A Word On Food: Turkey

Jan 11, 2014

The first time we rolled down Highway 1 in the Florida Keys was 1971. Sometimes you would not see an oncoming car for 10 to 15 minutes. The darkness on those narrow bridges we crossed was nearly overwhelming.

But above us the constellations came through. The starlight was an explosion of skyward imagery that guided us forth. Now we drive across these islands on the same highway and struggle to find a gap where you hope to find the darkness once again and the attendant miracle of the stars. Returning here, I am reminded of the words of ancient Heraclitus, “No man ever steps in the same river twice for its not the same river and hes not the same man.

When we got near Mile Marker 7 as we headed home for Christmas, we saw a glow to the west and wondered, what was burning? And then we theorized it might be the illumination of Key West glowing in the winter night. I marveled at the human beehive of the Island City, how the congregated souls assembled a vibrant culture over the past three centuries. Like many families, the holiday is defined by faith but made evident of it through the traditions of the foods we make to celebrate the cosmic and like those stars, the celestial.

With us, it would be a roasted turkey as our selected feast item this year. It is not our tradition to have turkey at Christmas. We had the best intentions to have turkey on Thanksgiving as we have every year of our lives. But all we saw of turkey in November was the stripped carcass of a once, faith assures me, plump bird.

We had been invited to a party at the beach and we were detained in traffic. Our fellow partygoers did not mean to leave us without, but at a big party as this one was, no one was at fault for not being aware of who was there and who was not.

It was our duty to bring the ham and bring the ham we did. Completed with a lusty rum and pineapple-raisin glaze. As we set it down next to the bony remains of the turkey it dazzled the still hungry Thanksgiving revelers. I slid my carving knife out of its leather case and into the haunch of a rosy pig part. Thanks for giving Mr. Pig!

With a month between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas, our loss of the annual turkey’s goodness only intensified, so the decision over roast pork or prime rib gave way to roast turkey! And if there was any wavering indecision it was quickly quelled in that, not only would we be reclaiming the gap in our turkey intake, but probably more importantly the stuffing, the mashed potatoes and my wife Janet’s gravy! She learned to cook at her mother’s side and she learned well. Her gravy is true and magical. The kind of dish a devoted son exhorts his loving wife to learn.

When turkeys were introduced to Europe from the New World, they became the dish of royalty and high society. The novelty of the large birds wowed them! Chefs flavored the birds with luxuries including foie gras and truffles.

Back here in America, it is the white meat that finds the most favor these days. Now the birds have been bred to have such large breasts that the male is unable to fertilize the eggs of the female in the natural mating position. Today’s turkey eggs are fertilized by artifical insemination.

I didn’t know that. What I also didn’t know until recently is that the Sesame Street character ‘Big Bird’ is bedecked in turkey feathers that are dyed bright yellow.

I wonder... are Bert and Ernie on to this?


Brining birds has become more and more common. Wonder why? It is successful! It keeps the breast meat moist during the long process of getting the meat done. My friend Mario Batali is a briner. Are you?

Yield: Enough for 1 breast from a 20 pound bird

1 ¼ Cups kosher salt
1 ½ Cups sugar
2 Bay leaves, broken
1 Medium onion, peeled and halved
2 Cloves

6 Whole allspice berries

6 Juniper berries

1 Turkey Breast, well rinsed

Place salt, sugar and 1 quart hot water in a large deep pot and whisk until salt and sugar crystals dissolve. Whisk in 4 quarts cold water. Pin bay leaves to onion halves with cloves and add them to brine. Add the Allspice and Juniper Berries.

Let mixture cool to room temperature.

Add turkey breast, placing a large heavy pot or sealed zip-top bag filled with cold water on top to keep breast submerged.

Place pot in refrigerator and marinate overnight.