The tradition of having a domesticated turkey on the Thanksgiving table is fairly recent, and at first these turkeys looked much like their wild cousins. As a young child, my mother had never seen a turkey, either wild or domesticated. She knew from storybooks, however, that turkey was what you were supposed to eat at Thanksgiving, just as the Pilgrims had done. Her family had chicken on the Thanksgiving table, and she knew that was not quite "proper." She was very excited one year when her Uncle Arnold was given a special bonus from the paper mill: a live turkey! He immediately invited my mother's family to Thanksgiving dinner and built a little pen for the bird behind his house in town. Mom lived on a dairy farm, so her father began supplying his brother with oats and feed for this bird. There was tremendous anticipation in both families, as well as running jokes about whether that turkey was getting nice and fat yet.
As the feast day approached, my mother made a special request of her uncle. She was in grade school, and the kids in her one room schoolhouse had been drawing turkey pictures. Along with her classmates, she'd been coloring in the feathers using every crayon in the box, in all sorts of stripes and combinations. In her mind, turkeys were the most beautiful birds in the world, with dazzling jewel-toned feathers, even better than peacocks.
Even more than wanting a taste of this legendary bird for Thanksgiving Dinner, my mom was just dying to have some of its feathers. "Of course!" said her uncle, he would be glad to save some feathers for her, yes, even some of the big tailfeathers. When he handed her a bundle of drab, brown feathers, she was as disappointed as ever a seven year old could be. Her beautiful, magical turkey feathers had turned out to be as ordinary as brown leaves.
Her disappointment wasn't relieved at dinner. Nobody was quite sure how long to cook a turkey, but the ladies sure didn't want it to be underdone, so they were generous in their estimate. Despite its recent lush diet of farm grains and vegetable scraps, that turkey wasn't exactly juicy by the time it emerged from the oven. As the youngest, my mom was given a "nice" piece of white meat from the breast, and she recalls it took an awful lot of chewing to choke it down. I'm sure everyone around that table joined her in wondering why they'd made such a fuss over having that turkey, while politely assuring one another that it was the best Thanksgiving meal ever. Fortunately, domestic turkeys have come a long way through selective breeding and experienced husbandry, and now the Thanksgiving turkey is again an eagerly anticipated highlight of our family meal.
A big turkey on your holiday table, however, can turn into a week-long supply of leftovers. Just as turkeys in your yard can overstay their welcome, a roasted turkey may become tiresome after its Thanksgiving Day debut. If you have a low tolerance for leftovers, you may want to opt for a smaller turkey or for a turkey breast. We love turkey, however, and we have yet to roast too large a bird. Our family has a tradition of making sandwiches-- not merely turkey sandwiches, but "Thanksgiving sandwiches," containing turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. This creation originated when one of my cousins was born just before Thanksgiving. My uncle didn't want my aunt to miss out on Thanksgiving dinner, so he crammed all the most necessary components of the feast between two slices of white bread, dressed with a little Miracle WhipTM. It's not a tidy sandwich, but it sure is good.
We use turkey in such a variety of dishes that we try to pick out a bird that's at least twice as large as we think we'll eat right away. One of our favorite recipes is Turkey Mole', a nice change of pace from the traditional dishes on the Thanksgiving table. Garden vegetables from your freezer would make it extra special!
Thanksgiving Turkey Molé
1 jar (8 oz.) molé sauce (Dona Maria is a good brand)
½ tablet (44 grams) Mexican chocolate (Nestle Abueleta)
3-4 cups turkey stock or chicken broth
2-3 cups cubed or shredded leftover roast turkey
1 (15 oz.) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15 oz.) cans whole kernel corn, drained
2 large red bell peppers, seeded and diced
1 large sweet onion, diced
hot sauce or cayenne pepper added to taste
Combine the molé sauce, chicken stock, and chocolate in a 2 quart saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until the chocolate melts and the sauce becomes velvety. Be sure to scrape the chocolate from the bottom of the pot as it melts, so it does not burn.
In a large pan, sauté the onions and peppers briefly before adding the black beans and the molé sauce you just made. (You can also make the sauce in the pan, but it's a little easier in a separate pot.)
Simmer on low heat, stirring occasionally, for at least 30 minutes to allow the black beans to absorb the flavor of the sauce. Add the corn and the turkey and bring up to a bubbling simmer for 5 to 10 minutes.
Serve with white rice, or add cooked rice to the pan and then roll the mixture in flour tortillas with lettuce and tomato.
For more turkey recipes and creative ways to serve leftover turkey, subscribers can look for seasonal threads in the Recipe Forum. Darius had a wonderful article yesterday about Heritage Turkeys, and I wrote about Wild Turkeys on Thanksgiving Day.
Whether or not turkeys are part of your festivities, I wish you and yours a Very Happy Thanksgiving celebration!
Thanks to Jessaree for letting me use the fabulous photo of her husband's "Tom Turkey," and thanks to my dad (NicnCarol) for sending me the photo of our family Thanksgiving table.
Special thanks to Madeline and Peter, my niece and nephew, and to their mom Michelle. We spent a fun hour making colorful "hand turkeys" on Thanksgiving morning, and I had to share them with you!
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Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 29, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)