Tamar Haspel writes Unearthed, a monthly commentary in pursuit of a more constructive conversation on divisive food-policy issues. She farms oysters on Cape Cod. Find out more about her at www.tamarhaspel.com
Americans will eat more than 40 million turkeys for Thanksgiving this year. Most will be roasted, some deep-fried, a few spatchcocked and nearly all turned into sandwiches the day after.At least one lucky bird will receive a presidential pardon. But between the iconic 1621 meal that we honor and Thursday’s dinner table, the turkey has earned its place in our nation’s mythology.
Myth No. 1: Ben Franklin almost made the turkey the national bird.
In “The Egg,” a song from the Tony-winning 1969musical “1776,” adapted for the big screen in 1972, Benjamin Franklin whimsically makes the case that the turkey should be the fledgling republic’s national emblem, because it is “the truly noble bird: native American, source of sustenance of our original settlers, an incredibly brave fellow who will not flinch at attacking a regiment of Englishmen, single-handedly.” In 2009, the Houston Chronicle published an article headlined “The turkey was almost our national bird,” attributing the near miss to Franklin.
Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson made up the first committee charged with designing the national seal, Harvard's Declaration Resources Project confirms, but Franklin's suggestion had nothing to do with turkeys - it was a proposal to depict Moses parting the Red Sea. Eventually, after several design committees had been assembled and disbanded, America got the bald eagle in 1782.
Franklin's turkey remarks came later. In a 1784 satirical letter to his daughter,he maligned the eagle's "bad moral character": He's "too lazy to fish for himself" and instead waits for other, more industrious birds to do the work, then steals the catch. The turkey is a "more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America," Franklin wrote.
Myth No. 2: Stuffing turkey is a recipe for food poisoning.
Two years ago, Self magazine ran the article"Cooking Stuffing Inside a Turkey Is Actually Dangerous," urging readers to "cook your stuffing separately!" The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website, EatRight.org, warns, "For maximum safety, cook stuffing in a casserole" dish.
Yes, it’s important to take precautions when cooking poultry, but you can safely stuff a turkey - generations of Americans wouldn’t have risked dying for the sake of a more flavorful side dish. The key is proper temperature. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, your turkey, and what’s inside it, must be cooked to a temperature of 165 degrees.
To achieve this: (1) Stuff your raw turkey just after you've cooked your stuffing and it's still hot. Don't make your stuffing ahead of time and refrigerate it. That way, it takes less time for the stuffing to reach 165. (2) Don't overstuff. A loosely stuffed bird heats more quickly. Leftover stuffing can go in a separate casserole that your guests will raid for seconds. (3) Measure the temperature. Make sure your culinary thermometer reaches the interior of the stuffing, either through the meat or through the cavity entrance. And don't trust the pop-up thermometer that comes with the turkey you buy. When Consumer Reports tested them, it found some popped up at temperatures over 165 (making for an overcooked, dry bird) and some popped up at well under 165 (increasing the risk of food poisoning).
Myth No. 3: Basting is better.
Basting "adds flavor and helps create a golden crust," wrote Bon Appétit's Rochelle Bilow in 2015. Baste "with a mixture of butter and wine for an unconventional, buttery gobbler with a tangy kick," recommends TV chef Rachael Ray.
Not so fast, says Meathead Goldwyn, the force behind AmazingRibs.com and the author of “Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling.” The problem is that basting prolongs cooking times. “Think of it like sweat after a long workout,” Goldwyn told me via email, “it cools you off.” If a long cooking time is what you’re after (as with pork shoulder, which has lots of connective tissue that has to break down), that’s a good thing. But not with a lean turkey. And basting may moisten the bird, “but not a lot,” says Goldwyn. The reason turkey dries out in the first place is that the moisture evaporates out of the meat as it cooks. But if you baste, the liquid doesn’t penetrate the flesh.
When Cook’s Illustrated put the competing methods to the test, it found that basting improved moisture a tiny bit, but it “prolongs the cooking time and requires more hands-on work.” The verdict: Not worth it.
Myth No. 4: Thanksgiving turkey makes you sleepy.
Urban Dictionary's first entry for "turkey coma" defines it as "the inevitable and unavoidable nap that occurs about 45 minutes after gorging one's self on a Thanksgiving Day turkey feast." In one famous "Seinfeld" episode, Jerry's girlfriend asks over a turkey dinner,"What is that stuff in turkey that makes you sleepy?" Jerry and George answer in unison: "Tryptophan," the amino acid that's plentiful in turkey meat. A few scenes later, she's asleep at the table.
But tryptophan doesn't necessarily induce sleep, and it's doubtful that turkey's the culprit for your post-Thanksgiving-dinner nap.
The human body uses tryptophan to make serotonin and melatonin, both of which play a role in sleep, and there’s some evidence that tryptophan intake is associated with sleep duration. But to make you drowsy, it has to cross the blood-brain barrier. And to do that, it competes with other amino acids vying to do the same. Since turkey contains different amino acids, very little tryptophan is likely to get through. Also, as HowStuffWorks put it, “nutritionists and other experts say that the tryptophan in turkey probably won’t trigger the body to produce more serotonin because tryptophan works best on an empty stomach.” Popular Science notes that “free-flowing booze combined with a load of carbohydrates followed by plenty more booze” is a likelier cause of sleepiness.
Besides, the USDA's National Nutrient Database says turkey doesn't have any more tryptophan than other things you're likely to eat for dinner. It's got 0.31 grams per 100 grams of meat, while chicken has 0.34 grams and a beef filet has 0.35.
Myth No. 5: Turkey was Thanksgiving’s first entree.
Any grade-schooler will tell you: Turkey was the centerpiece at the first Thanksgiving. It's a detail perpetuated in pop-culture holiday retellings, including a 1968 televised special, "The Mouse on the Mayflower," wherein the narrator exclaims, "Oh, there was turkey!" The cover of one children's book, "The Story of the First Thanksgiving," depicts settlers and Native Americans gathered around a table, preparing to eat, with a golden-brown turkey in the middle as the main dish.
In 2011, though, Smithsonian magazine's Megan Gambino reported that turkey wasn't necessarily the main course in 1621. Kathleen Wall, a culinarian at Plimouth Plantation, a history museum that re-creates the original Plymouth colony, told Smithsonian, "Wildfowl was there . . . venison was there," water birds like goose or duck were likely candidates, and passenger pigeons were plentiful game at the time. But turkey probably wasn't the featured dish.
Turkey was popularized as the go-to entree by Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book, a women's magazine published in the mid-1800s. She advocated for Thanksgiving to be made a national holiday (President Abraham Lincoln obliged in 1863), describing the ideal dinner in 1827's "Northwood: Or Life North and South, Showing the True Character of Both": "The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table."
Originally published in The Washington Post.