Why do we stuff turkeys for Thanksgiving?
Stuffed in Stamford
A very long time ago, right after we discovered fire and began to cook things, we decided that it would be a good idea to put food inside our food. Perhaps we did not own much cookware then, and in lieu of a pot, we might use a large rabbit or perhaps a badger. I would think that the large, deep animals, like sheep and pig, might be stuffed with slow-cooking stews or soups, and perhaps we would use smaller, more shallow animals to saute our vegetables. Something like a beaver or woodchuck.
The urge to fill empty carcasses was documented in a cookbook from the time of the Roman Empire. What’s interesting is that it was published way before the USDA published their guide to stuffing safety. Maybe that’s why they needed all the vomitoriums.
At any rate, we’ve been making stuffing and shoving it inside the orifices of dead animals for centuries. So when the pilgrims got to America and saw a bunch of wild turkeys running around, they worked together in fine American fashion: someone got the gun (or musket; this is why I don’t write historical fiction), someone baked the bread, and someone got the melon baller. (How else do you hollow out a turkey?).
You know, we don’t always stuff a turkey with stuffing. Sometimes we stuff it with dressing. Or maybe we dress it with stuffing. Actually, it used to be called “farce”–presumably because everyone laughed at the poor guy who had to stick his hand up a dead turkey butt. And sometimes, very rarely, it is regrettably called “forcemeat”.
And finally, sometimes, we stuff turkey with other animals.
Thankfully, today we no longer need to actually bake breads and let them go stale to make stuffing. American ingenuity was talented enough to solve this irritating problem of actual cooking. Thank goodness we now have access to the flavor-packeted, boxable “Stove Top Stuffing”. So easy, even I can do it. So tasty, you can’t eat it if you have high blood pressure. So moist you can use it to water plants while you’re away for Thanksgiving. Stove Top introduced its product in 1972, and today sells 60 million boxes of stuffing over Thanksgiving. (Granted, I buy 30 million of them, but every Thanksgiving my family gets together and builds a “Stuffing Hut”; then we spend a year eating ourselves out of it.)
The second part of your question, of course, is…why turkeys?
They seem like such peaceful animals. And stupid. Peaceful, stupid animals. I know a lot of people who are peaceful and stupid, and we don’t eat them. So why?
Well, here is a really bad answer, written by what seems like a third-grader trying to hit 300 words for his History class. I point it out because I am both condescending and aggravated. Not usually, just right now, while I am trying to get information and got that instead.
I then found a sassy little article in The New Yorker which I assumed would give me all the history I wanted and a bag of chips, but no. However, there is a discussion of Ben Franklin (who always comes up this time of year, bless his soul), and a metaphor that relates the character of turkeys to trends in American monetary legacies. And yes, you will only find that in the New Yorker (bless their souls).
So, head in hands, I sadly trudged over to Wikipedia and even they could not help. Three references wasted, I am now forced to make up my own explanation.
On the very first Thanksgiving, after days and weeks of harvesting their long-worked crops, the pilgrims were ready for rest, and a good meal. They brought all their food together in one place, met their friends the Native Americans, and everyone started cooking. Mary Pinkerton was cutting some stale bread for dressing, when a large turkey snuck up behind her and pecked the living heck out of the back of her knee.
It hurt, she wouldn’t deny that. She was so angry at the bird she began to scream at it and chase it with her knife. Everyone else saw what happened, and they all got together in a great angry mob, with rolling pins and skewers and spatulas aplenty, and chased that turkey until they caught it and killed it. As they all stood around, someone said, “Holy cow that thing’s big. What the heck are we gonna do with it?”
Mary eyed the bird, and then her stuffing, and then the bird again. And in a low, angry voice she said to the group, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
Have a great Thanksgiving!
Ceil Kessler, star of stage and screen, is now penning her own cookbook whereby she roots through the garbage cans outside IHOPs and makes delicious entrees and desserts. Called “Waste Not”, it will be available at your finer book retailers some day soon.
Because she’ll be doing extra research on the book next week, there will be no Ask Ceil column next Friday. Have a slice of pumpkin pie for me!
Some things I actually learned about stuffing I got from this page, written by someone who seemed like he needed a drink.
Don’t forget: Super Congress will be making recommendations to cut the budget on the day before Thanksgiving! I have my money on the angry guys in suits.