The Turkey Testicle Festival is the biggest social event in this stretch of Sierra foothills. Its only competition is the yearly rodeo just down the road or the American Legion Hall dances.
“And they don’t really come close,” said Mike Collins, who went to Dunlap’s first turkey party the year he came home after serving in Vietnam.
On a recent Saturday, Collins kept an eye on his entry for best barbecued ribs at the 41st Annual Turkey Testicle Festival while his friend Bill Celaya manned a grill full of turkey bits.
“My trick is to keep flipping them until they’re crunchy. Some people don’t like them soft and gooey,” Celaya said.
Nearby, Cary Forehand bragged that his deep-fried turkey testicles were outselling the classic grilled ones, 8 to 1.
It took a while to get the recipe right, Forehand said. He finally settled on cornmeal, flour and three kinds of salt: garlic, Lawry’s and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning. Signs warned that they were fried in peanut oil.
At least 200 people were there, playing horseshoes, dancing to country music and browsing through booths selling items like the pink hat with “Keepin’ It Rural” handwritten in silver glitter-glue. Organizers said heavier advertising had brought in what they considered to be a big crowd this year.
When the festival started, Dunlap was an unincorporated area of Fresno County with a post office, grade school, an inn and about 200 residents. Pretty much the same as now.
Teacher Barbara Hall — inspired by the “crispy turkey nuts” at F. McLintocks saloon on the coast — had come up with the idea as a way for The Cowbells, her women’s club, to raise money for charity.
In case you were thinking: “Wait, do turkeys even have testicles?” They do. But they are inside the bird’s abdominal cavity, behind its wings. In 1943, Fortune magazine reported that the bites were considered a “rare delicacy by city slickers.”
There are at least three other turkey testicle festivals in the country. A three-day celebration in Fargo, N.D. — not dedicated to turkeys alone — was the site of a 2001 riot.
Danny Hall considers the glory days of Dunlap’s event to be the late 1980s. After he took over running the inn from his Aunt Barbara and Uncle Rod, he added bikini, beer belly and mustache contests to the festivities.
“It was nuts,” said Hall, a construction worker with a black T-shirt, cowboy boots and a handlebar mustache that requires 25 minutes of daily grooming. (The precise technique is a secret, he said.) Hall complained that after the inn burned down and he had to pull out as a sponsor, the festival had calmed down a bit.
This year, a local band played crowd favorites by Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. But Forehand felt that lead singer Curtis Morgan was talking too much between songs. He walked up to tell Morgan he should chat less, sing more.
Morgan said that made him want to talk more. And he did.
Eventually the music started up again, and Celaya and his wife joined the dance on the grass at the community center, with the Sierras in the background.
The couple moved to the foothills from Los Angeles 40 years ago. They used to visit his extended family here on weekends, and on one drive back, Bill swallowed hard and said: “What would you think if we moved here?”
Toni Celaya looked shocked, Bill said, and he was sure he had made a mistake. But she said: “I was thinking how to ask you the same thing.”
Two weeks later they had quit their jobs, sold their house and moved to Dunlap to raise their two sons in the country.
Every year, people from California’s urban centers relocate to five- or 10-acre lots carved from the old cattle ranches. Collins said most don’t last a year. Jobs are scarce and conveniences distant.
Collins said he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. He likes knowing the mountains and taking things slow. He was born and raised in Dunlap. His son Derek, a soil tester, was born and raised here too. Derek married a local girl, and they have four daughters.
The little girls were at the Turkey Testicle Festival — eating ice cream.