Thanksgiving is synonymous with turkey, of course -- a depressing fact no amount of boiling oil, salt water, or heritage breeding can disguise. Turkey is bad. Even as the self-appointed “majarajah of meat,” I find it impossible to work up any enthusiasm for this bland bird -- and I make a living from feigning fascination, especially during the holiday article-assigning season.
Nor can I say easily why turkey is such an unconquerably banal food. A moist piece of roast chicken remains one of the most perfect things the human race has ever learned to consume. But the turkey -- with the same crisp skin, succulent nether regions, and vast expanses of plump breast -- hardly inspires anybody. Where are the odes to the Bourbon Red or Jersey Buff to stand beside the panegyric literature inspired by the noble poulet de bresse? Where is the Colonel Sanders or General Tso of turkey? What caring mother turns to turkey soup as a panacea for childhood illness? Turkeys are sold year round, though generally in the form of icy cannonballs, the hardest and heaviest objects in the entire supermarket. But you can buy a fresh one at Whole Foods, or even a good market like Publix or Wegman’s. You can make soup with it, slow roast it with 40 cloves of garlic, smoke the wings. But no one does. And the reason is that turkey is bad.
One of Calvin Trillin’s applause lines over the last few years has been his suggestion, half-serious, that spaghetti carbonara replace the turkey as the official food of Thanksgiving. Carbonara, of course, is festive and nourishing, a party in a bowl. Turkey, contrarily, is magnificent in its presentation, a universal symbol of plenty. But once cut up it doesn’t look like anything. Few home chefs have it in their power to cut broad and even slices of white meat, to carefully separate out the legs and wings, and to first cook and then carve the difficult and fatty dark meat. As a result, the average turkey platter is just a pile of odd-shaped slices of meat, with a Henry VII meat scepter set on each side. A china boat filled with brown gravy attempts to cover up the essential flavorlessness of the meat, and sometimes succeeds; but it looks as amorphous and boring as the turkey itself.
So what is the solution? By now, most everyone who plans on cooking for Thanksgiving has bought their bird. The best solution is probably that of Paulie, who in a fit of rage yelled “!! Ya want the bird, go out in the alley an' eat the bird!” after throwing it out the door. But failing that, I would roast the turkey in two stages. Cook it to the exact moment when the breast meat is perfect, taking no thought for the dark. The juice will be running clear from pricks made in the flesh between the leg and the thigh, but the dark meat will still be undercooked. Make your presentation, and then slice the breast whole, taking care to keep the skin attached. Then serve that, as a kind of ready-to-carve roast, as a first turkey course, while the rest of the carcass, flipped upside down, cooks in a hot (450 degree) oven. When the second course, with its brown, sizzling skin and luscious thigh meat appears, it will be doubly welcome, and the abundance of grease will make people forget the essential insipidity of the white meat they’ve just eaten. It’s no more effective than frying or smoking at imparting flavor to turkey, just as the bacon in a club sandwich will always be better than the meat it attempts to enliven; but the crowd will be tricked into thinking they have eaten well, and the abundance of brown fatty skin, the only real repository of goodness in a turkey, will carry the day without a lot of work.
And then the next day, you can make turkey stock; perhaps in that rare elixir the secret to a tasty turkey, so long pursued, will be found at last.