There seems to be no doubt that the big bird is the protein of choice for the big holiday gatherings such as Thanksgiving and Christmas – but how long, really, has this has been the tradition?
In the case of Thanksgiving in America, it seems to have been so since the very first celebration in 1621, which is not surprising given that the turkey is indigenous to the New World. As for Christmas, Americans were certainly regularly serving the bird on the big day in the later decades of the eighteenth century, although it was over a hundred years before it was sanctified by an expert as the ideal focus of the dinner. The expert was Miss Caroline L. Hunt of the Bureau of Home Economics of the Department of Agriculture, and her suggestions for the ideal Christmas dinner were reported in an article in the New York Times of December 19, 1915. She specifically recommended a stuffing of ‘stale bread, chestnuts, bay leaves, a dash of cayenne, some fresh (not cooked) celery, and a trace of onion’, and the accompaniments of giblet gravy and cranberry jelly.
The Old World first became aware of the turkey in the early sixteenth century, and it soon found a place on the feasting table. Again, however, it was not until much later – around the mid-nineteenth century – that it convincingly usurped the other favourites such as the goose, and became the standard Christmas bird.
In the wake of Thanksgiving and Christmas of course, the domestic caterer has the not insignificant problem of what do with the leftovers. Whether you call it secondary cookery, cold-meat cookery, or camouflage cookery, or even if you posh it up and call it rechauffé, the challenge is the same – avoiding both kitchen waste and family protest by becoming the master or mistress of creativity and disguise. Can we get any inspiration from nineteenth century kitchen gurus?
Eliza Acton, in her wonderful Modern Cookery in all its Branches (1847) has no recipes using cold roast turkey, nor does Queen Victoria’s one-time cook, Charles Elmé Francatelli include any in The Modern Cook (1846). The celebrity chef Alexis Soyer does, however, include an idea for the remains of the turkey in The Gastronomic Regenerator (1847) – one glamourised with a French name, which his perhaps a good tip with any dish of leftovers. Here it is:
Emincée de Dinde a l’Italienne
Is made with the remains of a turkey from a previous dinner, cut large slices from the breast-part, as much as you may require, and put them into a stewpan with six gherkins cut in long slices, have ready a pint of good sauce Italienne, and when boiling pour it over; warm them gently, but do not let them boil, and serve in a dish with very small croquettes de pommes de terre round.
Naturally, Isabella Beeton’s incredibly comprehensive The Book of Household Management (1861) includes several recipes for leftover turkey meat. I particularly like this one:
Croquettes of Turkey (Cold Meat Cookery).
Ingredients. — The remains of cold turkey; to every ½ lb. of meat allow 2 oz. of ham or bacon, 2 shalots, 1 oz. of butter, 1 tablespoonful of flour, the yolks of 2 eggs, egg and bread crumbs.
Mode.—The smaller pieces, that will not do for a fricassée or hash, answer very well for this dish. Mince the meat finely with ham or bacon in the above proportion; make a gravy of the bones and trimmings, well seasoning it; mince the shalots, put them into a stewpan with the butter, add the flour; mix well, then put in the mince, and about 4 pint of the gravy made from the bones. (The proportion of the butter must be increased or diminished according to the quantity of mince.) When just boiled, add the yolks of 2 eggs; put the mixture out to cool, and then shape it in a wineglass. Cover the croquettes with egg and bread crumbs, and fry them a delicate brown. Put small pieces of parsley-stems for stalks, and serve with rolled bacon cut very thin.
Time.— 9 minutes to fry the croquettes.
And last, but by no means least, as an American representative we have Fannie Merritt Farmer, author of The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook (1896), which includes this extremely minimalist recipe for turkey soup - which is really turkey stock.
Break turkey carcass in pieces, removing all stuffing; put in kettle with any bits of meat that may have been left over. Cover with cold water, bring slowly to boiling point, and simmer two hours. Strain, remove fat, and season with salt and pepper. One or two outer stalks of celery may be cooked with carcass to give additional flavor.
NOTE: Previous posts have included other ideas for leftover turkey. You can find them HERE and HERE.
Quotation for the Day.
As Kathleen Wall at Plimoth Plantation will attest, turkey may NOT have been on the table at the harvest celebration of 1621. It most certainly was not the main dish. Turkey really only became THE thing to serve in the latter part of the 19th century, around the time Thanksgiving was made a national holiday; prior to that, it was little celebrated, other than in New England (for more details, see the FB & blog postings from Kathleen & Plimoth Plantation during the past couple weeks). Same for Christmas; it was not universally celebrated in the US until the late 1800s, maybe even the early 1900s (hence the article you quote). It was hardly celebrated in America at all before then (it was even banned in some areas!). The "traditional" American Christmas is really quite modern. Anyway...that's my two cents worth.
Thanks for your comments, carolina. You are right, of course. As I said in my response to the Thanksgiving post - how long does something have to be eaten on a particular occasion for it to be 'traditional'?
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