Yet again, it appears that all that stuff they told us in grade school is wrong. First, we found out that the business with George Washington and the cherry tree was made up by an early biographer; now it turns out that the pilgrims did not wear silver buckles on their shoes. They didn’t even call themselves (or each other) “pilgrim.” John Wayne was the only guy who ever did that, usually before he shot the pilgrim in question.
I started finding some of this stuff out last year, when I decided to host an “authentic” Thanksgiving lunch. This turns out to be impossible unless you want to hold your feast over a period of three days sometime between September 21 and November 1, which is as near as we can nail down the date of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. But it’s the menu that poses an even bigger problem – it turns out that it did not include a turkey.
Actually, a lot of stuff was missing. There was no dressing or stuffing (the dearth of flour meant there was no bread to make it with), rolls (ditto), potatoes (most Europeans still thought they were poisonous), pumpkin pie (pumpkin and winter squash were served plain and boiled, as there was no sugar or cream), and no cranberries (they’d yet to be introduced). Furthermore, all the corn was dried. We do know for sure that Governor Bradford sent “four men fowling” after wild geese and ducks. The problem is that there is no evidence they returned with a turkey (though they might have bagged a swan). The bounty was then augmented by copious amounts of venison (Bradford was presented with at least five deer), cod, clams, and lobsters.
It is unclear when Thanksgiving became inextricably bound with a turkey, a noble and tasty bird Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the national symbol. In any event, by 1941, when FDR signed the law making the fourth Thursday of November a federal holiday, lobster and clams and venison had, sadly, long been gone from the national menu. Six years later, reps of the National Turkey Federation presented President Truman with one live bird and two dressed ones on the White House lawn, a craven tradition that continues. Not only is it a rather macabre reminder of the fate of the poor live turkey, it is yet another example of the fact that lobbyists and trade associations have oozed their way into even the most supposedly wholesome corners of our lives.
For one thing, the turkey farmers the Turkey Federation represent are not the very few folks rearing all-but-forgotten heritage breeds, but the factory farmers who raise roughly 270 million turkeys a year (or 99% of the turkey we eat). These birds are bred to be so literally broad-breasted that by the time they are 8 weeks old, they are too fat to walk, much less fly, or even procreate – every Broad-Breasted White on the market is the product of artificial insemination. They are kept in giant barns, given antibiotics to prevent disease, and fed constantly so that they reach maturity in almost half the time it takes a heritage turkey. The result is bland, mushy meat that we have come to equate with tenderness, but in reality processors inject the dressed birds with saline solutions and vegetable oils to improve “mouth feel” and keep the oversize breasts from drying out.
Okay, now that I have thoroughly grossed everyone out, I will get off my soapbox and provide an antidote, as well as my “authentic” menu. For one thing, you have to get a pastured turkey. I strongly recommend the pastured bird from Marksbury Farm, which actually tastes like something and will be as moist as can be once you brine it. (See Virginia Willis’s brined turkey recipe in last week’s Fetch.) Once you’ve got the turkey down, it is an excellent idea to make like the early givers of thanks and augment your menu with some venison and shellfish – what’s not to like?
Since I live in Louisiana, we had oysters on the half shell instead of clams, and crabmeat (in the form of mini-crabcakes) instead of lobster. The rest of the appetizers included grilled duck sausage and venison sausage. We put more oysters in the dresing and had a watercress salad (watercress turns out to have been on that very first menu) and fresh corn pudding, to hell with the dried stuff. This year, we might add a lobster pan roast – if the “pilgrims” could live large during tough times, certainly we can too.
No matter what, I know my friend Elizabeth will be pouring her famous Red Rooster cocktails, which consist of 1 1/2 quarts of cranberry juice, a 6 ounce can of frozen orange juice, and 2 cups of vodka, mixed and frozen to a slush, and served with a wedge of lime. They might not be authentic, but they certainly improved the day.