The Great Turkey Hunt

Thanksgiving’s menu was so easy when we lived in a big midwestern city. Sweet potatoes, check. Green beans, creamed onions, mashed white potatoes, cranberry sauce — check, check, check, check. And, of course, the piece de résistance, the bird itself: One of those peculiarly perfectly round waxy-looking things stacked like cordwood in supermarket freezers.

But, I learned, that odd object doesn’t cut it in the Granite State. Here in tradition-happy New England we revere our agrarian heritage (even if we, personally, don’t actually have one). Nothing will do for the properly outfitted New Hampshire table but an honest-to-God gobbler that’s spent its brief days scratching happily in the dirt and grass with a host of similar critters destined to end up as turkey tetrazzini a week or so after the great American holiday.

For a while there was no problem finding a bird. It was fun driving past the local turkey farm in September and eyeing dinner on the hoof, er, claw — or whatever you call turkey feet. Then the farmer decided to get out of the fresh bird biz. He wasn’t the only one. In fact, screamed a newspaper headline a few years ago, “You Can’t Scare Up a Fresh Turkey in N.H.”

For those of us who’d become spoiled, dining on fowl with real legs, exercised in a barnyard, the situation looked dire.

And so, like other bereft fresh turkey fans, I foraged. My first hunt took me north. On a gray November day, after a trek of about an hour over dirt roads, I found myself in a hollow staring at an old, unpainted farmhouse straight out of a Charles Addams cartoon. A couple of chained dogs stared menacingly, while a woman in jeans, boots and a heavy sweater stood watch over a pot — of what, I feared to ask — steaming away on a outdoor stove. Near her, a man presided over a table laden with plastic bags of plucked and gutted turkeys.

Well, I told myself, we came of age in the pre-antibiotic world. Why worry about a microbe or two? I gave the man his check and lugged the bird home. It was delicious, but the image of that farm lingered …

The next year we meandered over to my sister’s flyspeck of a town in western New Hampshire. There at a hilltop farm — house freshly painted, with a tail-wagging retriever in residence — we found a far less sinister farmer and claimed our prize.

Turns out it was a dandy growing season for turkeys. Ours — the smallest available — weighed 38 pounds. It fit, but barely, in the oven. And let’s just say that six months later we still grew pale at the thought of the various permutations of leftover turkey.

Finally, suggested a friend, why not try the obvious? Sure enough, the local food cooperative has come through splendidly. The birds look like real birds. They taste like real birds. They come in manageable sizes. What could be better? A tradition is saved.

Well, except for one teensy problem.

The turkeys are — shhh! — from Vermont. NH

Katy Burns plans on enjoying Thanksgiving in her home in Bow and doesn’t care where her turkey was raised if it fits in the oven.