At the first Thanksgiving in 1621 there was venison stew, spit-roasted wild turkeys stuffed with corn bread, oysters baked in their shells, sweet corn baked in the husk, pumpkin flavored with maple syrup and a guest list that included 91 Wampanoag Indians, one of whom passed around what must have been the first bowl of popcorn the colonists had seen.
There also was, one can be sure, someone to carve.
Once upon a time, carving was an art so commonly practiced and of such complexity that the Book of Kerving, published in 1508 to provide instructions on how to dismember dinner, included information on how to "Breke that dere," "spoyle that hen," "disfigure that pecocke," "wyng that quayle," and "untache that curlew."
Today things have sunk to such a sad state that when a young waiter sent by a caterer was asked to perform the simple act of carving a ham, he recoiled in horror, exclaiming blankly, "Carve?"
Hack is more like it for most people wielding the knife, and the only term from that ancient book that seems applicable to today's carvers is "disfigure that pecocke." It is not just how meat is cooked that gives pleasure to a meal, but how it is carved. Paper-thin slices of ham taste better than lopped off chunks. Yet carving, an art that used to be passed from father to son, seems to have vanished from the family repertoire.
In this season of turkeys and hams, of roasts and joints, let us turn to The New Larousse Gastronomique for carving instruction, keeping in mind that the carver not only must know where the bone lies, if there is a bone, but also must use an extremely good knife -- one which has been newly sharpened. Even the best of carvers will not triumph over a dull knife.
"As a general principle, all meat should be carved vertically, across the grain of the meat," Larousse cautions. "Only leg of lamb or mutton is an exception to this rule. It can be carved in two ways, either parallel to or at right angles to the bone. Ham, whether boned or not, always is carved vertically, toward the bone if it is there."
The Larousse's instructions for a chicken also are a guide to carving a turkey, although -- since the latter bird is bigger -- there's more of it. "To carve a chicken, begin with the leg. Insert the fork into the thigh and press down on it, using it as a lever on the leg as the knife slides along the carcass to sever the sinews. Sever the cartilage of the joint. Next, remove the wing. For this purpose, insert the fork under the wing and feel for the joint with the knife. To cut up the carcass, lay the chicken on its back. Hold it firm by wedging the fork high up in the breast. Divide the carcass lengthwise along the breastbone." With a turkey, one would slice the breast meat rather than halfing the carcass. But note the importance of knowing the anatomy of your dinner. Attempts to saw off a leg or a wing, instead of finding the joint and severing it, result in a great deal too much work and a very messy bit of meat.
In addition to a sharp knife, the carver also needs a long-tined fork to hold the meat in place while carving. Dinner less firmly anchored has been known to shoot across the table, providing a negative answer to a question Lord Chesterfield put to his son: "Do you use yourself to carve adroitly and genteelly, without hacking half an hour across a bone, without bespattering the company with the sauce, and without overturning the glasses into your neighbors' pockets?"
And there should be a separate platter to hold the carved meat. It is awkward and unattractive to pass a platter holding the remains of a turkey carcass or the remnants of a joint.
The wise hostess, if she has not mastered the art and does not share living quarters with an expert with the knife, will ask among her guests until she finds someone who is proud of being able to carve. If one's luck is in, one might discover the presence of a master, like the French restaurateur "who carved a Rouen duckling while holding it up impaled on the prongs of a fork, so that there was nothing to support it. He carved this duck into very thin fillets all of which fell, in perfect order, onto the dish underneath."
Which would provide not only dinner, but a fascinating entertainment for those gathered to share the holiday feast.