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Ditch the Bird

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Let’s talk turkey. That is, Thanksgiving turkey. You don’t really like it, do you? 

Me neither. And I suspect that almost no one actually does. Everyone loves Thanksgiving dinner, mind you, but I doubt that has anything to do with the bird that’s ostensibly the centerpiece. No, what makes Thanksgiving dinner special is all the wonderful stuff that gets served alongside—the mashed potatoes, the gravy, the cranberry sauce, the green beans, the soft dinner rolls, and more than anything else—the dressing. The turkey is, at best, an afterthought.

There are so many things wrong with turkey that I don’t even know where to begin. For starters, it’s almost impossible to cook a turkey right these days. Modern birds are miracles of science, selectively bred to emphasize the features that growers value, like size and speed of growth. According to the USDA, the average turkey now weighs in at twenty-nine pounds, more than double the average weight of thirteen pounds in 1929, and an ever increasing percentage of that weight can be found in the breasts, which have been swollen through breeding to satisfy Americans’ long-standing and inexplicable preference for white meat.

All those cute cartoons of Thanksgiving turkeys with brown, orange, and yellow tail fans? Pilgrim propaganda. The feathers of modern factory farmed turkeys are completely white. (They don’t wear tall black hats with brass buckles, either.) The poor birds are too heavy to fly, and they can’t even get their gobble on, so to speak, since their disproportionate anatomy prevents them from mating in the traditional way. Artificial insemination is required to keep commercial flocks going.

For a gustatory standpoint, the results are equally depressing. By the time you’ve roasted a commodity turkey long enough to finish those outsized breasts, the legs and wings have been rendered tough and desiccated. To make matters worse, the majority of Thanksgiving birds are purchased frozen, which can result in damaged cell structure in the meat that lets moisture leak out as it defrosts. To try to salvage some semblance of juiciness, manufacturers inject frozen turkeys with a liquid solution composed of stuff like turkey broth, water, vegetable oils, and salt—often lots of salt.

Some people claim to like the end product, but I suspect they’re just being polite to whatever in-law supervised the oven. To me, modern industrial turkey taste like cotton balls, sawdust, and regret.

Yet we still give thanks over lots and lots of them each November. According to the folks at the University of Illinois Extension, Americans consume 46 million turkeys each Thanksgiving, which is almost a fifth of all the turkeys raised in the country each year. I suspect the real percentage may actually be much higher, because who actually cooks a turkey any other time of the year? (And how are we to know the University of Illinois Extension isn’t in the back pocket of Big Turkey, anyway?)

Of course, we Southerners came to the Thanksgiving turkey game pretty late. The holiday is a Yankee creation, birthed in New England and adorned with that region’s symbols and trappings—pilgrims and cranberries and what not. It wasn’t until the 1890s that Southerners began celebrating Thanksgiving on a regular basis, and it’s not surprising that we quickly got bored with roasting turkeys and started deep frying them instead. That created a whole new set of Thanksgiving traditions like burning your garage to the ground and going to the emergency room with third-degree burns. (And, no, deep frying doesn’t lead to a more juicy turkey, either. There are some things that even five gallons of boiling peanut oil can’t fix.)

I have a safer and much tastier alternative. This Thanksgiving, let’s 86 the turkey and replace it with a historic dish that people will actually want to eat: a traditional Thanksgiving chicken pie.

That’s right, chicken pie. Few people know it today, but chicken pie used to receive star billing on the Thanksgiving table. In Northwood: A Tale of New England (1827), novelist Sarah Josepha Hale depicted a typical early nineteenth-century Thanksgiving feast. Yes, there was a roasted turkey, and it was placed at the head of the table. At the foot, though, was “a surloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and a joint of mutton.” The center of the table was “graced, as it always is on such occasions, by that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie.”

The chicken pie served at nineteenth-century Thanksgivings was a little different from most modern recipes, which brim with onions, carrots, and peas enrobed in a creamy white sauce. The old school chicken pie was much simpler, and it was richer and more luxurious too.

The pie in Hale’s novel is described as being made from “the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste.” Those fowls would have been old, tough hens whose meat had to be stewed for hours to become tender, but once cooked it would have had an intensely rich flavor. The sauce inside the pie was made only from the broth in which the birds had been stewed, along with one key ingredient: an absurd amount of butter.

The recipe for “Connecticut Thanksgiving Chicken Pie” in Mrs. A. L. Webster’s The Improved Housewife (1855) calls for layering three pounds of chicken with a half pound of sliced butter. A full pound of butter goes into the puff pastry that tops the dish, the dough getting rolled nine times, each time getting studded with more butter. That’s a rich, luxurious dish, one far better suited to the grandest holiday meal of the year than some insipid, dried-out gobbler.

So this Thanksgiving, let’s get pie-eyed. Bring on the mashed potatoes and gravy and cranberry sauce, and a heaping bowl of sage-laced dressing, too. But in the middle of the table, let’s not put the carcass of some misshapen, overcooked turkey. Let’s give our thanks instead for that rich burgomaster of the provisions, a good old-fashioned chicken pie.