The Turkey’s Tale

Gourmet Girl - November 26, 2013

How the turkey became the star of Thanksgiving dinner

Have you ever wondered why it is that, across the country on every fourth Thursday in November, millions of Americans sit down to a Thanksgiving feast starring the humble turkey, whether roasted, brined, grilled or fried and stuffed with bread, sausage, apples, oysters and more, ladled with gravy and cranberry sauce and served alongside mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, butter-slathered rolls and more?

If you think the reason why Thanksgiving and turkey have become synonymous is because turkey was served at the very “first” Thanksgiving in the Plymouth Colony in 1692...think again. It turns out that turkey most likely was not a part of that meal shared by the pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians and, even though turkey is mentioned in historical writings about that meal. But the word “turkey” was used by pilgrims to describe many different birds, not just the one we've come to know as a Thanksgiving staple.  In fact, it's likely that this historic meal featured venison instead of turkey as well as shellfish, venison and fish.

So just how did the humble turkey become a national symbol for a holiday-devoted feasting? There's more than one explanation, but probably the biggest reason for this bird's flight to fame has to do with the abundance of turkeys and also their size. Turkeys born in the spring grew to an ideal size for eating in the fall, just in time for Thanksgiving. They were also larger than other fowl, and could feed a crowd and still provide leftovers. And unlike cows, which provided beef, milk and cheese, and chickens, which produced eggs, turkeys could be sacrificed for the celebratory meal with little economic loss. Also, because other foods like ham and brined pork were abundant year round, neither was considered special enough for a holiday meal.

But the turkey had already become a staple on British holiday tables by the time the pilgrims sailed to America, thanks to Spanish explorers who had discovered the bird in the New World and brought it back with them. Before then, British holiday meals included geese, peacocks and swans, which tasted strongly of fish unless fed a steady diet of wheat.  Once the turkey was introduced to England circa 1540, however, the fowl became the England's main holiday dish.

In America, people started celebrating Thanksgiving decades before President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, calling it a “A Day of Thanksgiving and Praise for the nation's blessing in the midst of the Civil War then tearing the country apart. Lincoln's decision to make the Thanksgiving proclamation was largely due to 17 years of lobbying efforts by Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Magazine."  Hale lobbied hard to get Thanksgiving recognized as a national holiday, writing to politicians for 36 years, until finally, Pres. Abraham Lincoln granted her request and in her magazine, she published recipes for what she hoped would become the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, which included....turkey.

By the early 20th century, Thanksgiving was unofficially known as Turkey Day, thanks to the popularity of the star of the annual holiday meal. Benjamin Franklin put the turkey in the spotlight when he suggested it become the national symbol America, describing them as “respectable birds.”

In the spirit of honoring the turkey this Thanksgiving, here are a few recipes for Thanksgiving, as well as for turkey leftovers. Happy Thanksgiving!

The Perfect Roast Turkey (From "The Silver Palate Cookbook:" Serves 15-20)

1 turkey, 18-22 pounds
2 large oranges, halved
½ pound (2 sticks) sweet, unsalted butter, room temperature
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Paprika, to taste
4 tablespoons oil
Preheat oven to 352 degrees F.
Wash the turkey well and dry inside and out. Squeeze the orange juice on the exterior and rub the oranges into the cavity. Salt and pepper the cavity to taste. If you're baking the turkey, fill with stuffing, but don't pack it too tightly. Sew up the cavity or use small trussing skewers to close.
Rub the exterior of the turkey well with 1 ½ sticks of butter and sprinkle generously with salt, pepper and paprika. Drape with cheesecloth and place on a rack in a roasting, breasts side up.
Roast for 3 ½ to 4 ½ hours, basting every 30 minutes, until there's no pink meat and a drumstick moves easily in the socket.  Remove to a heated platter and cover with foil. Let stand 30 minutes before carving.

Tamale Turkey Dressing (From "Santa Fe Kitchens")

1 cup chopped onion
¼ cup butter
2 packages yellow corn bread, prepared and baked according to directions
4 cups pork or beef tamales, crumbled
2 cups chicken broth
3 eggs, slightly beaten
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Saute onions in butter in a skillet until they turn soft.

In a large bowl, crumble corn bread and tamales. Add sugar, broth, eggs, parsley and seasonings. Bake in a 9x13-inch pan for 40 minutes and serve.

Leftover Turkey Breast Salad with Pomegranate (From “Marcella's Cucina;” Serves 4)

1 carrot, peeled
1 celery stalk
½ medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1 pound turkey breast, thinly sliced
2-3 pomegranates (enough for 2/3 cup seeds)
1 head Boston lettuce , washed, dried and cut into thin strips (about 6 cups)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ lemon
Place carrot, celery and onion in medium saucepan with enough water to cover the turkey. Bring to boil and cook for about 15 minutes. Add turkey and cook at gentle boil for 30 minutes. Add salt, cook for 10 minutes longer, then remove from heat, letting turkey steep in the broth.
Spread lettuce strips on a platter. Drain turkey, cut into thin slices and place atop lettuce. Drizzle the oil over the slices and squeeze on the lemon juice. Scatter the pomegranate seeds on top, and serve while the turkey is still warm.

Photo Credit: Lovelorn Poets