Pick from the Past

November 1975

Turkey in the Slaw

His origins are confused, his intelligence questionable,
but this not-so-all-American bird’s welcome at the
dinner table is undisputed.

iStockphoto.com/Tom Grundy

As the Bicentennial year grinds inexorably toward Thanksgiving, it is altogether fitting and proper, not to say obligatory, that we should all contemplate the turkey. If there ever was a time to scrutinize the nature and tradition of Meleagris gallopavo, this, my fellow Americans, is it. Unfortunately, like so many of the commonplaces of patriotism, the turkey, when closely examined, does not live up to its reputation as a purely native American phenomenon.

True, the various wild turkeys that ranged the forest floors of the pre-Columbian New World from Maine to the Yucatan did originate in this hemisphere. The colonists at Plymouth and elsewhere along the eastern seaboard did, undoubtedly, gnaw festively on turkey legs. And we may even credit that hoary legend of the first Thanksgiving without unwise suspension of disbelief. Wild turkeys, their tails tipped brown, were indeed available as a woodland bounty for the otherwise softly groaning Pilgrim board. And early Virginia colonists did begin another sort of tradition by raiding Indian turkey traps for Christmas fowl.

The trouble with these stories is that they imply an original kind of celebration—a New World bird eaten for the first time at a New World feast in a white Anglo-Saxon setting—whereas the turkey had gobbled its way to culinary celebrity long before the Mayflower sailed. And its first apotheosis came, so far as we know, among the Aztecs, who braised it and ate it on special occasions in a hot sauce containing chocolate. The dish survives in modern Mexico, as mole poblano de guajolore. The authentic turkey recipe, then, belongs to the heritage of speakers of Nahuati, not English.

The Daughters of the American Revolution cannot even fall back to claiming that the turkeys they now eat descend from wildfowl domesticated by their foremothers on American soil. The first domesticated North American turkeys were, in fact, imported from Europe. The Black Norfolk and White Holland varieties came to the British colonies from England, where they had first been bred. The first truly American hybrid, the Mammoth Bronze, was bred later, at Point Judith, Rhode Island.

Worse yet, Europeans in the colonial period had no idea that they owed turkeys to the New World. They confused them with guinea fowl, whence the generic name, Meleagris, which means just that. The Linnaean species name, gallopavo, also betrays confusion. It means chicken-peacock. But all this is only learned error. Our colloquial name, turkey, arose from a parallel conflation of avian identities. The guinea fowl was imported to Europe via Turkey. One thing led to another, you see, it being so hard to keep all those strange foreign places straight. (Think also of guinea pigs, which really came from Guiana.) Why, in France they thought turkeys came from India (d’Inde). Eventually, the apostrophe dropped out, leaving the modern French word for turkey, dinde. (French guinea pigs also are supposed to have come from India; they are cochons d ’Inde.)

Domestication followed close on the heels of those first misnamed turkeys imported to Europe in the early sixteenth century. At a wedding in 1560 in Arnstadt, Germany, 150 birds were slaughtered. Flocks were thriving on the lower Rhine by 1571. In France, Charles IX feasted on turkeys at a special dinner in 1570. And the English custom of the Christmas turkey was established in 1585.

Meanwhile, ordinary people came to know the turkey as an awkward, not overly brilliant barnyard fowl. Although grateful for its ample breast meat, the French seized on the bird’s stupidity and took to calling any dupe a “turkey.” Similar ill will has led to the slang expression “turkey,” for a failed play.

Probably, the turkey’s most notably unintelligent trait is the propensity of a hen to sit on her nest for days on end without moving. Unless they are nudged into motion, some turkeys will sit still until they literally starve to death. Furthermore, turkeys look stupid, with their featherless heads and gawky necks and oversize wattles. But they are, or can be, delicious, and they are very cheap these days, well under a dollar a pound. From a luxury food to a staple on the tables of poor people and prisoners, turkey meat—either fresh, frozen, or pressed into a loaf—is a bargain whose availability we owe to poultry science and to the basic adaptability of this giant in the Galliformes pecking order.

Gena Fine’s Podvarak Turkey with Sauerkraut
in the Serbian Manner

  • ½ pound lard, approximately 2 large onions, peeled and chopped
  • ½ cup chopped parsley 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1–3 chili peppers, crumbled 1 tablespoon
  • Hungarian paprika
  • 3 quarts sauerkraut, drained, rinsed, and squeezed dry
  • Salt
  • Pepper 1 8–9 pound turkey
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Melt 6 tablespoons of lard in a large skillet (or in two medium skillets).
  3. Sauté the onion in the lard until translucent. Stir in parsley, garlic, chili peppers, and paprika. Then add sauerkraut, a handful at a time, stirring until well blended with the other ingredients. Continue stirring and sauté until the sauerkraut mixture has turned golden brown. You will probably have to melt an additional half cup of lard into the skillet to smooth out the mixture and keep it from burning.
  4. Add salt and pepper to taste. Then stuff the turkey’s cavity with as much sauerkraut mixture as possible. Close the cavity and truss the turkey for roasting.
  5. Spread remaining sauerkraut mixture over the bottom of a roasting pan just large enough to hold the turkey. Dot the sauerkraut generously with lard, and put the turkey, breast up, on top of the bed of sauerkraut.
  6. Set the roasting pan, uncovered, in the oven at a level just below the center (so that the turkey itself cooks in the middle of the oven). Roast for approximately 2¾ to 3 hours or until a roasting thermometer placed in the thickest part of a thigh (but not touching the bone) registers 180°. Baste the turkey every 15 minutes. If you do not find enough pan juices for basting, add a cup of chicken stock or water and replenish the liquid as necessary. During the last half hour of roasting, fold a sheet of aluminum foil over the turkey breast to keep it from drying out.

Yield: 8 generous servings

Note: Step 6 is a non-Serbian roasting method. If you already have your own favorite way of tackling turkeys in the oven, use it, but be careful that the exposed sauerkraut does not dry out and burn. Either add liquid to it, as above, or melt in more lard. There will probably be some leftover sauerkraut. This is not a problem. Reheat it and serve with sausage. Serbs like to eat unsweetened cornbread with their podvarak.

Like the chicken, the turkey can double its birth weight in about two weeks. This compares with 180 days for a similar average weight gain in human beings; horses take about 60 days, cows 47, goats 22, sheep 15, hogs 14, dogs 9, and rabbits 6.

Turkeys also progress to marketable weights with exemplary speed. And they have certain other economic advantages over mammalian meat animals. Again like chickens, turkeys’ birth schedules can be artificially manipulated. Eggs, once laid, can be held under refrigeration for significant periods of time, until the hatchery is ready for a new batch. The optimum holding temperature is 50 degrees Fahrenheit and ten to fourteen days is the maximum holding period.

Modern incubators and brooding coops also bring enormous efficiency to the turkey breeding process. In an automated incubator, the 28-day hatching period can be controlled so that egg temperature increases gradually from 101½ degrees to 104 degrees. At the same time, the eggs are automatically turned every four to six hours so that the embryos do not adhere to the shell membrane. The incubator also simulates crucial natural processes by producing regular cooling for the first twenty-four days and by maintaining a relative humidity of 60 percent. This atmosphere allows the eggs to lose internal moisture, which, in turn, reduces the weight of the egg and the size of the unhatched poult just enough so that it can move about inside the shell and eventually peck its way out into the world. An average weight loss through transpiration is 12 to 13 percent. This also leaves an air bubble, or cell, inside the shell. Experienced poultrymen can gauge their success by noting the size of the air cell when they candle their eggs. Candling (examining eggs by holding them between the eye and a light) also reveals dead eggs through dark spots that show up under illumination.

Humidity matters even after the young turkeys emerge, for if the air is too dry, the poults will chill from excessive evaporation of body moisture. This. danger imperils all young poultry hatched in incubators, but turkeys are particularly susceptible.

They are, moreover, susceptible to a multitude of evils if they are subjected to artificial brooding. Typically, fifty poults will spend four to six weeks in coops (made of wire mesh to facilitate cleanliness) with a floor space of four square feet and walls fourteen inches high. The crowding and boredom of the brooding coop and the absence of a mother hen to provide diversion can lead to perverse and destructive habits. Turkeys sometimes take to eating their droppings or pecking at each other, pulling feathers, or impacting their digestive systems with sand. They may also pile up in warm places in the coop, where the sun hits the roof, for instance, and smother each other. Release comes when a turkey reaches a weight of one and one-half to two-pounds, usually in the sixth or seventh week of life. By twenty-six weeks, an average bird can attain over eighteen pounds. Full adult weight for a Bronze Mammoth cock is well over thirty pounds.

These large and rapid gains are possible because of a simple but efficient digestive system, which is ideally suited for converting tough-hulled grain feeds into usable nourishment. The turkey’s elongated esophagus is an elastic tube with a pouch midway where feed can be held and exposed to digestive juices. This nutritional staging area, the crop, or craw, is officially called the ingluvies. From the crop, the food passes down the lower gullet, into the stomach (proventiculus), and from there to the gizzard.

The gizzard (gigerium) is really a biological mill, a muscular chamber that grinds up grain, often with the help of grit previously ingested by the bird. (To cook gizzards without having them go tough, peel away the outer membrane, simmer in water for thirty minutes, dice, and add to soup.) Finally, food passes from the gizzard into the intestinal tract.

And so, after a short and regimented life, Tom Turkey ends up—slaughtered and plucked—on the kitchen table, ready to be cooked. Then comes the trouble. Assuming you have ordered a fresh-killed, not a frozen turkey, you must still contend with a basically insoluble problem: roasting a bird that is “two” birds. Turkey breasts always tend to be done long before turkey legs. Many dodges have been artfully evolved to get around this dilemma. I offer one below. I am also taking the liberty of including a Serbian recipe for turkey with sauerkraut. If this seems bumptious and unpatriotic, I remind you that the domestic turkey is an immigrant and the feast of Thanksgiving itself is the prototypical celebration of American immigrants—strangers in a new world.

Although the combination of turkey and sauerkraut is not unknown in this country, this version, called podvarak, came to me from a recent immigrant from Yugoslavia, where it is a major festive dish of winter. It has become one of my favorite dishes. The juices of the turkey merge so magnificently with the sauerkraut that one almost feels that the turkey itself is a secondary feature of the meal. The kraut is what you will remember, along with, perhaps, a renewed and visceral sense of what is meant by a pluralistic society.

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