Wanna neck?

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Turkey necks at Café Reconcile/ Photo by Brett Martin
Turkey necks at Café Reconcile/ Photo by Brett Martin
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I learned to love turkey necks the way most Americans do: at a rate of exactly one neck per year. The event, of course, was Thanksgiving, when my mother would pull the turkey’s neck from its cavity, with the rest of the giblets, then nestle it into a pan to roast alongside the main bird, like a beloved pet buried beside its Pharaoh.

In the brief time between the pan’s emergence from the oven and dinner being served, my father, my brother, and I would swoop in to fight over who got to pick at the neck’s tender, gamy shreds of meat, jostling each other while leaning over the kitchen sink. Though we like each other very much, woe betide the Martin otherwise occupied during this precious window—setting the table, say, or being otherwise useful—for he might arrive to find the neck already bare and an entire year stretching out before another chance at the holiday’s choicest delicacy.

Imagine, then, my joy when I moved to New Orleans and discovered a culture of abundant year-round neck consumption. Turkey necks are a fixture of Black cuisine here. “Boiled, smothered, stewed, over cabbage—they were a staple in my house,” says Marlon Williams, whose smothered necks are a Wednesday special at Chicken’s Kitchen, his James Beard long-listed meat-and-three in Gretna, Louisiana, just across the river. In a stock or gumbo, necks add glossy body; smoked, they are the perfect seasoning for a pot of greens; boiled with crawfish, shrimp, or crab, they take on the perfect level of spice.

It should be said that necks don’t do much to conventionally advertise themselves. Boiled, they are gray, and shaggy, and often so huge that it’s hard to imagine the turkey head they once supported. Early in my time in New Orleans, I brought a bag of boiled necks from Cajun Seafood, on Claiborne Avenue, to a dinner party. My host graciously served them heaped on a plate in the middle of the table, where they sat, steaming and largely untouched, until finally being taken away.

Crisped up in a fryer or browned in an oven, necks are slightly more attractive but they are still visceral in all senses: a gear box of tiny, unmistakable, vertebrae, often threaded with the slippery filament of the spinal cord. To eat a neck is to be reminded of the single thing we work hardest to forget when we eat meat: the execution. They bring to mind the guillotine and the vampire’s bite.

But the rewards are huge. There is more texture and flavor packed into a turkey neck than in the entire rest of the bird. This, without the need for too many culinary acrobatics. In her classic ode to soul food, Vibration Cooking: or, the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, whose roots were in South Carolina, recommends stewing necks with barbecue sauce, tomato sauce and Ac’cent until tender. Marlon Williams browns his necks along with the Creole Trinity of onions, celery and bell pepper, then braises them in water and chicken stock until the liquid thickens into a savory gravy.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev via Getty Images

Which is not to say that there isn’t room for enhancement. At Afrodisiac, a charming and brightly colored “Jamaican Creole fusion” restaurant in Gentilly, chef Kay Garel marinates her necks in jerk seasoning, smokes them, and then tosses them in a sweet and spicy jerk topping, brimming with cinnamon and allspice. They are extraordinary.

Necks are not neat. “You have to get in there,”says Martha Wiggins, the executive chef and chief culinary officer of Café Reconcile, the workforce development program that also happens to run one of the most delicious lunches in the city.  “There’s no point in touching your knife or fork. A lot of my customers like to take their turkey necks home, so they can eat them the way they want to.”

Those patrons actually have two options to sate their neck cravings. Wiggins cooks necks in crab boil, deep fries them, and then tosses them in a glaze made of gochujang, fresh ginger, sriracha, sesame seeds, and Steen’s cane syrup. Cut into segments, they’re sticky, irresistible, and discretion notwithstanding, seemingly on every table. On Fridays, the same crab boil, now infused with turkey flavor and redolent of garlic and citrus, does double duty as the braising liquid for a smothered turkey necks special, as well as an integral part of the smooth and comforting gravy that does the smothering. Customers have been known to carry out as many as seven orders.

Turkey necks at Café Reconcile/ Photo by Brett Martin

Neck meat is dark and rich in collagen, so it crisps quickly and produces some of the crunchy stickiness of an oxtail. In fact, I would say that the turkey neck is the poor man’s oxtail, were it not for the fact that for most of human history the notion that there could be a man poorer than the oxtail eater would have been laughable. No longer. Oxtail is one of a long parade of offal, off-cuts, and other proteins once considered throwaways (thus with a long history of being nursed into deliciousness by those for whom they were the only option) whose economics have been turned on their heads after being discovered by trend-setters, fine-diners, and various other “elevators.” (See also: short rib, chicken wings, crawfish, and pork belly.)

As one commenter on a food message board puckishly described the skyrocketing price of oxtail: “It’s not inflation, it’s hipsters.” Turkey necks, on the other hand, remain all but absurdly affordable. Williams says he pays $8 per pound for the oxtails that draw huge lines at Chicken’s Kitchen every Tuesday, while turkey necks remain in the $1.50 per pound range.

I am torn between hoping that their relative gnarliness keeps turkey necks immune from widespread gentrification and wishing more people would discover them outside of the third Thursday in November. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor even made a case for necks as a harbinger of good mental health.

“White folks just seem not to be able to take it when times are hard,” she wrote, noting a rash of suicides during the Great Depression. “If they had known about neck bones and dry peas, they might have realized they could survive.”

For more information about Taste & Place Writing Workshops in New Orleans, visit tasteandplace.com.

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