Any moment now, I should hear a blip sound of a Facebook notification, indicating that my mother has posted “the video” on my wall. It’s nothing too out there, just an instructional video from the New York Times on how to correctly carve a turkey, as demonstrated by a butcher. She’s posted it on my wall for the past three years, always with a playful message of “study up, you only have a week :).” At this point, having watched my grandfather, then uncle, carve the bird for so many years, I’m pretty sure I know how to get the meat off the bone. Most likely, my mom sends me the video for tradition’s sake. But in those frosty days leading up to our festival of the harvest, I always taste a fearful vinegar on my gravy palate.
“What if I mess up this year?” I wonder. It’s not too hard to imagine. A turkey, as the video makes clear, doesn’t dismember itself. With one slip of the knife, the breast is gashed and unsliceable. If I grab the drumstick too roughly, the crisp blanket of skin might tear off. I used to have these kinds of worries about grilling chicken or cooking pasta, but not after preparing them several times a week for many years. But when you carve a turkey only one Thursday in November, practice and game-day are the same thing.
I’m not alone in my gobbler-induced anxiety. Since last week, a glut of articles have been published, as they are every year, advising people on how to source, marinate, roast, rest and carve that damn poultry. Why? Because cooking a whole turkey is really fucking hard. It’s a culinary endeavor beyond what most of us attempt on a daily basis. This brings up an obvious question: Why do we center a holiday around a dish that most of us have an arduous — and often ultimately disappointing — time cooking?
There have been many inquiries into the origins of turkey-eating on Thanksgiving. Contrary to the canonical story, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag most likely didn’t eat turkey when they sat down for a communal feast back in 1621. Their meal probably consisted of oysters, mussels, geese, venison, corn and berries (doesn’t sound too bad, right?). But dining on the esteemed Meleagris gallopavo was solidified when Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. As an article from Slate explains, whole turkey was the perfect protein for this new holiday. It’s big enough to feed a family (or two) and turkeys are expendable; they don’t provide milk or eggs or labor, and therefore wouldn’t have to be saved for the winter. By the time these concerns were nullified by industry and urbanization, turkey had become such an iconic tradition that no one thought to do otherwise.
But I think this explanation is a little too easy. I think, for all of our kvetching and stressing and fussing, Americans really like Thanksgiving turkey. And it’s not because we like the taste; even with the most attentive cooking, turkey is often anemic, dry, tough and sinewy, mostly because it’s difficult to cook evenly. Rather, I think Americans love Thanksgiving turkey because it is, in and of itself, so quintessentially American.
First of all, serving a whole turkey is sentimental. We are, as a nation, gripped by a vision of some golden past, a halcyon period of pastoral existence where everything was simple and rugged. When we sit around the table on Thanksgiving, we all imagine, for a moment, being the simple pilgrims who shot this turkey ourselves and now can feast on the bounty of the hunt.
Going with that, a whole turkey is opulent, and America is an opulent land. Think back to last Thanksgiving. Did you finish the turkey? No one ever does. Even after a dozen people gorge themselves, there’s always a shoe-box sized tupperware of meat left. This carnivorous decadence is an American ideal, which influenced every culinary tradition that passed through Ellis Island. Spaghetti and meatballs, for example, is the result of poor southern-Italian immigrants’ joy in discovering that meat was widely available in their new home, which they then added to their old-world sauce with abandon.
Thanksgiving turkey is also competitive. I think it speaks volumes that there is such a tradition of football on Thanksgiving, and Americans can get as competitive with turkey skin as they do with the pigskin. Because almost every family cooks one on Thanksgiving, my turkey can suddenly be compared to others. Ask anyone what they’re serving this year, and inevitably you’ll get into an argument over whose method of cooking is superior.
Finally, Americans love cooking turkey precisely because it’s so difficult. In On Photography, Susan Sontag argued that Americans take pictures on vacation because they’re incapable of actually taking a vacation; they have to work even when supposedly resting. Thanksgiving turkey is much the same. Wrestling the bird in and out of a vat of brine is akin to handling a greasy beachball. Cooking it takes hours and hours of prodding and basting and covering and uncovering the breasts so that they don’t overcook. Cleaning up after carving is like mopping up a crime scene. All told, this doesn’t make for a very restful holiday.
So is the turkey worth it? To be perfectly honest, I’d be much happier braising short ribs or roasting a pig. But then again, Thanksgiving is never about what you want to do, but rather what you have to do. Like chatting with Republican in-laws, or cleaning a colossus-sized pile of dishes, you just have to cook a turkey, because the holiday, for reasons unclear but strongly felt, wouldn’t mean much without it.
I’ll just have to start sharpening my knives.