The case against Thanksgiving leftover recipes.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Nov. 26 2009 6:52 AM

Let Leftovers Be Leftovers

That turkey samosa won't bring your Thanksgiving dinner back to life.

Leftovers.
Turkey and veggie lasagna 

Americans everywhere are about to be inundated with turkey leftovers, and the urge to recycle those leftovers into bizarre new forms—like turkey fried rice and turkey dinner muffins—will be great, perhaps irresistible. In a 2007 article, reprinted below, Jill Hunter Pellettieri cautioned against the practice, claiming that whatever "bastardized concoction" you can cook up isn't worth the effort. Don't get fancy—just eat a turkey sandwich.

Reading this list of recipes—and trust me, there are plenty more—is enough to make you want to go cold turkey on turkey. Every November, magazine editors and food writers, cooking gurus and TV personalities, foist turkey leftover recipes upon us. Unless we put our tired, picked-over turkey carcass to good use, they tell us, we're wasting some precious opportunity. But don't be fooled. Do not be tempted by that recipe for turkey and leek risotto. Those stringy last bits of gristle and meat that cling to your bird are better suited to the raccoons who rummage through your garbage. Do you really want to morph the centerpiece of your most ceremonial meal of the year into turkey bundles (stuffed with turkey, cream cheese, dill weed, and water chestnuts, among other things)?

But I don't want to be wasteful! Now, of all times of the year, I'm supposed to be thankful for my food, you might think. I'm not saying to abandon leftovers entirely. On the contrary: Embrace them. Just don't turn them into some bastardized concoction. Enjoy them for what they are.

Turkey leftover recipes are, essentially, a sham—an invention of food entertainment providers hard-up for new holiday ideas. There are only so many variations on the traditional Thanksgiving dinner (this year, try making Indian-spiced turkey breast!), and leftover recipes offer a seemingly appropriate way of filling pages and air time. (Few are brave enough to leave the leftovers alone; kudos to Food and Wine for doing so this year.)

But even the purveyors of these recipes recognize the absurdity of what they're presenting—they don't really expect any of them to become mainstays in your repertoire. (Perhaps the only exception is turkey stock made from your carcass—for the truly ambitious.) Of its turkey pot pie, Gourmet disclaims, "I can't guarantee this pie will make it onto your list of classics, but I'm pretty certain it will be a strong contender." Not if you make it with turkey, though. "This recipe could easily become a year-round favorite—simply substitute supermarket rotisserie chicken for the turkey."

Due to its taste and size, turkey has long played second fiddle to its poultry brethren. Turkey meat, especially the breast, is often dried out, and it's not as rich as that of more exotic birds, like guinea hen or capon. Its heft makes it more difficult to cook than the more flavorful, more manageable, and more common chicken. On Thanksgiving, we're willing to overlook these flaws for the sake of tradition. Still, many try to compensate for turkey's shortcomings by getting creative in the kitchen: We'll deep-fry, grill, brine, even spatchcock in an effort to zest up this bird. But I challenge you to count on more than one hand all the times you've made a turkey entrée since last Thanksgiving that wasn't a sandwich or a burger. (For that matter, when was the last time you ordered turkey tetrazzini at a restaurant? How about turkey pho?)

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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