“It’s so easy to dream, of the days gone by,
it’s so hard to think of the times to come.
But the grace to accept each moment as a gift,
is a gift that is given to some.” Thanksgiving Eve by Bob Franke.*
On the fourth Wednesday in November there is a relaxing of shoulders and a sigh of relief as Norman Rockwell comes alive in homes across the nation. Thanksgiving is near. There’s a cozy fire in the wood stove. People think the best of each other. Time to get out the guitar and try to remember ‘Thanksgiving Eve,’ substituting whatever chords might work. The bird will be just about thawed in the refrigerator and it will be a good one.
Here at Woodshed Kings we get those organic, free-range turkeys. You know, the ones raised with love and killed by conflicted aging hippies in earth shoes with the last sounds in a gobbler’s consciousness being the Grateful Dead singing ‘Brokedown Palace.’
Organic turkeys cost about twice as much as the others. Here are the top five reasons they’re worth it:
1) These are birds that keep on giving. We can get back to 1960’s frugality because we’re highly motivated to wring every calorie out of them. Say you spend an extra thirty-five dollars on a fifteen pounder. You feed eight or ten people dinner then send guests home with enough left-overs for another meal. On the day after Thanksgiving you pick the turkey then boil the bones and pick them for soup stock, mix up a big batch of soup that will be enough for a dozen more meals. Add some of the picked meat to the soup and freeze it. Use the rest of the meat in turkey/stuffing/cranberry sauce sandwiches over the next few days. If ingredients for the entire meal (not counting alcohol) from turkey to pie cost a hundred-twenty dollars and you get 34 meals out of it we’re looking at three dollars and change per meal which is less than most fast food meals. Plus you can roast the turkey skin with salt like potato chips. It’s killer.
2) When I’ve compared organic, free-range giblets with a similar size factory farm birds’, the organic heart looked bigger. Which makes sense given that factory farm birds are so packed together in the barns they can barely move. Their hearts and circulatory systems could hardly be expected to develop like a free range bird. To me the coloring of free-range giblets appears darker, the texture more firm and the flavor more rich. Quality innards must have an impact on the meat.
3) You are what you eat, as they say and organic turkeys are fed what turkeys have evolved over millions of years to thrive on. Factory farmed turkeys are fed—No, I’m not even going to describe it.
4) Organic turkeys are raised without antibiotics.
5) You’re supporting family owned organic farmers instead of corporate factory farms.
Roasting pan, baster and thermometer
A sturdy roasting pan is a good friend in the kitchen that doesn’t have to cost much, will last for decades and you can use it other kinds of meals, as a warmer, to carry food to pot lucks etc. Forget those aluminum foil throw-away pans that can collapse under a heavy bird. They’re not even recyclable and over time will cost you more than if you’d just bought a real pan in the first place. For basting: a brush, spoon or bulb turkey baster all work fine. We use stainless steel turkey basters to avoid chemicals in the plastic ones. Meat thermometers are cheap and take the guesswork out of poultry. Remember the temperature will rise a few degrees while the cooked bird is resting after you take it out of the oven.
Almost all poultry comes to our town in freezer vans on the barge. Buy your bird a few weeks before the holiday and you’re more likely to find the size you want. Pop it into your freezer. It’ll be hard as a brick so mark your calendar for Sunday night before the holiday to transfer it, still wrapped, to a plate in the refrigerator. It’ll thaw gradually over the next few days. Check it Wednesday to see how it’s doing. If you forgot to thaw it until Tuesday or Wednesday and it’s still frozen, all the turkey recipes say don’t let it thaw on the counter because of salmonella risk. I’ve made it work by putting the still-wrapped bird into a garbage bag and setting the whole thing into a 5 gallon pot filled with cold water on the counter, changing the water every few hours. Not recommended but, just saying…When you’re ready to start cooking, if there’s any ice still in the body cavity rinse the cavity with cold water and pull out the ice. It’ll thaw faster once the giblets are out. If the bird is thawed, but still a little firm on the inside, I’ve left it on the counter while making the stuffing and it’s worked out. The stuffing goes in warm and tends to finish the thawing. What you don’t want is to put a partly frozen turkey in the oven because it doesn’t cook uniformly.
How my grandparents cooked turkey
Not so many people still make stuffed turkey because they’re worried about salmonella. Also it takes a little longer to prepare and cook a stuffed turkey and it’s more work—if you call getting up every once and a while to baste it work. On the upside, I spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas watching my grandmother make the turkey this way. I like to think of her and remember the familiar smells and flavors of the day.
neck and giblets
about 6 cups water (heat a couple more cups of water on the side. You may want it depending on how much bread you put in.)
1 onion peeled and chopped fine
about 12 cups stale bread crumbs (leave the bread out for a day or two then cube it)*
about 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons poultry seasoning (don’t overdo it your don’t want to overwhelm the other flavors. If you’re going to taste the batch, taste it before adding the sausage)
4 links breakfast sausage, uncooked, peeled**
Figure around ¾ cups stuffing per pound of turkey. Stuffing is always the first thing we run out of. I usually mix up half-again of the last four ingredients, put the excess in a buttered bread pan and bake that in the last hour and a half with the turkey and baste them at the same time.
Start this an hour before you’re going to put the turkey in the oven. Remove neck and giblets from bird. Put the bird back in the refrigerator. Put neck and giblets in the water, bring to a boil then simmer half an hour. While that’s happening chop the onion and pull the cases off the sausages. Take neck and giblets off the stove and spoon them onto a plate to cool. Save the water (!) from the giblets. Set it outside to cool enough to handle. Pick meat off the neck, chop it. Grate the giblets. When the water cooled, but still warm, begin mixing everything in a large bowl, using your clean fingers. The objective is for the whole mess to be the consistency of moist oatmeal. Add about four and a half cups of the warm giblet water slowly until it feels right. The bread will absorb water so let it sit a few minutes then check consistency before you stuff the bird.
* Stuffing evolves as we all must. Grandma used a mix of bread crumbs, Kennedy crackers (which are like oyster crackers) and Bell turkey seasoning. My mother followed the old recipe except she used store bought stuffing mix instead of the bread and seasoning. I use use the old recipe with half organic white bread crumbs and half sourdough which gives it a nice tang.
My grandfather had to have his stuffing just so, to the point that one year, when a relative did the cooking and made cornbread stuffing, Gramp got through it politely as he could manage, went out next day, bought all the ingredients and, the following Sunday made the entire meal over again with his stuffing. With that dynamic, when my mother switched to store bought she didn’t tell him. He raved about how good it was and got really mad at her when she fessed up.
**For some reason lots of people on the internet are driven to comment on things they’ve never tried. Look up cooking sausage in the stuffing, or even stuffing a turkey at all, and they’re aghast. Both my grandparents ate sausage stuffing on the holidays all their lives and lived hale and hearty into their 90’s. My great-grandmother, used to put lard in her stuffing-in addition to the sausage. Back in her day people just worked it off. My grandmother decided lard was over the top and eliminated it.
Miss Rudolph the Voodoo Lady Stuffing time is my moment to launch into Richard Pryor’s ‘Little Feets’ routine where he takes his partner Mudbone to get his feet healed by Miss Rudolph the Voodoo Lady in return for a turkey. This is the November recital; like ‘The Highwayman’ is the October recital or ‘I Have a Dream’ is the January recital. I’m not sure what year I started doing this but it seems to earn me a lot of counter space. By the time I get to the disappearing tarantula, “When I left the house I’m thinking turkey. There’s a big, pretty bird in my goddam mind, see. I don’t give a shit if she’s in Timbuktu, the bitch got a turkey coming from me.” somehow I’ve got the kitchen pretty much to myself.
When the stuffing’s ready, rinse the turkey with cold water. Stuff the neck (smaller) cavity first. Fold skin over stuffing then turn wings back at the wrist joints to hold the flap in place. Put breast side down in buttered roasting pan then fill up the larger body cavity with stuffing. Melt half a stick of butter and rub over the bird. (A lot of recipes say to cook it with the breast side down for the first hour then turn over. I don’t do that. ‘Cause grandma didn’t.) Bake in 325 degree oven (you can shave off a little cooking time by going a bit hotter, maybe 335 or 340 but if the oven’s too hot your turkey can end up dry on the outside and not done on the inside.) Cooking time, stuffed or unstuffed, depends on weight and is printed on the bird wrapper. Baste every twenty minutes to half hour. It takes about an hour before enough juice comes out of the bird for easy basting so you may need to rub it again with some butter on the first baste. You want to be on your game with cooking time and temperature to hit that sweet spot where the bird and stuffing are cooked to the right temperature but not dry.
One other thing my grandmother usually did was to mix a paste of half butter and half flour which she would daub onto the turkey in the last two hours of cooking. When she basted this it would turn into amazing, savory, melt-in-your-mouth crusty bits. For us ravenous kids, and my grandfather, too, it was part of Thanksgiving to distract grandma from her basting so we could swipe a pinch of that. Sometimes I add this step, sometimes not. If I do people come over and pick off a pinch when I baste.
At some point the guests arrive including their dogs who are sure Nirvana will smell like our house. Reinforcements appear in the kitchen. Things get busy. By some miracle, organized by my wife, mashed potatoes, gravy, squash, salad, home baked rolls and hot cranberry sauce, all land on the table at the same time as the turkey. It’s a singular gathering without stress and where the only controversy will be whether we should take a walk before pumpkin pie or after. There’s a lot to be thankful for when your own table is where you’d rather be than any other place.
*Sally Roger’s beautiful version of ‘Thanksgiving Eve’ is on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dADZFqO62A
Guitar chords and lyrics are in the songbook, ‘Rise Up Singing’ if you’re so inclined.
Richard Pryor’s “Little Feets” is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBCWgqLGHn4 (Miss Rudolph’s turkey comes in at minute 6:20.)