Announcements and publicity associated with the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame

The Turkey in Arkansas: Thanksgiving and Wild Birds

By Victoria Chandler

This week, many Arkansans will be gathering around their tables for the stars of their Thanksgiving spread – the turkey.

Turkeys have always been plentiful in Arkansas. Wild turkeys (specifically the eastern wild turkey) were one of the more abundant birds that the first Arkansans, the Quapaw tribe, hunted and consumed.

Turkeys have always been plentiful in Arkansas. Wild turkeys, specifically the eastern wild turkey, were one of the more popular birds that the first Arkansans, the Quapaw tribe, hunted and consumed. Like the rest of America, most Arkansans did not designate their signature Thanksgiving bird as the turkey until the late 1800s. And even then, most people opted for multiple avian options on the table, many of which were procured from a successful day in the woods. For a while, turkey was most often associated with Arkansans’s Christmas tables. But like Thanksgiving in the early 19 th century, many opted to have a roasted chickens and ducks alongside their prepared turkey.

Grocery store advertisement, Daily Arkansas Gazette, December 3, 1868.

Believe it or not, an extremely popular trend in the last quarter of the 19th century was to serve oysters as the appetizer course for the Thanksgiving meal. Oysters on the half shell would be served, followed by soup, then a fish dish and finally the roasted turkey would make its appearance. Oysters were also used as a stuffing option, however chestnuts were the more popular stuffing choice for Arkansans. Speaking of chestnuts, here’s a popular recipe for turkey stuffed with chestnuts from November 28, 1911 by Jean Millon of the Arkansas Democrat:

“For one young turkey from 3 to 4 pounds take half pound of very fine sausage meat; season well with salt and pepper. Then take half pound of best chestnuts; split them lightly and put them in the oven for about 5 minutes; shell quickly and boil them almost entirely in some consommé with a little celery; let cool; when cold mix the chestnuts with the sausage meat. Take away the wish and breast bones of the turkey; stuff your bird well, dress it and roast it in the oven or before the grill, taking good care to baste it well. When ready serve with gravy of the turkey (a little fat) at the same time.”

Chef Jean Millon how to cook a turkey - foodways -
“How to cook a turkey,” J Millon, author of above recipe, Arkansas Democrat, November 28, 1911.

Turkey was also one of the more available meats and “when a man would give a feast it was the accepted thing for him to shoulder a gun and march to the forest home of the wild turkey, hunting his game in true pioneer fashion.” Turkey hunters gathered “early in the morning” to listen for “when the gobblers began to chant their matin hymns.”Unfortunately there are many newspaper articles referencing mistaken identities while turkey hunting which led to the death of many. And there are several tales of honest hunters who admit they have only successfully shot and killed one wild turkey their entire lives.

However, some were so successful that the turkeys cooked themselves. In his 1951 book, “Always Lie to Strangers: Tall Tales from the Ozarks,” Robert Vance recalls of such turkey hunt:

“One remembers also the woodsman who saw a wild gobbler flying directly toward the cabin, so he rushed out and fired his big muzzle-loader. The gun went off with a load roar, and when the smoke cleared the turkey’s entrails were seen draped across the doorstep. Thinking he must have blown the bird all to pieces, the man sat down on a stump and reloaded his gun. Half an hour later an odd fragrance drew him into the cabin, where he found a nicely roasted turkey hanging on the potrack. The shot had gutted the bird, which had fallen down the chimney in such a way that one leg caught on a hook over the fire. Hanging by one leg the turkey naturally turned around a few times awhile the feathers burned off. Then it just hung there, and roasted to a nice golden brown. And if you doubt this story, the man will show you the pulley-bone of that very same gobbler, hanging over the cabin door.”

Turkey still “sits enthroned as pre-eminently the meat of Thanksgiving day,” aptly stated back in 1900 in the Fort Smith Times and still rings true today. The turkey, nearly becoming our national bird, is so distinctly American (the more respectable option according to Benjamin Franklin), and “like the cranberry sauce which floats beside him as he lies in state upon the platter, he is magnificently representative of his country. Let him be eaten and digested with all due appreciation of his noble virtues.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, November 24, 1912.


Arkansas Democrat, November 28, 1911

Fort Smith Times, November 28, 1900

The Osceola Times, April 18, 1885

Randolph, Vance. "We Always Lie to Strangers: Tall Tales from the Ozarks." New York: Columbia University Press, 1951. 99.