By the Fall of 1621, the Pilgrims at Plimouth, Massachusetts were on the brink of starvation and ravaged by illness. Had it not been for Massasoit, who brought a bounty of fresh killed deer, turkeys and other food staples to the struggling settlement, the next event for that tiny colonial outpost might well have been a requiem rather than a celebration.
History tells us that turkeys grew wild in the forests around Plimouth, but how these ungainly creatures came to symbolize Thanksgiving in America is not entirely clear. Certainly, Norman Rockwell and his iconic art work had a lot to do with it. His image of a deeply bronzed turkey at the center of the Thanksgiving table is now enshrined in our national consciousness.
What is clear is that there are almost as many recipes for cooking a turkey as there are families. Some people cook them for hours in a slow oven inside a brown paper bag. Others insist they should be cooked in a smoker or plunked into a deep fat fryer.
There really is no wrong way to cook a turkey. I remember one Thanksgiving when my brother in law lit the oven and set it to 550 degrees to preheat. My sister didn’t realize the oven was set that high and put the bird in at noon. 47 minutes later, it was done. And it was delicious!
At our house, we buy our turkey from a local farmer who specializes in organically grown, free range turkeys. We asked him once what “free range” meant and he said that his birds are allowed to stroll around in large pens, rather than being confined in cages. He also said that they have a social hour every day when they all congregate to play canasta and checkers. You have to admire a man with a sense of humor like that.
Turkeys today are bred to produce prodigious amounts of snowy white breast meat, as this is what the market demands. But purists can still find heritage turkeys that are closely related to the birds roaming around Plimouth Plantation four centuries ago. Connoisseurs insist the taste of heritage turkey meat is far superior to that of the Broad Breasted White turkeys that factory farms specialize in.
And if there is a wide range of opinions on how to properly cook a turkey, what of the side dishes, the so-called “fixins”? Should you offer your guests cranberry sauce with or without the skins? Turnips or yams? Pumpkin or apple pie? Ice cream or whipped cream? How about brown bread with sweet creamery butter or Indian pudding with hard sauce?
Every family has its own idea of what a well planned Thanksgiving meal looks like. But more important than what is on the table is who is seated around it with you. Today, let’s take a moment out of our busy lives and spend it being grateful for the family and friends who make us feel special every day. Bon appetit!