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November 24, 2005

Gobble, gobble


WHEN I WAS A BOY, FAMILY Thanksgivings were often spent over the river and through the woods at my grandparents' farmhouse. (To be accurate, it was across the bay and over a mountain). My gray-haired grandma would lay out a classic turkey dinner with all the trimmings, reminiscent of the iconic Norman Rockwell painting "Freedom From Want," with grandma in an apron, laying the bird on the table on a large platter, where it would be ritualistically carved and then placed on a second platter to be passed around.

While we don't really think of Thanksgiving as political, its origins as an official holiday stem from an effort by President Abraham Lincoln to pull the war-torn country back together, at least for a moment, in spite of the Civil War. In 1863, the president proclaimed that the last Thursday in November shall be a Thanksgiving Day, declaring that the people should be thankful because, "Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battlefield; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom" -- well, as soon as the war was over, of roast turkey

Now, you're probably thinking, wasn't it the Pilgrims who started Thanksgiving? That is how the story goes. In an account written in 1621 which, by the way, was lost for a couple of hundred years one of the Pilgrims, Edward Winslow, wrote, "Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor." A three-day party ensued, during which they fired off their weapons for fun and entertained the local Native American leader Massasoit and his men, who "went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others."

Need I point out that the harvest-related holiday is yet another changing-of-the-seasons revelry borrowed from our pre-Christian ancestors? Days of thanksgiving were celebrated off and on after that, but it was not an official national holiday until Lincoln.

So, where did the turkey come in? Another Pilgrim, William Bradford, wrote an account that noted the abundance of waterfowl and a "great store of wild turkeys" that year, so the big bird was probably on the table, but nothing like the hybridized monsters of today whose breasts are so large that they cannot have sex. That's right, that turkey you're having for dinner was conceived using artificial insemination.

Turkey cooking and carving came up when I was dining recently chez Brett Shuler, a veteran chef who started out cooking in Humboldt County, then worked in San Francisco at Café du Nord, among other places, before returning to Arcata to try his hand at the catering biz. Brett prefers the separate stuffing/naked bird method; he also likes to brine his bird over night in sugar-sweetened salt water. I tried brining a couple of years back and it seemed to make for a tastier, juicier bird. Now, as a former chef, I own a few pots big enough to submerge a large turkey. If you don't have one, Brett points out that the ice chest you use for camping will serve the purpose. Of course, since you are reading this on or after Thanksgiving, it's too late for brining this time -- it's an overnight process. But there are other feast-related holidays on the way.

Brett also suggests that you flip the bird: He cooks his turkey upside-down to start, then turns the bird over halfway through the roasting process so that the breast will brown.

"That makes the breast juicier, since the juices flow down," he explained. "And when the breast gets to about 150 [degrees] I take the bird out and let it rest for about 15 minutes, then I cut the breast meat out and throw the rest back in. Otherwise the breasts get overcooked and dried out before the rest gets done."

Another advantage to removing the breasts is that each is in one piece. This is something I learned from watching Martha Stewart, of all people, when I happened upon her Thanksgiving segment on The Today Show years ago. Even if you don't turn your bird midway (I tried it and found it too much trouble) I'd recommend butchering the bird away from the table on the kitchen counter. For one thing, you'll save your tablecloth, additionally pulling the breasts out whole allows for cutting more even slices. "It's ridiculous to have the turkey on the table hacking off meat," says Brett. "That way you have really nice slices that you can fan out, put on a platter and pass around."

Fresh or frozen? Free range or not? I'll leave that up to you, and hope that you made up your mind a few days ago. Deep fat fried turkey? I'll have to recommend against it, unless you are a serious professional with a huge commercial fryer, or are ready to spend part of your holiday in the emergency ward getting treatment for major burns.

Tofu turkey? Being an omnivore, I've never tried it. I have to say it seems odd that someone who does not want to eat meat would want to eat something that's supposed to taste like meat. A vegetarian friend explained that it's more about participating in the group ritual -- I can understand that.

One last tip for the carnivores out there, something I learned from my friend Leo many years ago. While those frozen turkey are inexpensive, buy one and ask your butcher to slice and wrap it for you. Cut into one-inch thick slabs nose to tail, the big ol' bird is reduced to a portion-controlled Rorschach blot of white meat and dark meat perfect to throw on the barbecue. You might have to clean out your freezer compartment to store the turkey discs, but that's something you should do periodically anyway.

Happy holidays. Thanks for all the positive feedback on this column, and bon appétit.


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