The Thanksgiving turkey is a golden idol, sitting at the center of the dinner table, and just about as useful.
From the complex math to figure out how long the defrosting and cooking will take (always wrong); to the parsing over conflicting instructions for dry or wet brining; to the five or six hours of basting; to the final battle with the carving knife, it is the result of several days of kitchen labor. And in the end, will result in piles and piles of leftovers, because everyone would rather be eating pie and mashed potatoes anyway.
But it’s a symbol, so Thanksgiving without it is inconceivable, right? This may be the year we test that theory.
Thanksgiving dinner will cost an average of 20% more than last year, due to price increases in ingredients such as flour, butter, cooking oil and sweet potatoes. On top of that inflation, there’s also a turkey shortage due to an outbreak of avian flu which, as of late October, had killed 6 million turkeys across the country. Some turkey farmers slaughtered birds early to avoid the flu and have been keeping them on ice since the summer, but those will be smaller, yet still more expensive: the average cost of a whole frozen turkey currently hovers around $2.19 per pound, a full dollar more than last year.
In Brooklyn, Court Street Grocers had to stop serving its popular turkey sandwiches for a few weeks in early November. “People were very upset about it. They almost couldn’t believe it,” says Cailin Wolff, the director of kitchen operations. In Chicago, the James Beard award-winning restaurant Virtue informed customers that this year’s takeout Thanksgiving dinner will cost more than last year’s because the cost of free-range turkeys has nearly doubled in price. (They sold out anyway.) In the Bay Area, caterers and restaurant owners have been scrambling to secure enough turkeys from suppliers to satisfy preorders. Even Arby’s has run short: after customers complained about receiving turkey bacon ranch sandwiches without the turkey, the company posted a notice on its website that turkey is unavailable for online orders and limited in stores.
But let’s ask the honest question here: is turkey really that great?
Most turkeys we eat now are descended from a cross-breed developed at Cornell University in the 1950s to satisfy the national demand for more white meat. Its chief values were breast size and maximum growth, not flavor. Most home cooks are used to preparing it just once a year and cooking a 12lb bird evenly in a conventional oven is, to put it gently, a challenge, from which far too many turkeys emerge with dry breasts, singed wing tips, and flabby skin.
So, here’s a radical proposal: maybe in this Thanksgiving of the turkey shortage, it’s time to do away with the big bird – and its sleep-inducing tryptophan – altogether.
But … tradition, you say! Pilgrims! Plymouth Rock! The enduring friendship of Squanto and Massasoit! The sad truth is, there is no historical evidence that the Pilgrims ate turkey at that momentous meal: the one surviving account mentions only “five deere” and “much fowle”. The tale of the first Thanksgiving was forgotten almost immediately after it happened – not even the pilgrims made it an annual celebration – and wasn’t resurrected until 250 years later when it suddenly popped up in school textbooks as part of a larger propaganda effort to bring Americans back together after the civil war. (And it didn’t always work: some southern states pointedly refused to join the northern states in celebrating on the fourth Thursday of November post-Reconstruction.)
The pilgrims were far from the first people to give thanks with a big meal. “It’s an idea that has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years on other continents,” says Denise Kiernan, author of We Gather Together, which describes how the modern American Thanksgiving came to be. “Over the centuries, there have been various festivals, gatherings and religious events, many giving thanks for harvests or victories or showing respect.”
Sometime in the 1700s, New Englanders began celebrating the fall harvest with big family meals. Nobody remembers how turkey got involved. Maybe it was because it was plentiful, or because it was big enough to feed lots of people, or maybe because humans didn’t eat its eggs so a dead turkey wouldn’t be missed as much as a dead chicken. But as New Englanders spread the custom throughout the rest of the country, people went along with it because turkeys were almost everywhere and, crucially, they were cheap.
In the 1840s, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the pre-eminent women’s magazine of 19th-century America, decided that what the nation needed to fend off the impending civil war was a Thanksgiving holiday to bring everyone together in gratitude, regardless of religion, race or position toward slavery. Her strategy was two-pronged: first, she launched a letter-writing campaign targeting government leaders, and then, in her magazine, she published stories about idealized Thanksgiving meals with big, golden turkeys, plus recipes. Her campaign worked; by the time Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in November 1863, turkey was enshrined as the symbol of the holiday. The government even made a point of shipping it to soldiers at the front.
By the turn of the century, other foods that had once been considered as essential to the Thanksgiving menu as turkey, including chicken pie and plum pudding, were eighty-sixed forever. No one misses them.
“The thing about traditions,” Kiernan says, “is that we often don’t think about them. It’s interesting to look back and see that things haven’t always been done the same way. They’ve changed many times. And they can change again, if we want them to. The important thing is to embrace the essence of it, to leave the myths behind, to come together to say thank you as a community.”
Kiernan notes that vegetarians and vegans have been adapting the Thanksgiving menu for decades now – one early call for a turkey-less Thanksgiving dinner came all the way back in 1835 from William Andrus Alcott, the first president of the American Vegetarian Society. And other people who couldn’t have turkey made feasts of their own with whatever they had. “One of my favorite parts of my book,” she says, “was an article from 1897 in a Chicago paper about a guy who used to fish from Lake Michigan, and that was his Thanksgiving feast.” But for a historically accurate turkey alternative, she suggests oysters, which were a popular part of the Thanksgiving meal well into the 20th century.
Across the internet, from the New York Times to Martha Stewart, food writers have been suggesting other meals that look just as impressive and can feed just as many people: crown roasts and beef Wellingtons, roasted ducks and chickens, pot pies, pernils and prime rib.
Or, in the case of my family, lasagne. It feeds a lot of people, heats up beautifully for leftovers, and unlike turkey, really does make a person feel drowsy and grateful … because that tryptophan thing? Just another myth.