Cooking with Vern Summerlin

What do you do with that leftover Christmas turkey?

Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) our national bird, and it’s one of the most recognized birds in North America. But have you ever wondered what Turkey (the country) and the American bird have in common?

After the Spanish first found this bird in the Americas more than 400 years ago, they took it back to Europe. The English mistakenly thought it was called “turkey” because it came to England via Turkey (the country). The wild turkey was first discovered in America and was native to northern Mexico and the eastern United States. The Aztecs in Mexico domesticated them about 500 years ago, 100 years before the Spanish arrived.

The male turkey is called a tom or gobbler. The female is called a hen and the baby is called a poult. A young male is called jake, while a young female is a jenny. The male turkey has a long wattle at the base of the bill and additional wattles on his neck. The fleshy appendage that hangs down over a male turkey’s beak is called a snood, and it also has a prominent tuft of bristles projecting from its chest called a beard.

Peacocks aren’t the only birds that use their fancy tails to attract a mate. A tom will raise its tail feathers to form a fan when it’s courting, trying to impress a hen. It’s also a sign of aggression toward its rivals or enemies. As toms grow older, they become more aggressive. The males fight among themselves for access to the hens. As with most wild birds, the males are more colorful than the females. Their plumage comes in a variety of bronze, green and/or reddish colors. And the chest feathers on the males are coarse.

Domestic turkeys weigh twice as much as a wild bird, and most domestic ones are so heavy they can’t fly, unlike wild turkeys, which can nest in trees. Also, the color has been bred out of the domestic birds.

Wild turkeys live in woods and are the largest game birds found in this part of the world. They eat insects, plants, corn, acorns, seeds and wild berries.

Tennessee now has a generous turkey hunting season thanks to TWRA’s reintroduction of the wild bird some years ago. You can see flocks numbering over 100 feeding in the fields in the winter.

Each spring, male turkeys try to befriend as many females as possible. After the female turkey mates, she prepares a nest under a bush in the woods and lays her tan-and-speckled brown eggs. She incubates as many as 18 eggs at a time. It takes about a month for the chicks to hatch. When the babies (poults) hatch, they flock with their mother through the winter. For the first two weeks the poults are unable to fly and the mother roosts on the ground with them.

Most families have their own heirloom recipes for preparing the big bird for the holidays along with dressing and gravy. But do you have a special recipe for leftovers?

Now, you do.

Turkey Leftovers
2 cups chopped cooked turkey
1/2 cup chopped almonds
2 cups chopped celery
1/3 cup chopped green bell pepper
2 tablespoon chopped pimento
1 cup shredded Swiss or cheddar cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup crushed potato chips

Combine turkey, almonds, celery, bell pepper, pimento, cheese, mayonnaise, lemon juice and seasonings. Pour mixture into greased 2-quart casserole dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Sprinkle potato chips on top of turkey mixture and bake until chips are lightly browned. Serve until there are no leftovers left over.