Sure, everyone praises the turkey, provided that the breast is not desiccated and the thigh is not bloody. They’ve noticed the cook laboring for hours, muttering and looking worried. It’s good manners to praise the turkey, like praising a child’s piano recital. But can you think of another dish for which “moist” is a superlative?
Rather than admit the hellishness of whole turkey, we indulge in a masochistic search for the “best” way to roast the bird. Soak it in salt water. No: Rub it with dry salt. Fill the inside with breadcrumb stuffing. No: Fill the inside with citrus fruit. No: Leave the inside empty. Massage it with butter. No: Smear it with mayonnaise. No: Coat it with olive oil. Cook it breast down. No: Flip it over halfway through. Apply ice packs before cooking. Cover it with foil. No: Leave it uncovered.
Or maybe the secret to perfect turkey involves a hair dryer.
Where everything is true, nothing is true. There is no “best” way to roast a turkey, any more than there is a “best” way to clean the gutters or check the smoke alarm batteries. Thanksgiving turkey is just another annual ordeal. No matter what preparation or temperature you choose, after a few hours all paths end at the same ho-hum. By the time you carve and serve it, it’s lukewarm to boot — just the way bacteria like it.
I’m not saying roast turkey tastes bad. I am saying it’s nearly flavorless. Turkey without gravy is like a cone without ice cream. Like pizza crust without sauce and toppings. The best that can be said of Thanksgiving turkey is that it sits there modestly on the plate while the mashed potatoes and gooey green beans work their magic.
Nor am I condemning all turkey. A turkey breast cooked by itself — smoked or properly seasoned — and sliced paper thin can be the heart of a wonderful sandwich. Indeed, the turkey sandwich at Ellwood and Bonnie Ziegler’s Star Market in Denver, circa 1981, was a masterpiece worthy of Escoffier. I taste-tested it personally about 500 times. A statue should be raised in honor of that sandwich.
But look past the deli to the menus of the world’s great restaurants. You see lots of chicken, because roast chicken has a succulence that translates beautifully into almost every cuisine. A lot of roast duck, too, because the rich flavor of a well-cooked duck is divine.
Other than one day a year, you will find approximately zero roast turkey entrees in fine restaurants. Turkey is relegated to retro diners, or worse: frozen inside cardboard boxes at the grocery store, entombed in industrial gravy.
Louisianans, known for ebullient cuisine, tackle the turkey problem with characteristic exuberance. Instead of filling their birds with lemons or breadcrumbs, they remove the bones and jam a duck inside the turkey, then squeeze a chicken inside the duck, then fill the chicken with a savory mixture involving sausage, or crawfish, or whatever goodness is at hand. They call this “turducken” and serve it in slices that are 75 percent heaven and 25 percent turkey — a far more favorable ratio than the traditional Thanksgiving roast.
Cooks of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your basting brushes and meat thermometers.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run to the store for our Thanksgiving turkey. Yes, I’m a hypocrite. Though I dread groping its insides for the little bag of organs, wrestling it into and out of the pan, and carving leftovers that no one will eat, it’s the ritual that matters. Labor, suffering and humiliation are sacrificial tokens of love.