Turkey Talk and Stuff: A Gobble Ahead

Wild Turkeys (Used with permission.)
Wild Turkeys (Used with permission.)

“When the wine has stopped fermenting in November, the turkey is ready for roasting.”

–Italian Proverb–

The slight chill in the air lately conjures up dreams of fall nights replete with soup and crunching leaves underfoot and turkey dinners. Wild turkeys dart in and out of the bushes around the woods near my house. And I whisper to them, “Godspeed, run, for Thanksgiving will be upon you before you know.”

Some people consider the turkey, and not the bald eagle, to be the American national bird. After all, roasted stuffed turkey symbolizes abundance and is one of the glories of American culinary tradition. To celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas without a stuffed turkey would be almost a heresy in many American homes. Turkey stuffing recipes could fill whole cookbooks and pithy sayings about turkey also abound. For example, to “talk turkey” means to talk straight and directly. Sometimes “straight talk” isn’t all that straight, but we won’t belabor that point right now.

Talking turkey about turkeys does not always mean straight talk, either. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, a pompous person “swells like a turkey… ,” thereby implying that such a person looks ridiculous. Today, people dissatisfied with others try not to let the turkeys get them down. And to call someone a “turkey” is the same as saying, “What a loser.”  The poor turkey. Vilified. And then readied for the cooking pot.

Roasted Stuffed Turkey
Roasted Stuffed Turkey

Another interesting bit of turkey lore concerns the name given to our unofficial national bird. Spanish explorers returning to Seville from the New World brought with them large birds, called “uexolotl” by the Aztecs. Turkish spice merchants, passing through Seville, added exotic New World “uexolotls” to their  England-bound cargo. Finding the Aztec name for the birds too difficult to pronounce, the English buyers simply called them “turkie-birds.”

English settlers, after the “starving times” of 1609 in Jamestown, Virginia and 1620 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, didn’t care what moniker identified these delicious birds. For the Pilgrims, it was enough that there were hundreds of wild turkeys, each weighing 40 pounds or so, hiding in the woods near Plymouth. And so for the original Thanksgiving feast, William Bradford wrote, the Pilgrims “sent four men fowling”, sure of having at least turkey to eat at the 3-day feast. The Jamestown settlers had been eating turkey for years before the Pilgrims ever stepped foot on the “Mayflower.”

Pilgrim women, in traditional English style, stuffed those wild turkeys with forcemeat or old bread, fruit, nuts, and herbs. Because so few English women lived in Jamestown until more than ten years after the initial settlement, most of our colonial recipes come from Plymouth. Close in size to English geese, turkeys thus stuffed cooked and came to the table golden but scrawny, served much the same as geese back in the old country, but with a lot less fat.  Hearth fires crackled with dripping juices as the birds slowly spit-roasted for that first Thanksgiving.

For some Americans today, roast turkey takes second place to the stuffing.

Stuffing American-style always follows a formula: (1) bread or other starchy ingredient to give body to the stuffing, (2) aromatics like giblets, sausage, mushrooms, chestnuts, herbs, onions, celery, nuts, fruits, and/or spices for flavor and texture, and (3) butter, cream, milk, eggs, wine, or stock for moistening.

Actually, anything goes when it comes to stuffing.

Plan on 1/2 cup of stuffing per pound of bird. Leave room in the body and neck cavities of the turkey for the stuffing to expand. This year, be adventurous. Make two kinds of stuffing. Stuff the body with your family’s traditional stuffing and the neck with a new and different stuffing. [You may bake extra stuffing in the oven, so don’t worry about making too much. Just moisten it with a little more stock or other liquid to keep it from drying out.]

In enjoying the abundance of your Thanksgiving table, remember the origins of the feast: out of starvation and hardship came sharing and plenty. Now, that’s talking turkey, isn’t it?

Thanksgiving Dinner---The Dream (Used with permission.)
Thanksgiving Dinner---The Dream (Used with permission.)


Forget about calorie-counting on a feast day. However, for the curious, 1/4 pound of combined turkey meat (dark and white meat with skin on) contains 300 calories, while 3 oz. of white meat has 162 calories. 3 oz. of skinned white meat yields 150 calories. 1 cup of moist stuffing made from a mix contains 416 calories, while dry stuffing made from a mix has a total of 501 calories.


Makes about 6 cups

1 pound spicy pork sausage

3 large Granny Smith apples, cored and chopped

1 cup finely chopped celery

1 cup finely chopped onion

4-5 cups toasted bread cubes

2 eggs

2 T. cream or stock

1 1/2 t. salt or to taste

1/2 t. EACH sage and white pepper

1/4 t. EACH thyme and marjoram

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1. Fry sausage in cast-iron skillet until browned. Remove meat from skillet (place in large metal mixing bowl) and pour off all but 4 T. fat (or pour off all fat and substitute 4 T. vegetable oil). Fry apples, celery, and onion until translucent.

2. Add celery, onion, and remaining ingredients to the sausage. Mix well. Let stuffing chill overnight, covered, in an air-tight container. Stuff turkey just before roasting. Roast according to instruction on turkey label or cook at 325 degrees F for 20 minutes per pound.

YBOR CITY STUFFING (Cuban-Style Stuffing)

Makes 10 cups

1 lb. lean hamburger

1 lb. hot pork sausage

1 lb. pressed ham (sandwich-type), finely chopped

3 medium-size onions, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, mashed and minced

2 medium green peppers, finely chopped

Salt and black pepper to taste

1 t. dried oregano leaves

2 eggs

6-7 cups toasted bread cubes, preferably from firm-textured bread

1/4-1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup pitted green olives with pimento

1/2 cup almonds

1/2 cup dates, chopped

1. Fry hamburger and sausage until browned, add the ham, and cook for 1 minute. Remove meats to large metal mixing bowl. Fry onion and green peppers in the meat fat, until translucent. Stir in the garlic and cook 1 minute. Remove mixture from heat and add to the meats.

2. Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix well. If mixture seems too dry, add more milk; if too moist, add more bread. Stuff turkey just before roasting. Follow roasting directions on turkey label or roast at 325 degrees F for 20 minutes per pound.

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© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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