The turkey is a truly noble bird. Native american, a source of sustenance to our original settlers, and an incredibly brave fellow who wouldn’t flinch from attacking a whole regiment of Englishmen single-handedly! Therefore, the national bird of America is going to be…
–Ben Franklin from the musical, 1776
Are turkeys noble? Or are they silly, vain and colossally stupid? Is their meat sleep-inducing? Do they come from Turkey? And did the pilgrims really eat them on the First Thanksgiving?
Let’s sort myth from facts as we look forward with Great Anticipation to the big Eats and Dysfunctional Family Show, the Slidin’ into the Holidays, the Day before Black Friday, known in these United States as Thanksgiving.
First of all, Ben Franklin’s line from the musical 1776 is a mishmosh of truth and exaggeration. Franklin did write that the new nation might be better represented by a turkey than an eagle, which he did describe as a thief and a coward, a bird of mischief rather than nobility. In looking at early artwork of the national seal, he said the drawing looked more like a turkey than an eagle. He went on to laud the bravery of our native birds in facing down the British, though he called them “silly and vain” rather than noble. Whether they were brave, near-sighted, kamikaze, or just plain stupid is something history will never know.
There are plenty of testaments to the stupidity of turkeys. They have been known to stare up at the rain until they drown. My mother-in-law, who tended them as a youth, said you had to put chickens and chicken feed in with them so that they would know how to eat, otherwise they’d just stand there and look at their feed.
At the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, the Wampanoag natives did serve turkey among other foodstuffs to the starving settlers. William Bradford’s account mentions waterfowl, venison, fish, lobster !!!!! (Massachusetts, of course), clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, squash and a “great store of wild turkeys.” Cranberries were among the berries of reference, as they grow native to Massachusetts, New Jersey, and other bogs in the northeast.
Alexander Hamilton actually mentioned eating turkeys as part of Thanksgiving, so even though it wasn’t a customary holiday in the U.S. until after Lincoln’s time, and not made an official holiday until FDR, the feast has been celebrated with turkeys for two centuries. Of course, harvest feasts have been celebrated for much longer than that worldwide. For this unique feast, the Wampanoag took pity on the goofy Puritans who likely brought more Bibles than seeds.
Peru and Stuffing?
The most curious aspect is why they were called turkeys. That was surely a mix of poor imagination and laziness on the part of importers. The birds are not from Turkey; they are definitely native to North America. However, custom in the ol’ days was to name things after the exporting nations. Persian rugs were often designated as Turkish rugs because Turkish merchants were the shippers. Similarly, there was a Guinea fowl – a bird native to the west coast of Africa – that was sent by the Turks up to England, and therefore called — wait for it — a “turkey cock.” That may be why the colonists named the Americans birds after the turkey cocks. American turkeys kinda sorta look like the helmeted Guinea fowl. If you squint.
Further confusing the issue is that the North American turkey became known as “peru” to the Portugese because the importers in Portugal were under the impression that Peru was the source of the birds. Meanwhile, guess what the Turkish people called the birds? They called them Hindi, short for “bird from India.” Now, presumably the Turks knew that these birds come from someplace other than Turkey, but why did they think that they came from India? Because they thought that’s where Columbus, ye old lousy navigator, ended up?
So, in conclusion, Guinea fowls are actually from Guinea, and not from Turkey. And because the North American birds look like a West African Guinea fowl, the settlers named them after their Middle Eastern exporters… my goodness, that is convoluted.
On the other hand, the fleshy blob above the beak is called the snood, and the fleshy part at the neck is called the wattle. Maybe we should just leave it at turkey.
There is nothing more perky
Than a masculine turkey.
When he struts he struts
With no ifs or buts.
When his face is apoplectic
His harem grows hectic,
And when he gobbles
Their universe wobbles
Tryptophan gets a bad rap
Now that we know how they were misnamed, let’s also clear up another myth. Turkey does contain an amino acid called tryptophan, which is a natural sedative. So it has been reported for years that eating turkey makes you sleepy which accounts for why everyone needs to lay down after the big meal.
In point of fact, the same amount of tryptophan is also find in similar portions of chicken, beef, cheese, and milk, so unless you think you fall asleep just as easily after a Big Mac, then you’re fooling yourself thinking it’s the turkey. In fact, turkey with its lean flesh is actually a pretty easy meal to digest and is one of the healthiest types of proteins you can eat.
It ain’t the turkey. It’s the stuffing, potatoes, gravy, rolls, butter, sweet potatoes…AND the turkey. Eating large meals – as we probably all know – makes us sleepy as the blood flows from brain to stomach for digestion. And we go into a Carb Coma (oh, I love those!) where all this insulin is produced to offset all the carbs and fats. Plenty of reason to be sleepy. Try eating five ounces of turkey by itself and see if it puts you to sleep. Probably not. Don’t blame it on the tryptophan.
What’s Spatchcock got to do with it
As far as cooking and eating, there are many different strokes for different folks. Most families swear by their own traditions.
The Kajs worship at the gods of the Brine. This was once faddish but now it is our family Tradition. The brine is prepared the night before: a bath of cold water, salt, and lots of herbs (juniper berries, sage, allspice and so forth). We pour it in a plastic bag over the turkey, put it in an ice chest in the cool November garage overnight, and hey presto! Brining makes the bird taste better because it infuses salt and lowers the likelihood of drying the bird out while it cooks thoroughly. Brining also makes the breast meat last longer for making sandwiches.
Professional cooks say that you should not stuff a brined bird. Hogwash! They’re always complaining on cooking competitions about things being “underseasoned.” If the stuffing is made with unsalted butter, then brining is the way to get the stuffing right cooked in the bird. The whole point to cooking turkey is the stuffing at our household. We fight over it. We pout, Is there any more left? And two days later, we stare wistfully into the refrigerator at all the leftover mashed potatoes, yams, green beans, and gravy, grousing about why there aren’t enough leftovers.
Learning how to cook the turkey properly has been an iterative process. The first time I visited my dad for Christmas as an adult, after he was divorced for the second time, we decided to cook a turkey together. Neither of us really knew how to do it, as my mother always owned that process and never really “taught” husband or children in any organized fashion. She would mutter hints about getting rid of lumps while she was scraping bits into the gravy or “shaking hands” with the leg while testing for doneness, but for someone who was a teacher by trade, she didn’t really teach much about cooking. I really wanted diagrams.
Anyway, long story short, we cooked the bird upside-down. Some people swear that makes the breast more tender, but I will tell you, it was confusing when unexpected. Tasted just fine though. Kind of a pain to flip over in order to cut it.
Some swear also by grilling. You have to know what you’re doing, and I’m not sure it’s easier. It does keep the oven free when you use a grill, but it’s kind of a problem in the inclement weather in November. Some also swear by deep frying. Deep frying requires special equipment and adds a lot of fat to an already fat impregnated meal. It’s also dangerous; there are stories every year of people hospitalized with third degree burns or exploding fryers. Maybe that’s its appeal. Fry your Turkey! Live on the Edge! I would say for people who like deep frying – as Miss Jean Brodie would say – that is the kind of thing they like.
Which brings us to Spatchcocking. When you see a headline like “The best way to cook a turkey according to Science,” you should know this means the “faddiest” way. Spatchcocking fits that designation since apparently Martha Stewart and Alton Brown are in favor of it and, presumably, Stephen Hawking not far behind. Spatchcocking means to butterfly the turkey and spread it out for cooking. You need a big, sharp knife, the right knowledge of where to hack it on the backside, and a lot of muscle for whacking. That sounds like another potential trip to the hospital to me. Allegedly, a turkey spread out this way will cook in half the time (80 minutes) and be less likely to over or undercook. Also, the skin will be crisper. You would then put the stuffing under the spread-out body instead of inside the cavity.
In theory. I am skeptical that the stuffing would be properly stuffing-esque. And stuffing “baked” on its own is just not the same. There would be a riot at the Kajs if the stuffing was not proper. Unless the spatchcocking methodology generated twice as much as stuffing, in which case, we’d probably be for it.
Maybe we’ll Spatchcock for Christmas.
Today’s Daily Post brought to you by the word Anticipation.