Don't Toss the Tail! Gobble the Whole Turkey

Dale Carson

Turkey tails, seriously? Who knew this portion of turkey that goes over the fence last would be so delicious and also controversial. The controversy has been mainly an issue for Pacific Island communities, mainly in the Republic of Samoa where turkey tails have been banned since 2007.  It was a very popular food there along with Spam and canned corn beef. These high-fat foods were deemed unhealthy.  Pros and cons on both sides there as some fat in the diet is needed.  Samoa hopes to suppress the population’s love of these fat laden morsels by adopting better health education programs and applying high tariffs to imports.

Turkey tails in this country have been embraced by creative cooks, especially in the south. Sure, they are fatty, yet much of this drains out in the smoking and cooking (about an hour or more) processes. Smoked turkey tail is a favorite flavor booster for greens, anywhere from collards, turnips, to kale) then served over quinoa, rice, even frekah. 

Turkey tail is said to have a deeper, more savory flavor than other parts of the turkey. Many people use it as a substitute for pork hocks. Other lovers of this meat living in many Pacific Island communities here in the U.S. where Hawaii and Texas take the lead say New York City is checking in at the restaurant level to attract new consumers.

A lot of recipes call for roasting or baking turkey tail. You can slice it first, but the skin is the best part for some. Season or marinate the tail with a variety of herbs and sauces. The roasting or baking pan will collect fat drippings you can use for making gravy.  They also add a great flavor to homemade soups. Now this popular food has been discovered by ethnic barbecue joints and some street food trucks.

I don’t want to burst the bubble, but turkey tail is not exactly a tail.  It is a gland which attaches the tail to the turkey body.  It contains oil that the turkey uses to preen its feathers. Historically, Native Americans do not regard the bountiful wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, as an important food source.  They are valued for their beautiful feathers which are symbols of wisdom.   Some indigenous people bury their dead in turkey feather capes or cloaks because many people consider turkeys a spiritual medium between the spirits in the sky and those on earth. 

Smoked Turkey Tail Stew

2 moked turkey tails
2 carrots, peeled and cut in 2-inch pieces
1 quart (or more if needed) chicken broth or water
1 bunch kale, remove stems and chop large
1 large Vidalia onion, chopped
* optional additions:  parsnip, turnip, potato
Cook down the turkey tails in the broth over low heat until they almost fall apart.  Add the carrots, kale and onion.  At this point. you might want to add a parsnip, small yellow turnip or some potato chunks.  Continue to cook all long and on low until vegetables are fork tender.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.

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