We were never supposed to eat turkey on Thanksgiving.
Every year we gorge on turkey and stuffing, gravy and mashed potatoes. We eat pumpkin pie that we may come to regret. We fall asleep under the power of turkey’s natural tranquilizing agents and the prospect of terrible football games.
It didn’t have to be this way. And New Hampshire is to blame.
When the Pilgrims got together with members of the Wampanoag tribe back in the 1620s, they ate ducks, goose, swan, passenger pigeons, lobsters, clams, mussels, and, of course, venison. If a couple of turkeys here and there got thrown into the mix, well so be it, according to Megan Gambino, writing for Smithsonian.com.
The three-day feast saw them eat lots of meat, followed by soups and stews, followed by a nap. No pumpkin pies for dessert. Pilgrims liked to fill their pies with meat. That’s how America was really born — meat for dessert.
And at no point was anyone subjected to the Detroit Lions in any form.
Our traditional combo of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, didn’t exist. There were no white potatoes in New England at the time, and yams were nowhere to be found either.
We don’t eat lobster for Thanksgiving, though. Passenger pigeons are extinct. Venison is not as easy to obtain as a 99-cents-per-pound frozen turkey. How did we get here?
The blame for dosing every American man, woman and child with enough tryptophan to knock out the Lions’ offensive line (like they need the help) goes to Newport’s own Sara Josepha Hale.
Hale, author of novels, poems, and children’s rhymes like “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” was also the editor of something called Godey’s Lady’s Book. Using her perch as an 1820s Martha Stewart, Hale published Thanksgiving recipes in her women’s magazine, all extolling the virtues of turkey and mashed potatoes for the nascent holiday. By the time Thanksgiving was proclaimed an actual national holiday by Abraham Lincoln, after a lot of pestering from Hale, her turkey recipes were the norm.
Thanks a lot, Sarah. We cannot, however, blame Hale for the Lions. That would be unjust.
It’s tradition now
Since turkey is now all but inescapable, what to do? Butterball sells something like 40 million birds every year, and it really could not be easier.
You buy a bird, let it defrost for three or four weeks, run it under water on Thanksgiving morning because it is still icy on the inside, and then roast the sucker.
You can get complicated and fancy with this process, but really, who are you trying to impress? It’s turkey. Plenty of butter on the bird, salt and pepper, and there you go.
Some people fry their birds. This can be an exciting option, but do make sure this is covered by your homeowners insurance first.
For people worried about dry turkey, you can always inject the meat with a combination of white wine and tequila just before roasting. Inject yourself with a little of the leftover wine or tequila just before your in-laws arrive, and have a pleasant meal for once.
But what if, for some reason, you want more out of your turkey experience? Caitlin Caserta at Walpole Valley Farms raises about 150 turkeys every year, promising a better eating experience that the typical frozen bird.
“Because of the diet, they do taste different — richer flavor, no added water like they do in commercial farms,” she said.
Caserta said her birds are set out on the Walpole farm’s pastures to forage for their food, supplemented by some feed. The birds are moved around depending on the condition of the soil and the weather.
It’s a more ethical way to raise the birds, and it results in a more meaty, better tasting turkey, she said. “They’re eating bugs and grubs and worms and grass, and that changes the flavor makeup of the meat.
Caserta and her husband, Chris, have been raising turkeys this way for about 15 years.
And wild turkeys?
While the Castertas’ free-range approach might be closer to how birds would have been kept in Colonial times, all accounts of the first Thanksgiving are pretty clear: birds were shot, not farmed.
Eric Poor, a writer and outdoorsman from Rindge, says that the real wild birds are very different from their farm-raised brethren. First, they fly. Second, they are not roasting birds.
“My very first wild turkey I decided to roast, just like I do with the Thanksgiving bird. So I painstaking plucked the bird, being careful not to rip the skin. When I placed it in the roasting pan it looked like a little greyhound — long and lean,” he said.
“I kinda had to prop it up so it wouldn’t fall over. By the time it was done the skinny drumsticks were hard as rocks and had to be discarded and the thighs were tough as shoe leather, but the breast was delicious, if somewhat chewy.”
So, wild birds cannot be cooked like the store-bought fowl. Gambino wrote that the small wild birds the Pilgrims would have shot for Thanksgiving were spit roasted, but the bigger birds were likely boiled and then roasted for color. This may have been to overcome their chewiness.
Poor now skins the turkeys he harvests and removes the breast and thigh meat to cook on their own. Ground wild turkey meat makes a good burger, he said, and he likes to pan fry breaded strips of the breast meat.
“Once I had one at a game supper that had been steamed and that was pretty good,” he said.
A meatless holiday?
Unroasted turkey may be a bridge too far for some, but what about no turkey at all? Some people might read that as “What about no America?” but such are the times we live in.
For those who avoid meat altogether, the Monadnock Food Co-Op preps individual Thanksgiving meals sans meat.
Tim Sanderson, the kitchen supervisor at the Co-Op is in the midst of preparing the mushroom-walnut loaf served as the main dish in the meat-free Thanksgiving meals.
“It’s just as popular as the turkey loaf and it goes along with its own mushroom gravy,” Sanderson said.
The Co-Op is prepping more and more prepared meals for the holiday, Sanderson said. There’s the traditional turkey meal, the vegetarian-loaf meal, and a gluten-free vegetarian meal that includes the loaf and gluten-free mashed potatoes.
“Our business is steadily increasing every year,” he said.
This might be as delicious as Sanderson claims. You can judge for yourself. It is a historical fact, however, that at no point did the Pilgrims accept mushrooms in the place of meat. Not even chewy turkey meat.
Just ask Sarah Josepha Hale.