My friends, I am not a lover of the turkey, that mascot of a picture-perfect Thanksgiving. Like Norman Rockwell, I appreciate the propaganda effect of a gleaming bird on a platter; the trophy of the cook who has, by god, laid to rest Thanksgiving, her mother-in-law (and ghosts of grandmothers past) in one highly effective display of crackling burnished skin.
But it's all for show, like a military rally of puffer fish. Once you've asserted your dominance in the kitchen, scaled the heights of the last Himalaya, planted your flag on Saturn — what's left? A turkey, that's what. And that brings this bonafide triumph down to earth with a squelch because, you see, turkey is gross.
Turkey is an overgrown bird, fattened on farms and lacking the simplicity of well-bred chicken or the elegance of a Cornish hen. By the time it gets to our tables, it's gauche and blowsy. Native turkeys helped save the lives of our colonizing forefathers, and so they enshrined it in gratitude, the holiday tradition equivalent of shopping while hungry.
I have roasted many turkeys, from factory-farmed to heritage, and even the best of them taste faintly stale and musty — yes, even when cooked to perfection. Even the best roasted turkey, juicy for a split second just before it hits the table and cools into mediocrity, tastes like a chicken past its prime.
When was the last time you actually saw a turkey picked clean? I will tell you the one and only time I saw a turkey eaten to the bone, with no meat conveniently forgotten in two-pound bags to slowly burn itself to death in the freezer. This highly irregular occasion was the snowy night I cooked dinner for a group of graduate students — a unique segment of humanity who will eat absolutely anything. But these were no usual grad students; they were a laboring pack who had spent their week digging 10-foot snow pits on the peak of a mountain in Colorado, then skied miles home to dinner in the dark. These kids would have eaten a Thanksgiving tablecloth if I had warmed it through. They picked this turkey clean, and that was the last time that ever happened.
Some of you will strenuously disagree. You love that mealy white breast meat, that too-large leg. It's so good with gravy, you say. What about that day-after turkey sandwich? I live for that, you insist.
Ah, but really? I call your bluff. The sandwich? It smothers the turkey aftertaste with cranberry sauce. And the gravy? Aha! Now we get to the point. Do you know what good gravy is made of?
Turkey stock is the beautiful, glorious, shining reason that turkeys exist. When God made turkeys, he delivered them to Adam and Eve with a stockpot and the words, "This bird, it be gross in mien and in taste. But take of this pot and boil the bird and ye shall know delight."
Turkey, like quince, kidney beans, or cassava root, when left in its natural state, is unpleasant if not downright hazardous. But steeped gently for an afternoon, with a few aromatics, in a sunny kitchen, it transmutes into pure gold.
In the stockpot, the mustiness and funk of roast turkey is smoothed and deepened into a broth that tastes like a winter day at home with sunlight pouring in, glinting off the snow; one of those post-blizzard afternoons where the roads are closed and schools are shut down and your boss is on vacation; but Netflix still works and there are cookies in the pantry and half a bottle of wine in the fridge. Pure luxury, joined to comfort.
Turkey stock is the grass-fed, charcoal-grilled ribeye of the broth world. Turkey stock is everything chicken broth wishes it could be. Turkey stock is hot, buttery toast made from flawless craggy bread. Turkey stock is the slice of birthday cake, eaten for breakfast. Turkey stock is hitting the snooze button then remembering it's a holiday. Turkey stock is your sleeping toddler's head, warm and heavy on your shoulder. Turkey stock is clean, crisp sheets. Turkey stock is money in the bank, meals in the freezer, all your laundry folded and put away.
Turkey stock is the soup you remember for years, the taste that lingers in your memory. Turkey stock is a billion grandmothers saying, "Eat this, it's good for you!" and by golly, your cold is gone the next morning.
Turkey stock is the confidence of a cook radiating forth after she realizes that she made something out of nothing; the stone soup miracle when bones go in and nourishment comes forth.
The turkey, as a holiday centerpiece — it's all for show. Go, buy it, brine it, cook it. Be confident; swagger. Show that turkey (and every one of your relatives) who's the boss of your kitchen. Bring that beast to the table with a grin. Just don't feel bad that you don't want to eat it; Thanksgiving is all about the side dishes anyway.
But afterwards, when that crafty aunt offers, casually, to take your turkey carcass home, slap her hands and say, "No! This bird, it belongs to me. I am a cook, and I have plans."
And then, make your turkey stock, as God intended.