The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink is a revelation to anyone interested in today’s booming scene in vintage and artisanal drinks—from bourbon and juleps to champagne and punch—and a southern twist on America’s culinary heritage. This cookbook includes more than 300 recipes featuring the use of spirits, as well as numerous asides, lovely short essays, and countless witticisms that make for great reading as well as good cooking.
Following is Walter’s short essay about the history of eating turkey on Thanksgiving and his own preferred method for preparing a Thanksgiving turkey for the most flavor. If this has you wanting to read more Eugene Walter (trust us, it will) we’ve got more excerpts and recipes to share. Happy reading, happy cooking, and happy Thanksgiving.
Turkey Tattle and Dressing Dope
Well, it’s hunting season, and the turkey-trackers are already getting impatient. The Gulf States have always had a plentitude of the birds and a taste for their flesh. There was such a traffic jam of turkeys on our coast that the French settlers called one of their first villages Coq d’Inde (“Indian Cock”). The name was transliterated by the English into “Coden.” The bird was a major staple of our diet in our early days here, whether for wandering hunters and trappers or for settled households.
The turkey originated in Mexico but has been widespread in the southern states since, probably, prehistory. The Spanish found it tasty as prepared by the Aztecs and introduced it into Spain. Of course, the bird that Cortez’s men ate came from generations of domesticated fowl. It was probably wild birds that were introduced into France.
Charles Estienne wrote in 1564: “The flesh is delicate, but tasteless and hard to digest. That is why it has to be highly spiced, heavily larded, and seasoned. These birds eat as much as mules.”
Well, those wild American turkeys were big; European mules were smaller then. A mature wild turkey cock easily reaches sixty pounds. For years, poulterers have bred for smaller birds.
All wild turkeys are a little tough, cocks more than hens, and the cocks often have scar tissue in the breast meat from spur wounds sustained in the usual macho battles. Experienced wild turkey cooks in the Deep South often use a hypodermic needle filled with vegetable oil, or oil with a little light dry wine, either red or white, to inject the breasts and thighs before cooking. An early English visitor reported watching Indians in mid-Alabama larding the birds heavily with bear grease, then coating them with crushed pecan meats before roasting a long time over very hot embers of a campfire.
The turkey has long been a kind of symbol of the day of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims celebrated what in England was called Harvest Home, in France La Fête de la Vendange—a kind of sigh-of-relief party when the crops were harvested and stored, the meats curing, the potables brewing, common to all countries and cultures since the late cave dwellers started growing wild grasses. But the records exist in Massachusetts: They had four big turkeys for that first Thanksgiving and a very great deal of ale, which came as ballast on the Mayflower. That was 1621. George Washington proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving on November 26, 1789. Lincoln followed up in 1863, choosing the last Thursday of November. Only in 1939 was the event duly entered into the list of official holidays, under Roosevelt. But confusion about the differences of dates chosen by different states made Congress pass a resolution in 1941 setting the fourth Thursday of November once and for all our official national holiday.
All right, the bird is official for Thanksgiving. But one of the more interesting developments in our culinary history is how the bird has gradually taken over our Christmas table as well. Early English settlers yearned for the traditional English Christmas dinner of roast beef or roast goose or both. The French have always served an assorted profusion of birds, beef, mutton, etc. Venison and suckling pig everywhere. In Italy, those famous eels at dinner after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve; roast lamb or goat in Sicily and Greece. Thousands, not hundreds, of provincial variations.
If we can believe menus, family records, and newspaper accounts, the Old South did serve turkey, but it was “everyday” and not a “special” dish for Christmas. Roast haunch of venison appears in the sources as a Christmas dish; guinea hen occurs more often than not. But a great roast beef and a great baked ham as twin attractions are mentioned often.
Personally, I’d like a return to turkey for Thanksgiving and something else at Christmas. Or ham, guinea hens, or ducks for Thanksgiving and turkey for Christmas. My idea of a New Age Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner would be baked ham WITHOUT pineapple and cloves, corned beef, and a French liver pâté accompanied by a raisin pie, onion chutney, plain boiled white hominy, plain boiled wild rice, a huge salad bowl of watercress and inner celery leaves dressed with horseradish and buttermilk, and ginger ice cream for dessert. Finish with real cognac. Stretcher service by prearrangement.
Many people find turkey boring, less interesting, than good ham or roast beef. Why? Perhaps because the bird has not been properly treated.
If the turkey has been frozen, it must be thoroughly thawed, I say again, thoroughly thawed and, a third time, thoroughly thawed before being dealt with. We all know too well those beautiful, browned turkeys that make the saliva flow by their appearance but turn out to be flavorless cardboard and too pink around the joints.
Twenty-four hours for every five pounds of bird is about right to defrost a turkey. Soak a dishtowel in wine, drape the bird, and place in a pan in the refrigerator to thaw. Then scald the bird, dry it well, rub well with lemon halves and then with frayed garlic, and then slather it well with unsalted butter or bacon grease and sprinkle with finely chopped rosemary, thyme, sage, what you wish, and freshly ground black pepper. DO NOT SALT!
Every experienced cook has his or her own lore about oven heat, how long to cook, and I shall not presume to advise on these matters, since stoves differ, differences between gas and electric are enormous, etc., and all good cooks are temperamental.
But this is how I do it, and people who’ve been cool toward turkey in the past have enjoyed the bird:
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. After preparing the bird as above, place it on its side in a roasting pan and tent with aluminum foil. After twenty minutes, baste and, using oven mitts, turn the bird on its other side. After twenty minutes more, turn breast side down, baste well, and cook twenty minutes longer. Then turn breast side up and place strips of lean bacon or fat cut from a ham over the breast and fasten with toothpicks. It takes about three and a half to three and three-quarters hours for a ten- to twelve-pound turkey, three and three-quarters to four hours for a bird of fourteen to eighteen pounds.
Heat should be lowered slightly in the last hour, and the bird should be basted constantly. You’ll change your mind about the dryness and dullness of most turkey if you prepare it in this fashion.
Now I’ll have certain cooks shouting, “Heresy!” Most really great cooks do not put any stuffing in the bird IF they plan to utilize the remains in the next days for the great stews, gumbos, salads, etc., that are based on the carcass. IF your family is going to finish off the bird the first day, by all means stuff. But, Oh, Heavens, scraping out the nasty bits of stuffing if you want to use the carcass is a problem. If, as many great southern cooks, you include bell pepper, sweet or hot, in your stuffing, you’ll find it ferments the next day and ruins everything.
No, I say, make two or even three grand stuffings and cook then in casseroles or baking tins. You might boil up neck and giblets with a bit of onion, naturally, then chop them fine; moisten stale bread with the broth; and add salt, freshly grated black pepper, a little grated lemon peel, a few white raisins (currants) soaked in very dry Sherry or in bourbon whiskey,
and a beaten egg for binding; and that’s Very Good.
I assume you will put carrots, celery stalks, whole onions studded with a few cloves, and maybe some unpeeled turnip roots into the cavity of the bird in place of stuffing. Save them for next day’s grand turkey soup, of course.
Here’s another dressing: Fry bacon crisp; brown onions and mushrooms. When bacon is cooked, add to crumbled cornbread soaked in broth or in tomato juice; season as you will. Add a beaten egg and salt and pepper, then bake.
Or use equal parts of stale bread soaked in broth and white hominy or uncreamed corn kernels, combined with a lot of sliced cooked Conecuh County sausage, a dash of cream, and a beaten egg, with lots of fresh sage and black pepper.
Or mix cooked grits with chopped boiled celery and green onions with some of their juice, grated rat- trap cheese (sharp American Cheddar), salt, freshly ground black pepper, thyme, and savory
Or boil some new potatoes, but don’t let them get mushy. Peel them, chop them coarsely, and then chop the peels fine along with a toe or so of garlic. Add chopped inner celery leaves, freshly ground black pepper, a dash of paprika, and a half cup of cream beaten with an egg, then bake in buttered dish.
Everybody knows what to do with the leftover turkey and the carcass. Leftover stuffing? Take some smaller eggplants. Moisten the stuffing with broth and mix with chopped eggplant flesh (raw or parboiled) and grated onion. Stuff eggplant halves, top with grated cheese or buttered crumbs, and bake.
So you see . . . there is a way to get to those souls who’ve had it with the usual turkey dinner. I know an audacious lady in Demopolis who roasts her turkey the day before Christmas and on Christmas evening enchants her relations and friends with turkey gumbo, creamed turkey stew, salad of white meat, salad of dark meat, and a cold pâté made of giblets. But then Demopolis starts with D . . . just like Different.
If you scrape up all the pan drippings and add a little more wine, some mild onions cooked until golden, and freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste (almost none), then reduce this, you’ll have a far better gravy than any with flour added, believe me.
From The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink, edited by Donald Goodman and Thomas Head. Copyright © 2011 by Donald Walter Goodman.