The Ultimate Guide to a Wild Game Thanksgiving

Recipes, tips, and stories for the hunter’s holiday

a roasted wild turkey
Why go to the trouble of plucking a turkey? Because the sight of a perfectly roasted gobbler on the Thanksgiving table never disappoints.Travis Rathbone

“Our harvest being gotten in,” wrote the Pilgrim Edward Winslow in 1621, describing that iconic inaugural Thanksgiving feast, “our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.”

It has been the same ever since, across America. Get your work done. Head to the woods. Rejoice. Granted, times have changed since that first feast. Those settlers would have traded a pile of deerskins for a rifled barrel. Yet with everything that has changed, a few things haven’t: The fact that hunters can walk the woods. The fact that we can walk out of those woods with a harvest. The fact that we can rejoice with our families. Worthy of thanks, all of that.

Now, on to the glorious gluttony that has marked this day across the centuries. We've gathered three wild-game recipes using three of our nation's most heralded game species: wild turkey, mallard, and whitetail deer. So collect your harvest and get cooking. Rejoice. —T. Edward Nickens

Wild Turkey Recipe: Whole Roasted Thanksgiving Gobbler

Ingredients

  • 1 wild turkey
  • 3⁄4 lb. fatback, salted pork, or bacon
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 3 ribs celery, minced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 quart toasted diced bread
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 6 sprigs sage
  • 2 sprigs rosemary
  • 8 sprigs parsley
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mince and render half of the fatback slowly in a heavy-bottomed sauté pan. Reserve and keep warm.
  2. Dry the turkey very well with paper towels. Using a brush, coat the exterior with some of the warm minced fatback and season well with coarse salt and pepper inside and out.
  3. Heat up the remaining minced fatback on medium. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Sweat for 5 minutes, then add the celery and sweat for 5 minutes more. Add the garlic and sweat for about 1 minute. Remove from heat and add the toasted bread. Moisten with the stock and add minced sage, rosemary, and parsley (all stems removed).
  4. Taste the bread cubes to ensure they are moist and seasoning is correct. Add more broth and herbs as needed. Gently fill the cavity of the turkey with the mixture and cover the breast with remaining slices of fatback.
  5. Place the turkey, breast side up, in a heavy roasting pan and put into the preheated oven. Roast for 1 hour. Remove the fatback, increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees, and continue roasting for 1 hour to brown the breast. Check the doneness by poking the tip of a sharp knife or metal skewer into thickest part of the leg and using a spoon to collect the juice. Look for a very light shade of pink. Clear fluids will likely indicate an overdone bird.
  6. When cooked to desired doneness, let the turkey rest at least 20 to 30 minutes.
  7. Carve with a sharp knife and across the grain.

How to Carve a Thanksgiving Gobbler

carving a thanksgiving turkey
After cooking the turkey, no Thanksgiving task is more important than carving the bird.Travis Rathbone

There may be other deeds more laden with American pomp than carving a Thanksgiving turkey, but there aren’t many that train so keen a spotlight on a single act with a knife in hand. The bird has been in the oven long enough to send its aroma wafting through the house, and now the gathered clan sits at the table. All eyes turn to the bird. Cue up Norman Rockwell. And don’t screw it up.

By now you should’ve paved the way for a civil service. Decide which kids get the drumsticks before you say grace—no use ruining the meal with a fistfight. Let folks know they shouldn’t eat till Grandma first lifts her fork. No cursing. No ketchup bottles on the table.

And know this: The very act of carving a wild turkey changes the game at the table. It’s the moment when something transfigures into the very building block of civilization: food. Each of us closes that circle with a fork.

It's a metamorphosis worthy of a moment's contemplation and worthy of giving thanks. And for the sake of Ben Franklin and all things pure, forgo any blade that comes with a power cord. —T.E.N.

Venison Recipe: Grilled Whitetail Backstrap with "Deer Rub"

whitetail buck strung up in the woods
No offense to the turkey, but a whitetail backstrap might be the real centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table.Michael Sugrue

Ingredients

For the venison:

  • 1 large backstrap, all silverskin removed
  • 1⁄2 cup peanut oil
  • 1⁄2 cup deer rub

For the deer rub:

  • 2 Tbsp. cumin
  • 2 Tbsp. coriander
  • 1 Tbsp. raw sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. long red chile, ground
  • 1 Tbsp. kosher salt

Directions

  1. Let the backstrap reach room temperature. Rub it with peanut oil, then season with the rub.
  2. Heat the grill to 400 degrees. Sear the backstrap for 3 minutes per side.
  3. Remove the backstrap from the grill and let it rest for at least 10 minutes. Slice thin and serve.

The Perfect Thanksgiving Leftovers Sandwich

a thanksgiving leftover day sandwich
A next-day sandwich piled with leftovers is almost as tasty as Thanksgiving meal itself.Travis Rathbone

Here’s the situation: You’re parked on the couch, falling into a food coma and looking forward to a hunt tomorrow. It’s fine if you retire early tonight, but don’t forget to wake up early enough tomorrow to spend some time in the kitchen, because inside the fridge are all the fixings you need to make the perfect field lunch. One that’s easy to fix. That’s compact, yet substantial. That requires no cleanup.

We’re talking about the Leftovers Sandwich—a meal so delicious it rivals Thursday’s main event.

First, the bread. This is the only part you need to buy specifically for the sandwich, so splurge on a good, crunchy loaf from a bakery and have it sliced thick. I like mine lightly toasted and slabbed with mayo. Next, the fixings. Pile some turkey on one slice. What follows depends on the leftovers you scored. I usually smear layers of mashed potatoes, stuffing, and maybe some green bean casserole. Finally, the secret ingredient: cranberry sauce. Homemade sauce will do, but I swear by the canned goods. I find the stuff downright addictive; plus it makes practical sandwich sense because you can cut it into thin rounds—just as if you were slicing a tomato for a BLT. When you’re all set, join both halves, slightly flatten with a light smash, and wrap in foil.

Eat this in your treestand or inside a duck blind. Eat it on a stump in the grouse woods or with your back against a fence in a pheasant field. Share it with your daughter on the back of your truck. This sandwich will taste good anywhere. And with so many leftovers in the fridge, it’ll taste good when you make it again tomorrow—and again the day after that. —Colin Kearns

Waterfowl Recipe: Boneless Roast Duck Porchetta

mallard duck hunting
Be sure to save a few whole mallards for Thanksgiving.Colin Kearns

Ingredients

For the ducks

  • 4 deboned mallards
  • 1⁄4 cup bacon
  • 1 cup yellow onion, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup wild mushrooms, sliced
  • 1⁄2 cup fresh bread crumbs
  • 1 Tbsp. dried porcini mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • Leaves from 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 1 tsp. fresh sage, minced
  • 4 thin slices -country ham
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil

For the sauce:

  • 1⁄2 cup quince preserves
  • 1⁄4 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 1⁄4 cup chicken stock
  • 1 shallot
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 teaspoon ginger

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. In a 3- to 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, fry the bacon (roughly chopped) for 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the onion, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it becomes translucent, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add the garlic and wild mushrooms to the pan and increase the heat to high. You'll notice a good amount of liquid forming in the pan, which you'll want to reduce until relatively dry before removing from heat, about 5 minutes.
  3. Remove the pan from heat. Add the bread crumbs, porcini, red pepper flakes, thyme, and sage. Season with salt and pepper. Stir well and allow the mixture to cool. This will be the stuffing for the duck, so taste and add salt and pepper if necessary.
  4. Lay the ducks flat, skin side down, on a cutting board and season the breast and leg meat with a touch of salt and pepper. Lay a slice of country ham over each bird. Place a quarter of the stuffing mixture on top of each slice of country ham.
  5. Carefully wrap the breast of each duck around the stuffing, so that the stuffing is completely enveloped. Tie two strands of butcher's twine around the body so the duck will retain its shape while it cooks. Gather the tips of the drumsticks and secure them with butcher's twine. Rub the outside of each trussed duck with a touch of olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
  6. Place the ducks, breast side up, in a shallow roasting pan and transfer to the oven. Immediately reduce the oven to 200 degrees and roast the birds for 15 minutes.
  7. For the sauce, combine all ingredients (mince the shallot, garlic, and ginger) in a saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce until it coats the back of a spoon, about 30 minutes. Strain the sauce through a sieve into a serving bowl, discarding the solids.
  8. Remove the twine from each duck. Serve the duck and sauce together.

The Hunter's Thanksgiving Prayer

Give us this day our daily bread…

I’m the last one out of the kitchen. When I step into the dining room the lump that has been inching toward the top of my stomach suddenly vaults to my throat, and I have to shut my eyes for just a passing few seconds. Let the wave of emotion settle down. This happens every Thanksgiving.

Give us another dawn with golden light in the decoys, light that lifts our hearts toward heaven…

Family rings the table. There is an embarrassment of food. Oddly enough, the food hardly registers. It’s the sheer weight of blessing that rocks me back on my heels. Every face reflects a memory of time outdoors: My wife hanging on to the console, the boat bucking in a horrid blow, lightning crackling. My mother beside me at the base of a squirrel tree, white-gray curls barely controlled by a camo cap.

Give us a sunset whose promise is tomorrow. Give us a hunger to taste the wild places that yet remain…

And also the blessings left behind by those no longer gathered here. But they still have their place at the table. Sensing this, I shut my eyes again.

Give us this day a glimpse of the glory found in the pool of a stream, in the wild cackle of a goose…

Then we join hands-—generations linked by intertwined fingers and futures. I sneak in one last look. I bow my head to pray.

Give us this day. —T.E.N.

A version of this story originally ran in the November 2010 issue of Field & Stream.