagine living in my snug adobe brick house on December 10th, 41,000 BP. Though this is during an interstadial, a warm wet climatic phase occurring within the time span of the Wisconsinian Ice Age, the weather currently is dry and cold; the temperatures are dropping to 10 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and all three of my wood stoves are turning wood I chopped into fire and smoke and indoor warmth. I’m hungry for meat, but I’m a little tired of eating venison and peccary, and in this cold weather I don’t feel like getting wet checking my fish traps on the river. This year, no bison came close enough to my home for me to kill and butcher, so I have no beef. Instead, I’ll settle for turkey.
Turkeys were abundant during the Pleistocene, large flocks of perhaps 100 or more roam the woods around my house in the Pleistocene piedmont region. I awoke to the sounds of their gobbling this morning. Fossils of turkeys in Georgia have been recovered from Kingston Saltpeter Cave and Ladds Mountain, both in Bartow County, which is halfway between Atlanta and Tennessee, so that’s the real evidence they were common here. There were two species of turkey, at least in Florida, during the Pleistocene, including the common one found today Maleagris gallipavo, and Maleagris leopaldo or anza, western species that colonized the southeast during glacial stages when a corridor of grassy scrub habitat extended along the gulf coast on land now submerged by the Gulf of Mexico. Warm tropical climate allowed even more species of turkey (at least 7) to live across North America during the Pliocene. Turkeys evolved in America from a peacock-like ancestor, Rhegiminornis calbates, during the Miocene. Fossils of this ancient species were discovered in Florida.
Habitat in the Pleistocene piedmont of what’s now Georgia was almost ideal for turkey. Modern day wildlife game managers work with farmers and lumber companies to maintain turkey managment areas that include fields half-covered with small trees and shrubs. Turkeys forage for weed seeds and insects in the fields but can retreat to brush to escape predators such as great-horned owls and bobcats. In addition they like fields that border forests of mature trees that provide roosting sites and mast. Pollen evidence from the Nodoroc site in Winder, Georgia suggests the piedmont region of what’s now Georgia (about 29,000 years BP) was 75% forest and 25% meadow–an environment in which turkeys would thrive. Fire, drought, rapid climate fluctuations; and megafauna browsing, grazing, and trampling maintained open areas within the forest where turkey populations probably were high most of the time.
In late fall and early winter male turkeys are in good condition, living in bachelor flocks and fattening on acorns. So now is the time of year to catch and eat them (Of course, I’m referring to my imaginary Pleistocene existence. Hunting season for present day turkeys is in the spring), but I don’t want to aimlessly wander the wilds where in my distraction of the hunt, I might get ambushed by Smilodon fatalis or some other big cat. Instead, I’m going to use a colonial American method that was formerly quite common and effective–the turkey trap. There’s a modern misconception that our colonial ancestors were all gun-toting hunters. Although it’s true that many did have firearms and did actively hunt, most did not. In fact, gun ownership per capita was lower during colonial times than it is today. Hardworking farmers didn’t have time nor the strength for hunting after putting in 12 hour days plowing the fields, taking care of the livestock, building fences, chopping firewood, doing household chores (like making soap from scratch and smoking hams), and making carpentry repairs on their cabins. To catch wild game for the cooking pot, they set traps and snares. Turkey traps were devastating for the birds.
Sketch of a colonial turkey trap. The ditch dug under a wooden pen was baited with corn. The turkeys followed the bait into the pen but couldn’t figure their way out in much the same way a crab trap works. I have no idea who drew this sketch but I found it at http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com/
Colonial turkey traps consisted of a small wooden shed and a ditch baited with corn. The ditch extended under the shed. The turkey went into the ditch, ate and followed the corn into the shed or pen. They’d hop up into the shed to eat more corn…but didn’t have the sense to escape by following the ditch back outside. The colonists could then simply open a hatch to the pen, grab the bird, and execute it. These traps could yield many birds at once. According to J. J. Audubon, colonists occasionally forgot to check on the traps, perhaps they were too busy working or they got tired of eating turkey, and dozens of turkeys would starve to death and rot, making the whole area stink. Audubon also reported that predators occasionally were attracted to these turkey pens–he once discovered a black wolf feeding on trapped turkeys. In my Pleistocene world I block the entrance to my turkey trap when not in use because I abhor waste.
Reportedly, wild turkeys have better flavor than domestic turkeys, and they have more dark meat but less white. The chances of catching one much larger than supermarket turkeys are also much higher. Modern domestic turkeys are bred to have white skin and extra large breasts, and they’re most often harvested when they reach 15 pounds. Domestic turkey breasts are so large, the meat must be embalmed with a salt water solution to keep the birds from drying out during roasting. They’re bred to have white skin because it is more visually appealing than the black skin of the wild birds. They are sold as 15 pound birds because that’s about the right size for roasting. Wild turkeys that I catch in my Pleistocene turkey trap can weigh as much as 30 pounds. I don’t bother roasting them. Instead, I stew the thighs and drumsticks in a crockpot. I shred the cooked meat and smother it in a gravy made from the liquid they cooked in. I thicken it with a roux of butter and flour and season it with salt, sage, and thyme. The shredded meat and liquid makes an excellent base for a Brunswick stew with vegetables grown in my Pleistocene garden (crushed tomatoes, corn, lima beans, potatoes, onions) and seasoned with salt, and red and black pepper. The dark meat makes good ground meat and mixed with half venison yields an delicious meatloaf. I smoke the breasts and wings. The smoked breast meat is good for sandwiches; the smoked wings season a pot of red beans. The breast meat can also be cut into filets and breaded and fried or cooked in a pan sauce with wine, mushrooms, and garlic. Turkey carcasses make soup stocks superior to that made from chicken, so I have a ready supply of broth for the kitchen as well.