Turkey is a regal American bird that has a fascinating history. Like cows, turkeys are well-suited to the American environment. They are tough, intelligent and scrappy, which are all traits that serve farm animals well in our fertile but rugged land. The old fashioned way of raising turkeys in many ways works best, but you need a large area, or as my Irish husband says, a “home place” surrounded by fields. If it all works out well, they forage all day eating grass, wild flowers and bugs from the fields and meadows, and come home at night to roost in their coop. The coop need not be mobile, as turkeys can fly, run, and jump fences. The secret is to get them to come back.
Many of the old timers in our area remember their mothers and grandmothers raising turkeys in this manner. They are almost wild and it does require a keen eye to make sure they haven’t ventured too far. Because they feast on grass and bugs all day they will be the best tasting turkey you have ever eaten: juicy and herbaceous, with a firm flesh truly bursting with flavor. You will fall in love with turkey all over again.
These turkeys had a good life, and you can taste it.
The turkeys we are offering this year were bred and hatched on our farm. My father set up an old incubator that he built years before, and put the eggs from the turkeys who were laying in early spring into it. With turkey chicks costing almost 10 dollars apiece it was a worthwhile experiment. To our delight almost all hatched!
Our turkeys aren’t pure bred, but a mix of heritage breeds: white midgets, Narragansett, Beltville, Standard bronze and red bourbon. My father thinks one of our toms (male for turkey) was most successful,so most are a mix of the Amagansett turkey. If we wanted to keep them pure we could sequester them in pairs, but the health and vigor of these turkey mutts created the BEST tasting turkey. Diet, after all, has such a big impact on flavor.
My sister gave me a first edition Joy of Cooking a while back, first published in the 1930s. It even has recipes for squirrel! Their roast turkey recipe intrigued me but it required a roaster with a lid. I omitted that part and added lard, herbs and spices, put it into a hot oven, then a lower oven heat worked wonders on the turkey.
Roasted Spring Lake Turkey
- 1 Spring Lake turkey. This year they were averaging between 8-12 pounds.
- Softened lard
- Your favorite herbs. I chose sage, parsley, rosemary and marjoram. Keep the stems and reserve some to stuff the turkey with.
- Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- Farm apples (if you have them)
- An onion
- A roasting pan, preferably with a rack
- A meat thermometer
- An hour before you are going to be roasting the turkey, let it come to room temperature.
- Make sure the bird is dry (you can pat it with paper towels)
- Stuff with apples, onions and herbs with their stems.
- Mince the herbs and place on the skin of the turkey; smother the turkey with the softened lard.
- Season with salt and fresh black pepper.
- Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
- Place the meat thermometer in the crease of the thigh of the turkey. (Make sure it is in the meat not close to the bone),
- Roast the turkey for 15 minutes.
- Reduce the heat to 275 and cook the turkey until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 to 170.
- This will take about 3 hours. If you are pressed for time you can put the oven up to 350 toward the end to crisp the skin more and bring the temp up.
- Let rest for at least ten minutes.
- Pro –tip: roast the neck for the gravy in the pan, but add it after you lower the temperature.