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Just how traditional are you?

Food For Thought

I can’t help laughing when I see and hear restaurants and grocery stores promoting their “traditional” Thanksgiving dinners and the ingredients thereof. Unless you were around, helping out in the kitchen before the 1950s, you might have the impression the ready-to-cook, pre-basted, Butterball frozen turkey has been around long enough to be called “traditional.” Let me tell you some of the truths about Thanksgiving turkeys before that time.
The earliest turkeys in my memory did not come dressed from a grocery store. They originated on farms, having been produced by some farmer or his wife who were known to have good luck with the difficult-to-raise birds. The turkey would have been purchased about a month before Thanksgiving and housed in a small pen barely 4 feet square. He was then fed a diet rich in corn which, in conjunction with the enforced inactivity of the small pen, was meant to insure, when cooked, the meat would be tender. While thus confined, the turkey was in danger of being given a name and turned into what the children of the family looked upon as a pet. When this happened, the turkey was sometimes spared from becoming the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving day table and lived to see another day. This turkey, by the way, would have been of the dark, speckled variety, closely resembling the American wild turkey which is, in fact, part of its ancestry. The turkeys we see in the grocery store today are sleek and white, hardly resembling the plump, fan-tailed, colorful turkey we have been taught to visualize since kindergarten.
My grandmother’s cookbook, published in 1930, four years before I was born, gives the following instructions for roasting a turkey. These basic instructions were the norm for quite some time, until the frozen Butterball turkey and its ease of preparation won over enough cooks to banish the old traditions. Read on, and you will soon understand why.
First, you are to clean, singe and draw the turkey much as you would a chicken. The cookbook gives no hints about how to accomplish that. Most housewives were accustomed to killing and cleaning their own chickens, ducks, geese and small game. (I remember my mother, not having a gas or wood-burning stove, dealing with the pinfeathers on a turkey she was preparing. Since she could not singe the pinfeathers over her electric stove, she shaved some with an electric razor and finished up with tweezers.) Stuff the turkey and tie down the legs (again, it is assumed you know how to do that) then rub the entire turkey with salt. Mix together 1/3 cup of butter and 1/4 cup of flour and spread over the breast, legs and wings. Put in a covered roaster and roast in a 500-degree oven for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 275-degrees for 3 1/2 hours or until tender, baste every 15 minutes. Alternate methods include covering the breast, wings and drumsticks with a layer of bacon or pork fat, or covering the whole thing with a fat-soaked cloth which is kept moist by frequent basting.
Having watched his mother and grandmother roast turkeys in much that same manner, my husband insisted the only way to have a “traditional” Thanksgiving turkey was the old fashioned way, so I acquiesced, getting up well before dawn to get the turkey stuffed and into the oven. Eventually, the pre-basted, pre-seasoned, frozen turkey prevailed, but I still hoped for some way to avoid the mess of all those turkey bones. They were too big for the garbage disposal and too smelly to leave in the trash until pick-up day. I was greatly tempted to buy one of those boneless turkey rolls, so I could avoid the whole mess. I got soundly voted down every time I mentioned it. The outcry amounted to a plea for “tradition.”
I ask you why it is only the cook who is expected to stick to tradition? The hunters no longer go out and flush out wild turkeys for the feast. They aren’t interested in dealing with all those turkey innards and pinfeathers. They’ve long since learned not to give the bones to the family dog.
They haven’t planted pumpkins among the corn stalks and harvested them to be cut up and cooked down for pulp for those “traditional” pies. Nor have they raised and butchered the beef for the “traditional” mincemeat. And I didn’t notice anyone wading around in the bog for those “traditional” cranberries.
Tradition, I guess, comes with a caveat– “As long as it isn’t too inconvenient.” For everybody except the cook, that is. This cook has finally prevailed in her struggle for simplicity. One of my sons cooks the turkey and I buy a nice bottle of wine.