Tradition! I believe in tradition, especially when it comes to the holidays. There’s something comforting and familiar about traditions as they get passed down from one generation to the next with each generation adding their own interpretation, and Thanksgiving is one of those holidays when traditions matter. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have turkey for Thanksgiving. I even had turkey for Thanksgiving when I lived in Turkey (the country) a lifetime ago. That’s tradition.
Our family Thanksgiving tradition comes from a combination of my family and Janet’s. I serve a whole roasted turkey with all the usual side dishes like stuffing and lumpy mashed potatoes. I tried using an immersion blender a few years ago to smooth out the lumps in my potatoes but they ended up with the consistency and texture of kindergarten paste. Take it from someone who ate his share of kindergarten paste back in the day, that isn’t tasty. Janet makes the mashed potatoes in our house now, and I enjoy the lumps because they remind me of my mother’s mashed potatoes. Janet’s family contributed sauerkraut to our Thanksgiving tradition. I don’t like sauerkraut and I don’t eat it, but every year I make sure I pick up a bag of the stuff when I get the turkey. Because…Tradition!
And gravy. You gotta have gravy. Everybody pretends the gravy is for their mashed potatoes but its really so they can dredge their turkey in it. Let’s face it, turkey without the gravy is dry and boring. Honestly, I have yet to cook a really good turkey for Thanksgiving, just ask my family, but the gravy bails me out every year.
I’m pretty good in the kitchen at most things, but not turkey. Why do we observe such an important holiday with such a blah dish as the centerpiece anyway? I mean, I get why it was the main course at the first Thanksgiving…work with what nature, and the indigenous population, gives you and all that. But nowadays we have our choice of entrées. Why don’t we eat lasagna for Thanksgiving? I like lasagna. Oh yeah…Tradition!
I went on a rant two years ago about the roast I cooked my family for Christmas Eve dinner, another family tradition. I learned from that experience that the most important decision you can make when cooking beef is at the butcher shop. No amount of culinary skill can make up for an inferior cut of beef. Not so with turkey. All the magic happens in your kitchen no matter what you bring home from the poulter. You get that when I say butcher and poulter I really mean the meat case at your local grocery store where you pick through whatever products they happen to get from big Agra, right? It doesn’t matter how much you spend on your turkey, whether you get fresh or frozen, butter injected under the skin or not…they all turn out pretty much tasteless. That’s why we spend so much time on the side dishes. And the gravy! Gravy fixes everything. Except sauerkraut. Bleck!
I’ve done my homework on this. I’ve tried everything in my BubbaGump-esque attempt to find culinary turkey perfection…frozen turkeys, fresh turkeys, kosher turkeys, wet brined turkeys, dry brined turkeys, un-brined turkeys, free-range turkeys, name brand turkeys, store brand turkeys, generic turkeys, hormone and antibiotic free turkeys…you name it, I’ve tried it. I’ve paid as little as $13 for a 20-pound frozen generic store brand bird and as much as $120 for a 15-pound pick-your-own-from-the-field free-range hormone and antibiotic free turkey that was so fresh it was slaughtered the day before I picked it up. The cheap frozen bird turned out better, which is not to say it turned out great. Somehow all the turkeys I’ve roasted turn out tasting about the same…meh. A few years ago I started brining my turkey and that helps, but there’s only so much a dash of salt can to do flavor an otherwise tasteless protein.
The reason it is nearly impossible for a home cook, and even for many professional chefs, to get any flavor from a turkey has to do with big Agra. In the 1960s, not long after I was born, big Agra set out to come up with a breed of turkey that was cost effective to raise, and that had a higher muscle to bone ratio. Those two things increased the profitability of raising turkeys, and that made big Agra happy. After years of cross breeding they came up with a marvel of agricultural bioengineering…the broad breasted white. This is a breed that goes from egg to table in 4 short months, in the process developing a ridiculous amount of muscle mass, mostly concentrated in the breasts…hence the name. In exchange for the fast growth rate and huge breasts, the broad breasted white has no taste. It doesn’t. None. They don’t live long enough to develop any. Big Agra bred the flavor out of turkey. That and a few other things…all in the name of profit. Big Agra ruined Thanksgiving.
Broad breasted white turkeys constitute over 98% of turkeys sold in this country. These birds are mutant freaks, the result of years of cross breeding that yields oversized breasts on an undersized frame. Broad breasted white turkeys are such freaks they are physically incapable of mating. Wait…what? Yep…they live incredibly short lives, and they don’t even get to have sex. It would kill them if they tried…literally. The undersized bones in those little drumsticks can’t support the weight of their huge breasts. If they tried to do anything as strenuous as mating their legs would snap in half. Even if they didn’t, they still couldn’t do the deed…their huge breasts get in the way. All turkeys sold in the grocery store are raised from artificially inseminated eggs. I’m not even kidding about that…you can fact check me on google.
The result of all that breast meat is that by the time you get your turkey cooked to the USDA safety standard of “165 degrees F as measured at the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing and the innermost part of the thigh,” most of the rest of the bird is hopelessly overcooked. Whatever flavor your bird might have had to start with gets cooked out by the time it makes it to your table. I suppose that’s a small price to pay in return for killing off all the salmonella that turkeys are infested with. Big Agra raises them in such closely confined pens they spend the entirety of their short and sexless lives wallowing around in their own feces. Thanksgiving lasagna is sounding better and better, isn’t it?
I like turkey. I do. Especially for Thanksgiving. As blah as my turkeys turn out the leftovers make it all worthwhile. In addition to the best ever turkey sandwiches, the carcass makes great soup. That’s tradition, and there’s something to be said for tradition. And gravy.