While making a full Thanksgiving spread today takes time, effort, and stress, it's a piece of cake compared to what people had to deal with before modern conveniences. Here are 10 tips for cooking turkey the 18th- and 19th-century way that might seem a little strange today.
1. "Burn the hairs" and break the turkey's breastbone.
Before the advent of the modern processed turkey—plucked clean, gutted, and rinsed, with gizzards and neck in a handy bag ready for making gravy—preparing the Thanksgiving turkey was not for the faint of heart. The Cook's Own Book by Mrs. N. K. M. Lee, published in 1832, gives a quick rundown of the steps:
"To prepare a turkey for dressing, every plug is carefully picked out; and in drawing turkeys and fowls, care must be taken not to break the gall bag, nor the gut which joins the gizzard, as it is impossible to remove the bitterness of the one, or the grittiness of the other. The hairs are singed off with white paper; the leg-bone is broken close to the foot, and the sinews drawn out—a cloth is then put over the breast, and the bone flattened with a rolling-pin, the liver and gizzard, made delicately clean, are fastened into each pinion."
The breastbone was broken to give the turkey a rounder, fatter appearance. Today selective breeding has taken care of that, with modern birds weighing up to twice as much as the birds Lee would have worked with, giving them that desirable, Rubenesque form even before they make it to our kitchens.
2. Use baking soda to counter a turkey's bitter gall and ripe intestine.
The bitterness of gall, so ineradicable in 1832, was treatable by the time Marion Harland's Common Sense in the Household was published in 1884. The cure was the same thing that fixes pretty much every other household ill: a teaspoon of baking soda. Added to the next-to-last water rinse of the turkey cavity, baking soda could defunk even gall taint. The manufacturers who trademarked the Arm & Hammer line began selling bicarbonate of soda in 1846, so its deodorant properties were well-known four decades later.
Mind you, Marion Harland was appalled that such a step should even be necessary:
"There is no direr disgrace to our Northern markets than the practice of sending whole dead fowls to market. I have bought such from responsible poultry dealers, and found them uneatable, from having remained undrawn until the flavor of the craw and intestines had impregnated the whole body. [...] 'But don't you know it actually poisons a fowl to lie so long undressed?' once exclaimed a Southern lady to me. 'In our markets they are offered for sale ready picked and drawn, with the giblets—also cleaned—tucked under their wings.'"
3. And 4. Stuff a turkey with a lot of ingredients native to America.
Amelia Simmons's American Cookery, first published in 1796, was the first cookbook to embrace American cuisine as separate from British, with an emphasis on indigenous ingredients like turkey, corn, squash, and potatoes. It was so popular it was reprinted for 30 years under its own name and widely plagiarized under other names.
Ms. Simmons has two recommended turkey stuffings, the main difference being the saturated fat and the meat ingredient. No salted pork handy? Beef suet will do the trick.
Option 1: "Grate a wheat loaf, one quarter of a pound butter, one quarter of a pound salt pork, finely chopped, 2 eggs, a little sweet marjoram, summer savory, parsley and sage, pepper and salt (if the pork be not sufficient,) fill the bird and sew up."
Option 2: "One pound soft wheat bread, 3 ounces beef suet, 3 eggs, a little sweet thyme, sweet marjoram, pepper and salt, and some add a gill of wine; fill the bird therewith and sew up."
A gill is a quarter of a pint, which leaves a lot of wine left in the bottle for the cook who is most certainly going to need it.
5. Stuff your turkey with forcemeat.
Forcemeat is fat, meat, and seasonings ground together into a smooth emulsion. Nowadays we see it in the form of pâté, mousselines, liverwurst, sausages, Spam, and hot dogs. Susannah Carter tells us in the 1803 edition of The Frugal Housewife how to stuff a turkey with forcemeat:
"A turkey when roasted, is generally stuffed in the craw with forc'd-meat, or the following stuffing: Take a pound of veal, as much grated bread, half a pound of suet cut and beat very fine, a little parsley, with a small matter of thyme, or savory, two cloves, half a nutmeg grated, a tea-spoonful of shred lemon-peel, a little pepper and salt, and the yolks of two eggs."
6. Serve the turkey with "bread sauce in a sauce tureen."
According to Mrs. Lee in The Cook's Own Book, if you're going with a forcemeat stuffing, then you must serve the turkey with a classic English delicacy, "bread sauce in a sauce tureen."
"Put a small tea-cupful of bread crumbs into a stewpan, pour on it as much milk as it will soak up, and a little more; or instead of the milk, take the giblets, head, neck, and legs, &c. of the poultry, &c. and stew them, and moisten the bread with this liquor; put it on the fire with a middling-sized onion, and a dozen berries of pepper or allspice, or a little mace; let it boil, then stir it well, and let it simmer till it is quite stiff, and then put to it about two table-spoonfuls of cream or melted butter, or a little good broth; take out the onion and pepper, and it is ready."
7. Stuff the turkey with mashed potatoes.
If you're not into suet, forcemeat, or salt pork, Amelia Simmons suggests to "boil and mash 3 pints potatoes, wet them with butter, add sweet herbs, pepper, salt, fill and roast" the turkey with that instead. Why have your buttery, smooth, golden mashed potatoes as a side when you could just cram as much of it as necessary to fill the cavity of your 20-pound bird? That way you wouldn't even have to add any gravy to the potatoes since they'd taste entirely like turkey already.
8. Froth your turkey.
According to The Cook Maid' s Assistant, "when your fowls are thoroughly plump, and the smoke draws from the breast to the fire, you may be sure that they are very near done. Then baste them with butter; dust on a very little flour, and as soon as they have a good froth, serve them up."
Why would you want "a good froth" on your turkey, you ask? According to An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy by Thomas Webster and Mrs. William Parkes, published in 1855, all meat should be "frothed" before serving "to plump up the skin of meat or poultry, by which the appearance of the joint is much improved."
If encasing the turkey you just spent hours roasting to crispy-skinned perfection in a foamy blond roux just before serving doesn't sound "much improved" to you, you can kick it up a notch with other dredges like "flour and grated bread," "sugar finely powdered, and mixed with pounded cinnamon and grated bread" or "fennel seed, corianders, cinnamon, and sugar, finely beaten, and mixed with grated bread."
9. Serve the turkey with "cramberries" and mangoes on the side.
Amelia Simmons suggests turkey be served "with boiled onions and cramberry-sauce, mangoes, pickles or celery." As for the mangoes, they were introduced to Britain's American colonies in the 17th century and were pickled, since the fresh ones couldn't withstand the long journey from the tropics. By the time American Cookery was written, pickled mangoes were so widespread that "to mango" was another phrase for pickling, as you can see in Simmons's "To pickle or make Mangoes of Melons" recipe.
10. Don't serve the turkey drumsticks.
"There are two side bones by the wing, which may be cut off; as likewise the back and tower side-bones: but the best pieces are the breast, and the thighs after being divided from the drum-sticks," Maria Eliza Rundell advised in 1807's
A New System of Domestic Cookery. Or, as per Directions for Cookery, In Its Various Branches puts it more bluntly: "Do not help any one to the legs, or drum-sticks as they are called."
According to 1855's An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy by Thomas Webster and Mrs. William Parkes, "The prime parts of a fowl are the wings, breast, and merrythought. The legs, except of young fowls, are considered as coarse. The thigh part, when separated from the drumstick, is sometimes preferred by those who consider the whiter meat of the fowl as insipid." This is because, as The White House Cook Book by F. L. Gillette and Hugo Ziemann explains, "The lower part of the leg (or drum-stick, as it is called) being hard, tough, and stringy is rarely ever helped to any one, but allowed to remain on the dish."
A version of this story originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2021.