The Thanksgiving issue: Roast turkey

Roast turkey didn’t become de rigeur at Thanksgiving dinner until the nineteenth century. Before Thanksgiving became an institutionalized celebration of Americanness it, and its menus, were a more ad hoc affair, featuring whatever any family thought appropriate. By the 1850s New Englanders had more or less standardized the holiday in an attempt to recapture something that had been lost since colonial days, some simplicity or integrity or je ne sais quoi. Turkey, being identifiably American, fit the bill, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.

I am not, however, going to give you a recipe for roasting a turkey. Roasting a turkey is a simple affair if you are not inclined to be perfectionist about it, which you ought not be on Thanksgiving, for the simple reason that with all that family around, you are going to need to be too drunk to follow through on your perfectionism anyway, and will therefore inevitably be disappointed. You are, moreover, almost certainly not going to roast a turkey next Thursday. You are far more likely going to bake the thing, which is an altogether different matter.

Lego guy with a turkey leg

Eighteenth-century cookbooks barely bothered with instructions at all. Hannah Glasse, the English author of the cookbook most popular in the colonies, gave only the briefest directions “To roast Geese, Turkeys, &c.” and then followed them with similarly terse and nearly indistinguishable instructions for roasting ducks, pheasants, partridges, larks, woodcocks, snipes and pigeons. Glasse suggested you baste your turkey with butter, dredge it in flour, and sprinkle on some salt, but of the actual roasting, which would be, to moderns presented with eighteenth-century cooking equipment, the complicated part, she made no mention at all: it was assumed you knew how to roast a dead bird. There were no cooking ovens, no thermometers or thermostats or temperature probes. You had a fire, and you either put the turkey on a spit over the fire or you set the bird on the hearth in front of it. It is, as I said, a simple affair, although the question of how hot a fire and how often to turn it is rather simpler if you have done something like it a few hundred times.

Not until the middle of the nineteenth century did roasting turkey strike cookbook writers as the sort of thing women needed help with. Even Eliza Leslie, who wrote detailed instructions (by the standards of the day) for nearly everything to do with cookery, said only to “dredge it with flour, and roast it before a clear brisk fire, basting it with cold lard. Towards the last, set the turkey nearer to the fire, dredge it again very lightly with flour, and baste it with butter. It will require, according to its size, from two to three hours roasting.”

Turkeys weighed only about ten pounds then; two to three hours sounds about right. And Simmons’ recipe for stuffing a turkey “will answer for all Wild Fowl,” which suggests that we’re dealing with something rather more full-flavored than White-Breasted Bronze, the standard supermarket bird. Domestic turkeys even then were long removed from their wild origins—centuries removed, probably, by way of Europe, but when they were returned to America they were crossed with wild turkeys before having all the flavor bred out of them once and for all in the twentieth century. You had, therefore, a flavorful bird of moderate size and a roaring open fire, and the rest pretty much wrote itself.

Then along came the oven, and roasting became rather more complicated. Or, rather, baking, which replaced roasting once the coal-fired cookstove replaced the open hearth in American kitchens. Roasting is an open, visible, adaptable process; you can see quite easily if the meat is getting too dark on one side and threatens to burn, and if it is cooking too quickly, you can simply move the bird farther from the fire. If it does burn, you’ll smell it almost immediately. Not that it’s easy to roast a turkey on a hearth, but it is straightforward, not all that different from cooking anything else on a hearth, and you get continual feedback. The oven is, figuratively as well as literally, a black box, and there’s no way to know what goes on inside that thing — unless you open the door and look every five minutes, in which case you let all the heat out.

And so the simple roast turkey had to become rather more complicated, although not nearly so complicated as it did become. Cookbook authors increasingly felt they had to say something to justify the cost of their books, after all. By the 1880s, moreover, professional domestic scientists were reaching consensus that home cooks were doing nearly everything wrong, and they were opening cooking schools and starting magazines to fix all that was wrong with American cuisine. In the first Thanksgiving Issue (Table Talk, 1888), Sarah Rorer gave directions for cooks with only minimal experience with dead birds:

In purchasing a turkey, choose a fat hen, not weighing over thirteen pounds. Singe, draw, and wipe well with a damp cloth. In drawing be very careful not to break either the crop or the intestines. Put two tablespoonfuls of the chestnut stuffing into the cavity from which the crop was taken; sew up the skin on the back of the neck, and fold it down to give a plump appearance to the breast. Now put the remainder of the stuffing in the body; sew up the vent, and truss the turkey as round, plump, and compact as possible. The turkey should roast at least three hours in an oven, hot for the first hour, and moderate for the remaining two. Put the excess fat taken from the inside of the turkey over the breast and legs; add to the pan a half pint of boiling water. The turkey should be basted with its own fat every fifteen minutes while roasting, and salt should be added to the pan (a teaspoonful) at the end of the first hour, and the turkey should be well dusted with pepper. Do not add water after the first has evaporated.

Note the precise measurements — why specifically two tablespoonfuls of stuffing in the neck cavity? — and the timing of the basting, which previously had been left to common sense. Note the complicated basting procedure. Note the pointers on drawing (which is to say, gutting and cleaning) the turkey, which hadn’t previously been thought necessary. Poultry was still mostly sold fresh-killed and uncleaned; anyone who bought a chicken had to deal with its innards, so did readers really need these instructions?

Ten years later, Fannie Farmer, as was her wont, assumed that her readers were even less competent, and duly reminded them to “Remove string and skewers before serving.”

No doubt plenty of women who had never learned to cook at home, or had not learned to cook well, profited from this sort of advice, but surely cooks had not grown as incompetent as the expert advice implied. Even lead aqueducts couldn’t dim a nation’s bulbs that fast. But we’ve now reached the point where magazines devote multiple pages to turkey-roasting technique, and where millions of Americans can’t identify the little things inside their Butterballs as having once been internal organs, let alone which organs, what they formerly did, or how they might now be eaten, nor could they possibly judge a turkey to be ready for the table without the use of at least three precisely calibrated scientific instruments. We had to get here somehow, and I think, frankly, that cookbooks led the way, by training cooks not to trust themselves, by teaching dependence on specific linear instruction. Experts may have gotten much better at cooking, but the rest of us just do what we’re told.

I’m going to leave that assertion dangling for now; you can wait for my book for the actual argument, which takes more than a blog post to develop. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few thoughts on turkey sex.

Until the twentieth century cookbooks included advice on how to choose a turkey — not extensive advice, until the time of Fannie Farmer in the 1890s, but a few pointers, because women going to market could actually judge and select a bird on criteria other than its weight and the color of its label. Most early writers recommended a hen, but Fannie Farmer thought that a tom tastier unless the hen was quite young. I find the debate itself more interesting than the outcome. Once cleaned and sheathed neatly in plastic, their innards paper-wrapped and stuffed back up their asses, your modern toms and hens are indistinguishably sexless. Indeed it’s inconceivable, pun intended, that they could arrange their massively overburdened bodies in such a way to make sex possible, and of course modern turkeys don’t; they’re artificially inseminated. To think that meat was once the product of a literal roll in the hay! Turkey sex is a mostly unlamented casualty of modern agriculture, but think on this while you’re chewing on that Butterball: Doesn’t a bird deserve a good screw before he’s gobbled by your Great Aunt Mabel?

Next up: the stuffing.