The finest turkey I ever ate – a proud wild jake, cleanly killed, freshly plucked and carefully roasted – came close to having some flavour. If I closed my eyes and really concentrated, one particular bite of the thigh, close to the bone, had a barely perceptible hint of poultry essence. Compared to a commercially raised supermarket turkey, it was a veritable flavour bonanza, but – against just about any other kind of wild fowl – it remained, as always, a crushing disappointment.
How did we get to this point? Contrary to popular opinion, the American pilgrims ate deer, not turkey, at the famous Plymouth feast that started the U.S. Thanksgiving tradition. And early Canadian Thanksgiving feasts, whose origins precede America's holiday, featured ducks, pheasant, woodcock and snipe (along with moose, beaver and raccoon), but no gobbler. We can blame American refugees fleeing the American Revolution for introducing turkey to our Thanksgiving table. Turkey traditionally has even less to do with Christmas dinner. For centuries, that feast was celebrated with goose – a bird of infinitely greater culinary interest.
Goose, in fact, remains the preferred holiday bird on the table of Jesse Vergen, hunter, farmer and executive chef of Saint John Ale House in New Brunswick. He makes a strong case for returning goose to its rightful place. "Canada geese are one of the top three things I like to shoot," he says. "They're so plentiful around here that it has gotten to the point that they're a nuisance. It's amazing to think that at one point they were protected because they'd been hunted so hard and didn't have the habitat, but now that farmers' fields, parks and golf courses have inadvertently created this great habitat for them, we have this abundant wild food source flying around our cities and towns. They're a beautiful and tasty creature."
Geese, though, are not just big turkeys, as Vergen warns. Among other differences, the meat is uniformly dark and the flavour richer. If you're cooking one, try separating the breasts from the legs, searing the breasts to a light medium rare and making confit of the legs (alternatively, you can also just braise the whole bird until the meat pulls easily off the bones). Of course, a classic roast works, too – just be sure to save the delicious fat that's rendered in the process; it's rich and silky with a heady flavour that's excellent for frying potatoes in or simply spreading on toast.
Another abundant food source that's flying around our cities and towns but is too often overlooked as dinner is, yes, pigeon. Called by its culinary name – squab – it denotes a fledgling bird, about a month old, that hasn't flown yet. "People think it's a really gamey bird, but it's not," says Anthony Walsh, corporate executive chef for the Oliver & Bonacini restaurant group. "It's got character, but it's certainly not gamey. People are sometimes reluctant to try it, but, if you like duck or goose, squab is going to blow your mind. It has a more refined flavour that can be challenging to find in a duck or goose."
Walsh points out that, despite being unfamiliar to most home cooks, pigeon is actually very simple to prepare at home. "We do a kind of Peking dipped squab," he says. "You make a bath with maple syrup, rum, cinnamon, star anise and all those Christmas spices. Dip the bird in that a few times, letting it dry out in the fridge for a few minutes between dunkings. You can stuff it with bread-and-sausage stuffing or with thyme and fruits. It goes right in the oven and cooks on the crown. It's a quick cook, is incredibly moist and has all these beautiful caramel notes. It's a really cool method and anybody can do it."
Simpler still – and a great place to start for people wanting to break their turkey habit – is quail. And don't let their diminutive size fool you (a hungry person can easily consume three in one sitting): They are packed with flavour. Besides, there is something festive and a little bit decadent about serving each of your guests their own bird.
I, for one, am partial to the British nose-totail chef Fergus Henderson's approach. He generously seasons his quails, gives them a rub with olive oil, sears them briefly in a hot pan and finishes them in the oven. That's about as simple as cooking gets, but quail, being so easy to work with, lends itself to a variety of applications. John Jackson, chef and owner of Charcut Roast House in Calgary, gently cooks whole quail in a sous-vide bath with a chimichurri marinade, partially debones the birds (a fiddly job that's best left to apprentice chefs) and grills them over live coals, while Vikram Vij of Vij's restaurant in Vancouver poaches whole quail, shreds the cooked meat, mixes it with mashed potatoes, tomatoes and coriander and fashions the mixture into delectable little "quail cakes." At Toronto's Acadia restaurant, meanwhile, chef Dustin Gallagher puts a spin on a Southern classic by serving Buttermilk Fried Quail with waffle, spinach and spicy maple syrup.
All that said, I'm giving myself a break this year, having endured, for the sake of an overblown tradition, a lifetime's worth of dry, boring turkeys. This time, I'm serving ham.