The Tall Turkey Tale

June 24, 2016

As Thanksgiving approached this year and my work calendar allotted me only one day off, it became clear I would be hosting a meal from myself and my friends who had no time to go back to their families on the holidays.  The modest kitchen in my home had hosted a dinner party or two since I have moved in, but nothing as large as a Thanksgiving meal.  I knew I wanted to create something wonderful for my “Friendsgiving”, and I also knew, as hostess, I was in charge of the turkey.

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Some insight into my food-centered life history (Counihan, “Mexicanas…”): I didn’t help much in the kitchen as a child.  In my younger years I could usually be found reading a book in the corner or stealing pickles off the china laden table before the meal.  (My family tradition dictated that a full tray of pickles and olives be present on the table.  The New York City Jewish heritage insisted on Kosher dill pickles.)  I eventually began to help out with the veggies and sides, once cooking an entirely vegan Thanksgiving.  However, I had never assisted in so much as carving the turkey.  That had always been left to the adults.

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My focus during my childhood Thanksgivings tended to be much more on the pie than the turkey!

It was now my turn to own my adulthood.  Some people go through a religious rite of passage, some mark that time by getting married, some believe they’ve reached adulthood once they’ve bought a house.  My initiation was being in charge of the turkey.

I knew that my best bet was to start with a great quality product.  I knew exactly where to look.  Crane Dance Farm, located in Middleville, Michigan is run entirely by two women, Jill and Mary, who produce some of the “cleanest” meat you can find in the Grand Rapids area.  The are committed to genetic diversity and include endangered heirloom animals in their breeding stock, as well as heirloom vegetables and grains.  The use absolutely no pesticides, herbiciedes, chemicals, or fertilizers.  Their animals are free to roam on the pasture and thrive without hormones, systemic biocides, or antibiotics.

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Jill and Mary of Crane Dance Farm

In fact, this farm has received a “Snail of Approval” from the Slow Food West Michigan Chapter, which recognizes their commitment to the principles espoused by Slow Food. While Jill and Mary are dedicated farmer whom rarely have the luxury of a break from the constant call of animal husbandry (one look at Jill’s broad shoulders and Mary’s weathered hands tells all) they are also gourmets, hand crafting their animals’ care, making an effort to nurture heritage-breed animals, reclaiming endangered breeds as artisanal delicacies, and paying attention to each detail, from feeding their cows non-GMO corn to grinding their own grain.  Their website states, “We avoid supporting any aspect of the industrial agricultural complex…, a sentiment that echoes views of many other food movements, from punk “Freegans” (Clark, “The Raw and the Rotten”) to the Jews that follow an “eco-kosher” approach (Shapiro, “Kosher Wars”).  All of these movements look to reconnect with the food, to recognize the process edibles undergo as they make their way from the farm to the table, and to honor the work of both the animals and humans involved with respect and reverence.

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I wanted to bring these values to my own Thanksgiving celebration, to center the meal around an animal that had been raised well, slaughtered as humanely as possible, recognized for its sacrifice, and contributed to the diversity of our food system.  I’m aware of the criticism of the Slow Food movement raise by Alison Leitch (“Slow Food and the Politics…”): Focusing on such high quality and inherently expensive food can be a privilege the poor and less empowered populations can’t afford (419).  Yet, this special occasion and splurge, which could seem excessive, was worth it when placed in the context of the values I wanted to imbue the meal with.  I hoped to embody Jose Bove’s words and serve “good food as good taste” (422).  Taste here carries multiple connotations: Delicious flavors, ethically raised, supportive of local farmers, and a show of cultural taste for my guests. I went ahead and put in my order for a twenty-pound turkey.  It would be a bit large for the amount of people I planned on, but leftovers never hurt anyone, right?

I walked into the butcher store to pick up my order on the day before Thanksgiving.  As I announced my purpose, I saw the butcher’s mouth tense around the corners.

“I hate to tell you this,” he began apologetically.  “These turkeys were allowed to roam and apparently ran into a great supply of food.  The smallest one we have for you is… twenty-seven pounds.”

Twenty. Seven. Pounds.

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My local butcher demonstrates just how huge the turkey is! 

I took it.  What else could I do?  It was the day before, and there was not going to be Thanksgiving without a turkey.  The kind butcher shop didn’t make me pay for all the extra bird which was quite kind; a heritage-breed, free range, organically fed turkey is not as cheap as a Butterball.

As I went to sleep that night I began to worry.  I had little direct knowledge on the task I was about to undertake. In “The Domestication of the Savage Mind” Jack Good notes “the written recipe serves in part to fill the gap created by the absence of Granny, Nana, or Meme” (143).  Therefore, I pulled out my computer, Googling “how to cook a twenty pound turkey”, searching for a written recipe that would fill in the knowledge I never bothered to acquire.  I found little help.  No one even discussed cooking turkeys over twenty pounds.  And most suggested it was far better to get two ten pound turkeys, or to butterfly the breast of the twenty pound to flatten it for more even cooking.  There were dire warnings on the message boards about large birds that couldn’t cook evenly and became dry on the outside with uncooked meat in the center.  I felt sweat bead on my forehead.  What had I gotten myself into?

There was nothing to be done but try to cook the monster.  I certainly was not up to the task of butchering it.  The day of Thanksgiving at 8 a.m. I squeezed the turkey (he had now been dubbed “Kevin”) into the roasting pan I had borrowed from a friend.  The pan was snug but just fit.  A melted stick of butter was brushed over his skin.  I halved a lemon and stuck that inside, along with some carrots and time.  A few carrots and onions were tucked in the meager space left in the pan.  I hoisted him into the oven at 400 degrees and closed the door.  And waited.

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See, Kevin just barely fits!

 

I bathed Kevin in the pan juices at hourly intervals, watching the skin brown and crisp with each passing hour.  At around 1:30pm, after about 4 hours in the oven, he was browned and the meat thermometer indicated he was done.  I removed him from the oven and let him cool.  I didn’t trust the thermometer.  I didn’t trust myself.  But this massive turkey certainly looked impressive.

My friends had assembled, bringing dishes to share, sides of green beans and brussels sprouts and pie after pie (with brownies as well!).  We had an eclectic mix of dishes from chefs of all different skill levels, but the traditional turkey was the centerpiece.  We cut into him tentatively.  I was prepared for the worst – raw meat on the inside.  But no, the turkey was perfectly done!  My guests and I had never had a turkey so succulent, moist, and flavorful.  Throughout the night comment after comment was made on how delicious the meat was.  I have no memories of ever truly liking a turkey before – it had been a mere vehicle for cranberry sauce and gravy.  Clearly, a carefully raised bird makes a difference.

I now have a new tradition when I am away from family on Thanksgiving.  Seek out the best quality bird I can find.  Be liberal with butter and salt (isn’t that always the secret?).  Watch the crispiness of the skin and use a trusty meat thermometer for guidance.  Don’t worry too much – know it will turn out alright.  Share with a bunch of wonderful people.

And maybe buy a smaller bird.

Thanksgiving Roast Turkey

Adapted from Ina Garden

Ingredients:

  • One free-range turkey, the best you can find (27 lbs)
  • 1 stick butter
  • Salt and Pepper
  • 1 Lemon, halved
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 2 carrots, very roughly chopped
  • Cooking twine

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan.
Take the giblets out of the turkey. Remove any excess fat and leftover pinfeathers and pat the outside dry. Place the turkey in a large roasting pan. Liberally salt and pepper the inside of the turkey cavity. Stuff the cavity with the bunch of thyme, halved lemon, quartered onion, and the chopped carrots. Generously brush the outside of the turkey with the butter mixture and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Tie the legs together with string and tuck the wing tips under the body of the turkey.
Roast the turkey about 4-4.5 hours.  Every hour, baste the turkey with pan juices.  Turkey is done when the juices run clear when you cut between the leg and the thigh or when an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 degrees F. Remove the turkey to a cutting board and cover with aluminum foil; let rest for 20 minutes.
Slice the turkey and proudly serve.