Turkey recipes in The Joy of Cookingare outnumbered by chicken recipes by about four to one. In specialty cookbooks, turkey often goes the way of the dodo—it's absent entirely. Mark Bittman is the sole cook I've found who takes an honest approach. In his encyclopedic cookbook How To Cook Everything, he limits his turkey recipes to a handful of staples, most revolving around Thanksgiving. He's brutally forthcoming about its flaws: "I know no one who prefers turkey to other birds," he writes. "It's my belief that most of us would eat turkey less frequently than we would eat capon, a much tastier big bird, were it not for the traditions around Thanksgiving and Christmas."
Poor turkeys. They weren't always such a lackluster fowl. According to Andrew F. Smith's excellent history The Turkey: An American Story, many of the European colonists who explored and settled in North America praised the prevalent native wild turkeys, describing them as "a splendid dish, boiled or roasted," and "a delicate and highly prized article of food." As turkeys were hunted (and as their food sources diminished with the development of land), however, they became more and more scarce. Domesticated (though still flavorful) turkeys brought over from Europe began to replace wild ones, and by the mid-1800s, turkey breeding had caught on.
While many turkeys were bred for things like notable plumage, according to Smith, one breeder, Jesse Throssel, began to focus on augmenting the quantity of the bird's breast meat, in the late 1920s. His efforts paid off, resulting in a turkey with a puffed-up chest that captivated Americans with its majesty. Breeders, as a result, crossbred Throssel's toms with plump hens to create turkeys with even larger breasts, and soon we had the turkey equivalent of Dolly Parton—the Broad-Breasted White. By the 1960s, Broad-Breasted Whites "had become the commercial standard." As Smith puts it, "The modern commercial turkey has been bred for various characteristics—docility, early maturity, maximum growth, and color of the carcass. Flavor isn't one of those traits."
Perhaps if we had a tastier bird today, we'd relish the opportunity to cook with turkey more often. These "leftover" recipes would not be tagged as such, but would have their own legitimacy—sought out year-round, not just the fourth week of November.
The reality, however, is that you'd never consider making curried turkey salad on greens at any other time of year. So why make it this Friday? We spend weeks planning for Thanksgiving dinner. We travel great distances to enjoy it with loved ones. We postpone diets to gorge ourselves. We may even fast all day to make room for one more slice of pumpkin pie. Why not enjoy the leftovers for what they are, a delicious continuation of that feast?
In some ways, the leftover feast is as sacred as the meal itself. The guests have left, you've cozied up in your PJs, and the only remaining company is your closest family, the people you love most. There's the huddling around the Tupperware as you all seek the perfect bite of cold stuffing; the soft hum of the microwave in the otherwise quiet house as it warms the mashed potatoes; the smell of toasted bread slathered with mayo for the perfect turkey sandwich (sandwiches are, in my mind, the only acceptable use of leftovers).
Why replace these rituals with recipes that are not only ridiculous, but create more work? Let Thanksgiving live out its natural life—you'll know when it's time to move on. When you're sick of turkey, you're sick of it. The sight of that Tupperware, once the source of so much joy, will become grim and unappetizing. Forcing yourself to eke out one more meal, even in a new incarnation, will not make you feel more thankful or more resourceful—it will replace your lingering memories of a lovely holiday dinner with flashbacks of that wretched moo shu turkey. This holiday, let your turkey retain what dignity it has.
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