The White House Cook Book
The White House Cook Book

10 Odd Historical Hints for Preparing a Turkey

The White House Cook Book
The White House Cook Book

While making a full Thanksgiving spread today takes time, effort, and stress, it's a piece of cake compared to what people had to deal with before modern conveniences. Here are ten tips for cooking turkey the 18th- and 19th-century way that might seem a little strange today.

1. BURN THE HAIRS AND BREAK THE BREAST BONE.

Before the advent of the modern processed turkey—plucked clean, gutted, and rinsed, with gizzards and neck in a handy bag ready for making gravy—preparing the Thanksgiving turkey was not for the faint of heart. The Cook's Own Book by Mrs. N. K. M. Lee, published in 1832, gives a quick rundown of the steps:

To prepare a turkey for dressing, every plug is carefully picked out; and in drawing turkeys and fowls, care must be taken not to break the gall bag, nor the gut which joins the gizzard, as it is impossible to remove the bitterness of the one, or the grittiness of the other. The hairs are singed off with white paper; the leg-bone is broken close to the foot, and the sinews drawn out—a cloth is then put over the breast, and the bone flattened with a rolling-pin, the liver and gizzard, made delicately clean, are fastened into each pinion.

The breast bone was broken to give the turkey a rounder, fatter appearance. Today selective breeding has taken care of that, with modern birds weighing up to twice as much as the birds Lee would have worked with, giving them that desirable, Rubenesque form even before they make it to our kitchens.

2. USE BAKING SODA TO COUNTER BITTER GALL AND RIPE INTESTINE.

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The bitterness of gall, so ineradicable in 1832, was treatable by the time Marion Harland's Common Sense in the Household was published in 1884. The cure was the same thing that fixes pretty much every other household ill: a teaspoon of baking soda. Added to the next-to-last water rinse of the turkey cavity, baking soda could defunk even gall taint. The manufacturers who trademarked the Arm & Hammer line began selling bicarbonate of soda in 1846, so its deodorant properties were well-known four decades later.

Mind you, Marion Harland was appalled that such a step should even be necessary: 

There is no direr disgrace to our Northern markets than the practice of sending whole dead fowls to market. I have bought such from responsible poultry dealers, and found them uneatable, from having remained undrawn until the flavor of the craw and intestines had impregnated the whole body. [...] " But don't you know it actually poisons a fowl to lie so long undressed?" once exclaimed a Southern lady to me. "In our markets they are offered for sale ready picked and drawn, with the giblets—also cleaned—tucked under their wings."

3. AND 4. TWO HEART-BUSTING WAYS TO STUFF A TURKEY.

The White House Cook Book

Amelia Simmons' American Cookery, first published in 1796, was the first cookbook to embrace American cuisine as separate from British, with an emphasis on indigenous ingredients like turkey, corn, squash, and potatoes. It was so popular it was reprinted for 30 years under its own name and widely plagiarized under other names.

Ms. Simmons has two recommended turkey stuffings, the main difference being the saturated fat and the meat ingredient. No salted pork handy? Beef suet will do the trick.

Option 1: "Grate a wheat loaf, one quarter of a pound butter, one quarter of a pound salt pork, finely chopped, 2 eggs, a little sweet marjoram, summer savory, parsley and sage, pepper and salt (if the pork be not sufficient,) fill the bird and sew up."

Option 2: "One pound soft wheat bread, 3 ounces beef suet, 3 eggs, a little sweet thyme, sweet marjoram, pepper and salt, and some add a gill of wine; fill the bird therewith and sew up."

A gill is a quarter of a pint, which leaves a lot of wine left in the bottle for the cook who is most certainly going to need it. 

5. TURKEY STUFFING THE FORCEMEAT WAY.

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Forcemeat is fat, meat, and seasonings ground together into a smooth emulsion. Nowadays we see it in the form of pâté, mousselines, liverwurst, sausages, Spam, Spam, hot dogs, and Spam. Susannah Carter tells us in the 1803 edition of The Frugal Housewife how to stuff a turkey with forcemeat:

A turkey when roasted, is generally stuffed in the craw with forc'd-meat, or the following stuffing: Take a pound of veal, as much grated bread, half a pound of suet cut and beat very fine, a little parsley, with a small matter of thyme, or savory, two cloves, half a nutmeg grated, a tea-spoonful of shred lemon-peel, a little pepper and salt, and the yolks of two eggs.

6. GIVE THE TURKEY AN ENGLISH FLAIR WITH "BREAD SAUCE IN A SAUCE TUREEN."

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According to Mrs. Lee in The Cook's Own Book, if you're going with a forcemeat stuffing, then you must serve the turkey with a classic English delicacy, "bread sauce in a sauce tureen."

Put a small tea-cupful of bread crumbs into a stewpan, pour on it as much milk as it will soak up, and a little more; or instead of the milk, take the giblets, head, neck, and legs, &c. of the poultry, &c. and stew them, and moisten the bread with this liquor; put it on the fire with a middling-sized onion, and a dozen berries of pepper or allspice, or a little mace; let it boil, then stir it well, and let it simmer till it is quite stiff, and then put to it about two table-spoonfuls of cream or melted butter, or a little good broth; take out the onion and pepper, and it is ready.

7. STUFF IT WITH MASHED POTATOES.

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If you're not into suet, forcemeat, or salt pork, you could always "boil and mash 3 pints potatoes, wet them with butter, add sweet herbs, pepper, salt, fill and roast" the turkey with that instead. Why have your buttery, smooth, golden mashed potatoes as a side when you could just cram as much of it as necessary to fill the cavity of your 20-pound bird? That way you wouldn't even have to add any gravy to the potatoes since they'd taste entirely like turkey already.

8. DON'T FORGET TO FROTH YOUR TURKEY!

The Frugal Housewife asserts that "when your fowls are thoroughly plump, and the smoke draws from the breast to the fire, you may be sure that they are very near done. Then baste them with butter; dust on a very little flour, and as soon as they have a good froth, serve them up."

Why would you want "a good froth" on your turkey, you ask? According to An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy by Thomas Webster and Mrs. William Parkes, published in 1855, all meat should be "frothed" before serving "to plump up the skin of meat or poultry, by which the appearance of the joint is much improved."

If encasing the turkey you just spent hours roasting to crispy-skinned perfection in a foamy blond roux just before serving doesn't sound "much improved" to you, you can kick it up a notch with other dredges like "flour and grated bread," "sugar finely powdered, and mixed with pounded cinnamon and grated bread" or "fennel seed, corianders, cinnamon, and sugar, finely beaten, and mixed with grated bread." 

9. SERVE WITH "CRAMBERRIES" AND MANGOES ON THE SIDE.

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Amelia Simmons suggests turkey be served "with boiled onions and cramberry-sauce, mangoes, pickles or celery." I don't know why we decided to standardize the spelling of cranberry with an n, because cramberries is clearly the empirically superior word. As for the mangoes, they were introduced to Britain's American colonies in the 17th century and were pickled, since the fresh ones couldn't withstand the long journey from the tropics. By the time American Cookery was written, pickled mangoes were so widespread that "to mango" was another word for pickling, as you can see in Simmons' "To pickle or make Mangoes of Melons" recipe.

10. DON'T SERVE THE DRUMSTICKS!

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"There are two side bones by the wing, which may be cut off; as likewise the back and tower side-bones: but the best pieces are the breast, and the thighs after being divided from the drum-sticks."
A New System of Domestic Cookery by Maria Eliza Rundell, 1807.

"Do not help any one to the legs, or drum-sticks as they are called."
Directions For Cookery, In Its Various Branches by Miss Leslie, 1840.

"The prime parts of a fowl are the wings, breast, and merrythought. The legs, except of young fowls, are considered as coarse. The thigh part, when separated from the drumstick, is sometimes preferred by those who consider the whiter meat of the fowl as insipid."
An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy by Thomas Webster and Mrs. William Parkes, 1855.

"The lower part of the leg (or drum-stick, as it is called) being hard, tough, and stringy is rarely ever helped to any one, but allowed to remain on the dish."
The White House Cook Book by F. L. Gillette and Hugo Ziemann, 1897.

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This Just In
The Honey Smacks In Your Pantry May Be Contaminated With Salmonella
Doc_Brown, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Cropped.
Doc_Brown, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Cropped.

Salmonella, a bacterial food-borne illness often associated with raw eggs and undercooked chicken, has been linked recently to a popular children's cereal. According to Snopes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging consumers to avoid Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, citing the brand as the likely cause of the Salmonella outbreak spreading across the U.S.

Since early March, 73 people in 31 states have contracted the virus. Salmonella clears up in most people on its own, but in some cases it can lead to hospitalization or even death. Twenty-four victims have been admitted to hospitals so far, with no reported deaths. Of the 39 patients who were questioned, 30 of them remembered eating cold cereal and 14 of them specifically cited Honey Smacks.

In response to the outbreak, the Kellogg Company has recalled its 15.3-ounce and 23-ounce boxes of Honey Smacks printed with any "best if used by" date between June 14, 2018 and June 14, 2019 (recalled boxes are labeled on the bottom with the UPC codes 3800039103 or 3800014810). The CDC recommends that you take even greater precautions by throwing out or returning any Honey Smacks you have at home, regardless of package size, "best by" date, or whether your family has eaten from the box previously without getting sick.

Symptoms of Salmonella include diarrhea, fever, headache, and abdominal pain, and usually appear 12 hours to three days after the contaminated food is ingested. If you or someone in your household is showing signs of the infection, ask a doctor about how to best treat it.

[h/t Snopes]

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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