7 Intriguing Turkey Recipes From the 1800s

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

How will you be cooking your turkey this year? Chances are you'll be doing it the same way you and your family have always done it, citing "tradition." No offense, but that's so boring, you might as well cancel Thanksgiving dinner altogether and never talk to your kin again.

But what if I told you there was a way to spice up Thanksgiving dinner without sacrificing tradition?

The following turkey recipes are all centuries old and will breathe new life into your holiday feast. One caveat, however: These recipes were written in an era when food-borne illnesses weren't fully understood and proper hygiene was not practiced. In trying these, you may poison yourself and the ones you love.

Bon appetit!

1. Recipe For Stolen Turkey, as Excerpted In a Rural Policing Guide

This recipe comes not from a cookbook, but rather an 1839 "report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the best means of establishing an efficient Constabulary Force in the Counties of England and Wales." It was taken from the testimony of a vagrant that was included to illustrate the behavior of criminals—but I happen to think his method for cooking turkey sounds pretty good:

1 Fortune Teller
1 Stolen Turkey
1 Guard Dog
1 Hedge

“I once quarreled with my statesman (accomplice), and went and lived with some gipsies , whom we met at a fair. I was with them three or four months. We camped in different places in Lancashire, Cheshire, and Wales. The women used to go in a morning to the different farm-houses to tell fortunes, and if they saw anything worth fetching we went for it at night. If we got a hen or a goose, a duck or a turkey, we used to roll it up in clay, with the feathers on, and put it back down at a faire, letting it roast itself with its own fat; when the clay was baked hard, feathers and clay would come off together; and on cutting it open, the entrails would come out in a lump. The plunder was always planted in the hedge, and a dog chained not far from it. One of them went to the towns grinding scissors and knives; he used to fence (sell) anything we wanted to get shut of.”

2. Boiled Turkey

1838's Magazine of Domestic Economy features this simple recipe. It also notes that turkeys are extremely expensive in London around wintertime, and it recommends that you have yours sent from the country, perhaps as a present.

1 Turkey
1 Clean napkin
1 Anchovy
Oysters (a few)
Mushrooms (a few)
Butter (a bit)
Suet (a bit)
1 Egg

"Boiling a turkey is a very common mode of dressing it, and if nicely done makes a very agreeable dish. To boil it properly, it should be trussed with the liver and gizzard in the wings, be well dredged with flour, and sewn into a clean napkin. But previously to doing that, fill the crop with a forcemeat, or stuffing made of crumbs and bread, parsley, pepper, salt, nutmeg, lemon-peel, an anchovy, a few oysters chopped, a few shred mushrooms, a bit of butter, and a little suet, the whole bound together with an egg. In the water in which the turkey is to be boiled, put the juice of three lemons, two ounces of butter, and handful of salt. Let it boil very slowly."

3. Turkey and Chestnuts

Also from the Magazine of Domestic Economy, this turkey dish is a seasonal delight. Don't skimp on the chestnuts, cheapskate.

Finest Spanish chestnuts (a sufficient quantity)
Thick brown gravy
1 Turkey

"Roast a sufficient quantity of the finest Spanish chestnuts, but without turning them, until the husk and skin come off easily. When peeled boil them for ten minutes in a little thick brown gravy. Mix them whole with an ordinary forcemeat, which the gravy will help to bind, and fill the inside of the turkey with them. It must then be roasted comformably to the above directions, and served up with a rich gravy in a tureen, and some in the dish; but no bread sauce."

4. Revolutionary Braised Turkey (With Poem)

Apparently, braised turkey was a rather new discovery in 1840 when this recipe was published in the 5th volume of the Magazine of Domestic Economy. "There is amid of cooking a turkey in very general use in France, being the invention of the celebrated Monsieur le Jacque, called braising," the introduction states.

This cooking method was so celebrated, it inspired verse. "The process is seldom resorted to in this country, except by epicures; but so greatly is it esteemed, as to have given birth to the following distich:

Turkey boiled,
Is turkey spoiled;
And turkey roast,
Is turkey lost;
But for turkey brais’d,
The Lord be praised."

Sounds like this is some darn good turkey.

1 Turkey
Chopped carrots

"The operation is performed as follows. Cover the bottom of a German stew pan with slices of bacon or ham, and of beef, chopped carrots, onions, celery, stuffing herbs, salt, pepper, allspice, and mace; on this place the turkey, trussed as for boiling, and over it a layer of the same materials , cover it close with the lid, and place the pan in the oven, leaving the whole stand in a state of gentle perspiration, until it is done enough. Serve up in its own sauce. Any joint may be cooked thus, and the toughest leg of mutton acquires in this way a melting tenderness which makes it easily digestible."

5. Mrs. Beeton's Middling-sized Roast Turkey

Isabella Mary Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861) suggests that you cook a modest turkey, as those tend to taste better than massive ones. Big turkeys are just so gauche, anyway.

1 Middling-sized turkey
White Paper
1 Trussing-needle (or 2 skewers and twine)

"Middling-sized fleshy turkeys are by many persons considered superior to those of an immense growth, as they are, generally speaking, much more tender. They should never be dressed the same day they are killed; but, in cold weather, should hang at least 8 days; if the weather is mild, 4 or 5 days will be found sufficient. Carefully pluck the bird, singe it with white paper, and wipe it thoroughly with a cloth; draw it, preserve the liver and gizzard, and be particular not to break the gall-bag, as no washing will remove the bitter taste it imparts where it once touches. Wash it inside well, and wipe it thoroughly dry with a cloth; the outside merely requires nicely wiping, as we have just stated. Cut off the neck close to the back, but leave enough of the crop-skin to turn over; break the leg-bone close below the knee, draw out the strings from the thighs, and flatten the breastbone to make it look plump. Have ready a forcemeat made; fill the breast with this, and, if a trussing-needle is used, sew the neck over to the back; if a needle is not at hand, a skewer will answer the purpose. Run a skewer through the pinion and thigh into the body to the pinion and thigh on the other side, and press the legs as much as possible between the breast and the side bones, and put the liver under one pinion and the gizzard under the other. Pass a string across the back of the bird, catch it over the points of the skewer, tie it in the centre of the back, and be particular that the turkey is very firmly trussed. This may be more easily accomplished with a needle and twine than with skewers.

Fasten a sheet of buttered paper on to the breast of the bird, put it down to a bright fire, at some little distance at first (afterwards draw it nearer), and keep it well basted the whole of the time it is cooking. About 1/4 hour before serving, remove the paper, dredge the turkey lightly with flour, and put a piece of butter into the basting-ladle; as the butter melts, baste the bird with it.

Time.—Small turkey, 1 1/2 hour; moderate-sized one, about 10 lbs., 2 hours; large turkey, 2 1/12 hours or longer."

6. Juliet Corson's Deviled Turkey

Juliet Corson's New Family Cookbook (1885) lists this recipe for "Deviled Turkey," which sounds a lot like the modern-day buffalo wing. Ms. Corson, you are a prescient genius.

"The wings and drumsticks of cold turkey make the best dish: core them with a sharp knife, season them highly with salt, pepper, cayenne, and dried mustard; broil them over a hot fire, put a little butter on them, and serve hot, with cut lemon or some vinegar."

7. Cape Fear Turkey (Oyster-Filled Roast Turkey)

Whoever contributed this oyster-heavy recipe to an 1889 issue of Good Housekeeping certainly wasn't short on confidence. Be sure to read the gravy guide at the end for a peek into the sultry gossip of Cape Fear's 19th century cooking scene.

Two-year-old gobbler
1/2 lbs. fresh butter
2 stalks of chopped celery
2 quarts of oysters (the best oysters)

"Fat, tender turkey, a two-year-old gobbler is the best. After it has been nicely picked, singed, drawn, and washed well inside—some cooks say don’t wash game or fowls, but they are neither nice nor wise…Take one pound of nice loaf bread and rub it into fine crumbs; mix with it one-half pound of fresh butter, salt and black pepper (and a little red pepper), until it tastes well seasoned, and two stalks of celery chopped rather small. Add to this two quarts of the best oysters, strained from their liquor, and carefully picked over for bits of shell, etc. When the oysters are mixed with the bread, add enough of their liquor to moisten the stuffing well. Fill the body of the turkey, after putting the legs inside in the orthodox fashion, and sew the slit up well…Rub the whole outside of the turkey with salt and pepper, and dredge it well with sifted flour, and set in the oven to roast. Put it on its breast, so the back will brown first Pour into the pan one pint of oyster liquor and one pint of hot water…the turkey ought to be done in four hours.

And just here we have the secret of an old Cape Fear cook’s gravy which was at once the delight and the despair of rival cooks, yea, and their mistresses too. “Mauma Mary” aways took half of the turkey’s liver (or two or three chicken livers and cooked them in the pan with the turkey), and when they were done she rubbed them to a smooth paste, removing all bits of gristle or fiber. And when she was ready to serve her gravy, she mixed the pounded liver thoroughly well into it, let it come once to a boil and poured it into the gravy boat. The addition of the liver is the greatest possible."

Vegetarian Bonus: How To Care For a Sick Turkey

While tofurkey wasn't yet a thing in the 1800s, animal lovers can use the following recipe not for dinner, but to cure any turkeys sick with indigestion or concussion-like symptoms:

"Various remedies have been offered for different diseases in poultry. I have one remedy in all cases, for all ages and kinds. Whenever anyone of them seems out of sorts, I administer water with a teaspoon, as hot as I think they can bear it, at two or three different times; also bathe the feet in it, and keep them without food and away from the cold, till they begin to brighten up, which they generally do in the course of a day. Some die. I treated a fine young turkey in this way which was nearly killed by an accidental blow on the top of the head. Fowls affected with indigestion, (indicated most readily by frequent attempts to swallow) should be attended to as soon as practicable."

This comes from an 1855 New York State Agricultural guide, and it's published directly below an article listing a "New Method Of Decapitating Poultry." (That method, if you're curious, is to cover the bird with a piece of cloth before cutting its head off.)

All photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.