The Wild South

A Chef’s Turkey Hunting Tome

Packed with recipes, stories, and inspiration, The Turkey Book, from Texas chef Jesse Griffiths, is a game changer for culinary-minded hunters

A hunter carries a turkey through the woods

Photo: Jody Horton

Jesse Griffiths with a gobbler.

By his own admission, Jesse Griffiths wasn’t the world’s greatest turkey hunter. Though an avid outdoorsman, the Texas chef and cookbook author had only been chasing wild turkeys for a few years when he watched a video of someone processing a wild turkey by slicing off the breast meat and throwing the rest of the carcass away. “I thought, Wait a minute,” says Griffiths, co-founder of Austin’s Dai Due restaurant and its New School of Traditional Cookery. “That’s not what I do. That’s not what I’ve seen other people do.” But he also knew it was a common practice among turkey hunters. That realization led the James Beard Award winner to his latest opus, the 365-page The Turkey Book: A Chef’s Journal of Hunting and Cooking America’s Bird. Out this March and based on a coast-to-coast journey in pursuit of wild turkeys, the book is meditative, aspirational, and, since it is at heart a cookbook, decidedly inspiring.

photo: Jody Horton
A spread of fried wild turkey and biscuits.

Griffiths’ first cookbook, Afield, took a deep dive into the cuisine and related hunting cultures of his Texas home, solidifying his reputation as one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to butchering and cooking game. His next volume, The Hog Book, offered a tail-to-squeal treatment of wild hog hunting and cookery. But a book focused on wild turkeys presented substantial differences. At the time of The Hog Book, Griffiths explains, there wasn’t much out there devoted to hunting and cooking wild hogs. Not so with turkeys. “There is no lack of information about how to hunt and handle these birds, and there’s so much beautiful literature about wild turkeys,” he says. “I decided to make this book a journal about my personal wild turkey journey and what they came to mean to me.”

From the start, it was important for him to be honest about how much he knew about turkeys. “I wanted people to join me as I came to a greater knowledge of the bird,” he explains. “That’s a very unobtrusive way for people to learn. And it was meant to be a literal and figurative journey, rooted in what I’m best at, which is cooking.”

photo: Jody Horton
Wild turkey Kiev.

The result is a giant of a book, with more than 250 photographs, a hundred recipes, and a hunt-by-hunt chronicle of his epic turkey quest. Griffiths traveled from south Texas to Georgia, Oregon, and Connecticut, mostly with his pal Ben O’Brien, who served as a mentor and turkey whisperer. And whenever Griffiths didn’t have a shotgun in hand, he had a chef’s knife or a wooden spoon at the ready. Along the way, he hunted and cooked with chefs Daniel Meiser of Connecticut’s Oyster Club, Elias Cairo from Olympia Provisions in Portland, and southern Louisiana’s Jean-Paul Bourgeois. “That guy is a master of flavor,” Griffiths says. Laughing, he recalls that he’d packed a couple of garlic heads for three days of hunting and cooking with him, while Bourgeois used nearly a pound of garlic cloves for a single dish (Jean-Paul’s Szechuan Crawfish and Turkey Necks). Jonathan Wilkins, of Black Duck Revival in Arkansas, was also a hunting pal and cooking inspiration, as was Chris Jenkins, CEO of the Orianne Society. (His recipe for Spicy Peach Pit Bitters is on the top of my learning list for this summer.) 

photo: Sam Averett
Griffiths and hunting pal Ben O’Brien in Connecticut.

“There are a lot of rigid guidelines and so-called rules in game cooking, and that really works against the people we are trying to educate and inspire,” Griffiths says. Cooking with chefs from around the country and approaching the same bird in different ways “really demystifies things and opens people up to new levels of enjoyment…and at the end of the day, my job is to help people enjoy their wild game more.”

photo: Jody Horton
Turkey white pudding for breakfast.

Perhaps his most meaningful turkey hunt was the first that appears in the book. Griffiths had never hunted turkeys outside of Texas, where, he figures, a lot of unpressured turkeys on private lands can make it easier to have success. “I went to the belly of the beast, South Georgia, the land of the hardcore turkey hunters,” he says. “Sitting in the pines and dealing with these Eastern birds with their accumulated wiles was intimidating.” Still, he managed to collect a bird on the first day, after which he felt a little disappointed that the hunt was over. “Then I realized the pressure was off,” he says with a laugh. “So, I got to be bartender and camp cook for the next few days, and I’m pretty good at those things.”

Follow T. Edward Nickens on Instagram @enickens and find more Wild South columns here.

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