Tuned In

Holiday Watch: Deconstruct That Turkey!

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Soon it will be time for Tuned In to step away from the laptop and DVD player and step into the kitchen. This Thanksgiving I’m cooking a much smaller holiday dinner than usual, so I’m going with a turkey breast. But rather than buy one separately, we got a whole turkey, which, to take out some deep-seated frustrations, I’m going to butcher into parts, using the breast to brine and roast for tomorrow, and saving the legs to throw on the backyard smoker later–possibly with a pan of stuffing underneath them–which will make them much better than the Thanksgiving-day bird anyway.

This was just an improvised idea, but according to the folks at my favorite cooking (as opposed to eating) show, America’s Test Kitchen, I was on to something. According to Christopher Kimball and his band of ingenious kitchen nerds, the best way to cook turkey is to break it down into parts.

The thinking behind their method is that it solves the eternal problem of the white meat turning into overcooked drywall by the time the dark meat is done. And though I’ve never tried their instructions precisely, I have cooked the parts of turkey separately often enough to guess that this really will make a better-tasting bird.

But all this raises the question: is the point of the turkey really to taste good or to look good?

On that question I tend to agree with my colleague, friend and meat expert Josh Ozersky: we don’t really eat turkey because we like it so much. I know you think you love turkey, and so do I, but our behavior suggests otherwise. How often do you see turkey, in non-sandwich form, on a restaurant menu? Chicken is more tender and luscious, birds like duck are richer-tasting, and if you want luxurious, fall-off-the-bone dark meat, slow-roast a pork shoulder.

But you roast a turkey on Thanksgiving, because it’s a turkey. Because that’s what you do. Because it looks like a turkey. Because nothing says abundance, security, bigness—America!—like a bird the size of a subcompact car browned and served on a platter. There are better tasting things you could prepare, but that would miss the populist point of Thanksgiving: for one day, nearly everyone, of whatever economic class,  makes variations on the same theme ingredients, as in a Top Chef challenge, centered on an economical and giant piece of meat capable of stuffing an extended family into unconsciousness for a pittance. The Pilgrims had lobsters too, after all, but we don’t go running around and plating them for a party of 20.

That said, if you love turkey and want to cook it as optimally as possible, it’s probably a safe bet to do as the unsentimental food pragmatists of America’s Test Kitchen say. (Free carving tip, by the way: cut each side of the breast off the turkey whole and slice it crosswise. This changed my life!)

Happy holiday, all, and if you have a few minutes, let us know what’ll be on your table, and how much of it you plan to eat.