In 1782, shortly after Congress adopted the Great Seal of America with a Bald Eagle as its centerpiece, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter showing his disappointment that the turkey was not chosen as America’s national bird. He wrote:
“For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards…”
Whether or not turkeys are particularly respectable and courageous is debatable. So is the variety of turkey you cook for your Thanksgiving dinner centerpiece.
Salt: The deciding factor in choosing the most flavorful bird for your Thanksgiving may be less about the nature of the meat, but instead about the amount of salt. Brining, the process of soaking a turkey for hours or days in a mix of salt and spices, undoubtedly adds flavor to a meat which would otherwise be dry and plain. The brine allows salt to soak into the turkey’s skin, even if it does need more preparation. For those who want some pre-seasoning already on their bird, another option is a kosher turkey, which adds enough salt during the butchering process to flavor the meat and make it juicier (don’t plan on putting a kosher turkey in brine unless you want a very salty dinner!) In following the kosher rules, these turkeys have been salted after butchering, and the residual salt have helped kosher turkeys do well in taste tests.
Organic? Natural? The “natural” label on a turkey is almost meaningless as this definition is vague. Although natural turkeys are advertised as “hormone-free,” all poultry with the USDA seal are required to be free of hormones, and there is no guarantee that they have been fed a natural diet. Organic turkeys, on the other hand, are required to be fed an organic, vegetarian diet similar to what a turkey would eat and are spared the hormonal injections and antibiotics. In the wild, turkeys eat grass, insects, and seeds, but some farmed turkeys have had their upper-beaks clipped, restricting them to a 24/7 diet of corn. Also, be aware of the “free-range” label, which only specifies that the birds are allowed some access to the outdoors.
Heritage Turkeys? For those looking for the most authentic, Puritan Thanksgiving,
heritage turkeys have gained in popularity. These gourmet turkeys, which can easily cost more than $10 per pound, are from older breeds of turkey, whose strains have been preserved and maintained by preservationists and enjoyed by true Thanksgiving foodies. These old-fashioned turkeys more closely resemble the wild turkeys of Puritan times than do the modern breeds which are bred to be large, flavorful, and docile enough to farm. While opinions differ on the taste of heritage turkeys — some believe it to be too dry or lacking in flavor, while others like the gamely, authentic taste — heritage turkeys generally have a higher proportion of dark meat than modern varieties. They take longer to mature (28 weeks on average, as opposed to 14 weeks for other turkeys) and are raised with an authentic diet. However, for those who want to style their meal after the real first Thanksgiving, skip the turkey and consider serving venison, swan (turkeys were not a common poultry in 1621), lobster, clams, and roasted pumpkin (pumpkin pie was probably not invented until the early 19th-century), all foods believed to be at the first meal.
What to avoid? Although the size and sex of the turkey makes no real difference, the age can change the flavor tremendously. Unless you plan to use your turkey only for soup, don’t bother buying anything more than eight months old. Self-basted, or self-injected turkeys are a tempting option because they’re easy to prepare and need little seasoning. However, the texture can be mushy, and very “un-turkey” tasting. Also, avoid buying any turkey pre-stuffed — what you save in time with a pre-stuffed bird, you could pay for in stomach-aches.
Although turkey might have been a rather uncommon food for early Thanksgiving dinners, Alexander Hamilton believed that “no Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” But whatever variety of turkey you chose for your big meal, you are still buying, cooking, eating, and enjoying America’s most patriotic bird!