In Friday’s post we considered what might be the most prized part of a roast chicken, and the anecdotal evidence which strongly suggests that this is the chicken ‘oyster’ or sot-l'y-laisse as it is referred to by the French. You will remember that the first reference in English to this tiny treat and perquisite of the cook appears in the section on carving in the fourteenth edition of Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families, and reads:
The breast, wings, and merrythought, are the most delicate parts of a fowl. On the upper part of the side-bone is the small round portion of flesh called the oyster, by many persons considered as a great delicacy.
What is this merrythought of which the writer speaks?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the forked bone between the neck and breast of a bird; the furcula, wishbone. Also: the portion of a cooked bird when carved that includes this bone.”
So, the merrythought is simply the wishbone. Why the name? This is where the story gets interestingly naughty. The first reference to ‘the bone called the merie thought’ is in 1598, in Florio’s Worlde of Wordes, but it gives no clue to the origin of the name. For theories on this, we must jump to the quotations from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries:
a1697 J. Aubrey Remaines Gentilisme & Judaisme (1881) 92 'Tis called the merrythought, because when the fowle is opened, dissected, or carv'd, it resembles the pudenda of a woman.
1708 Brit. Apollo No. 84. For what Reason is the Bone next the Breast of a Fowl, &c. Called the Merry-thought..? The Original of that Name was doubtless from the Pleasant Fancies, that commonly arise upon the Breaking of that Bone.
Think on that, my friends, next time you cut up a fowl in front of your children!
It is only right that Miss Acton supplies our recipe for the day. Here she is on how to roast a turkey.
To Roast A Turkey.
In very cold weather a turkey in its feathers will hang (in an airy larder) quite a fortnight with advantage; and, however fine a quality of bird it be, unless sufficiently long kept, it will prove not worth the dressing, though it should always be perfectly sweet when prepared for table. Pluck, draw, and singe it with exceeding care; wash, and then dry it thoroughly with clean cloths, or merely wipe the outside well, without wetting it, and pour water plentifully through the inside. Fill the breast with forcemeat (No. 1, page 143), or with the finest sausage meat, highly seasoned with minced herbs, lemon-rind, mace, and cayenne. Truss the bird firmly, lay it to a clear sound fire, baste it constantly and bountifully with butter, and serve it when done with good brown gravy, and well-made bread sauce. An entire chain of delicate fried sausages is still often placed in the dish, round a turkey, as a garnish. It is usual to fold and fasten a sheet of buttered writing paper over the breast to prevent its being too much coloured: this should be removed twenty minutes before the bird is done. The forcemeat of chestnuts (No. 15, Chapter VI.) may be very advantageously substituted for the commoner kinds in stuffing it, and the body may then be filled with chestnuts, previously stewed until tender in rich gravy, or simmered over a slow fire in plenty of rasped bacon, with a high seasoning of mace, nutmeg, and cayenne, until they are so; or, instead of this, well-made chestnut sauce, or a dish of stewed chestnuts, may be sent to table with the turkey.
1 ½ to 2 ½ hours.
Obs.—A turkey should be laid at first far from the fire, and drawn nearer when half-done, though never sufficiently so to scorch it; it should be well roasted, for even the most inveterate advocates of under-dressed meats will seldom tolerate the taste or sight of partially-raw poultry.