Our domesticated turkey had its beginnings in a sleek, dark-meated bird, long of leg and neck. with iridescent bronze plumage. In the pre-Columbian era, some ten million of these birds flew through forests from southern Canada down through Mexico. (The wild turkey could fly as far as a mile, without stopping, at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour.) Most North American Indian tribes only rarely hunted this turkey, and then for its lovely feathers rather than its drumsticks. (Some among these tribes judged the bird as stupid and cowardly and eschewed its meat for fear of acquiring these traits.)
ln Mexico, the Aztecs domesticated the bird; Montezuma’s chefs regularly prepared turkey dishes. According to Raymond Sokolov’s Why We Eat What We Eat: How Columbus Changed the Way the World Eats, Aztec cooks prepared turkey in a hot sauce containing chocolate, a dish that survives in modern Mexico as mole poblano de guajolote. Spanish conquistadores in the 1400s carried the Aztec turkey (and New World gold) back to Europe. No edible bird this large — 32 to 40 pounds — existed in Europe; among the wealthy, the turkey soon became a centerpiece for special occasions.
By the mid-1500s, in England, Germany, Holland, and France, selective breeding had produced a flightless bird with white rather than dark breast meat. (Some found the new bird insufficiently flavorful. Waverly Root in his three-pound encyclopedia, Food, tells of the way in which turkeys were killed in Alsace to make them less bland: “The turkey is kept without food or drink for a whole day. It is then driven all around the farmyard to anger it. When it has become furious and terrified, it is forced to drink salted ginger-flavored vinegar, and then strangled.”)
Why turkey has white meat and dark, writes Harold McGee in his ever-helpful On Food and Cooking, is not due primarily to blood and blood’s oxygen-carrying hemoglobin, but to the oxygen-storing myoglobin. The latter is located in muscle cells and stores oxygen carried by blood until the muscle cells need it. Muscles that use more oxygen have a greater oxygen-storing capacity than muscles that use little oxygen and therefore are darker red. Because oxygen use generally is related to activity level, muscles that are exercised frequently and strenuously need more oxygen. Once the turkey was domesticated and ceased flying for any distance, of course, its breast muscle became white.
ln the 1600s, the Aztecs’ turkey that sailed to Europe with the conquistadores returned to North America with English immigrants as a white-breasted, somewhat plumper creature (refined, one might conclude, rather like a Henry James heroine). Breeding of the bird, with selection for meatier breasts and thighs and the pretty tail feathers that were turned into feather dusters, continued over the next three centuries. By the mid-19th century, turkey — domesticated and wild — had become the entrée of choice for Thanksgiving dinner (and Mark Twain, in his 1878 book A Tramp Abroad, writing about his homesickness in Europe for American food, lists “Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style. Cranberries, celery” as some among the dishes for which he longs).
Previous to World War II, most of our domestic turkeys’ breastbones rose in a high arch. On a 25- to 30-pound turkey, this lofty Romanesque arch of bone tended to make the bird too large to fit modern ovens. Breeders set about developing a bird with a lower arch to its breast. At the same time they also sought to produce an even heavier-breasted bird, to accommodate Americans’ preference for white meat over dark.
By 1945, the apotheosis of turkey was considered to have been reached in the heavily fleshed Broad Breasted Bronze, a turkey with a breast so wide that its legs (by then short and blocky) were not strong enough to permit easy walking. (This bronze-feathered turkey has since been replaced by white-feathered birds, thus eliminating problems with dark pin feathers.)
Another result of this genetic tinkering was that the male turkey could no longer readily mount the female without damage to both birds. The male’s frantic clawing tore at the hen’s back. Attempting to solve this problem, turkey growers fitted the hens with canvas saddles that protected the female from goring by male turkey claws. But turkey producers soon gave up on the saddles and turned to artificial insemination.
I talked one morning recently, by telephone, with Dr. John Proudman, at the United States Department of Agriculture avian physiology laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. Proudman has worked exclusively with turkeys for the past 30 years. Male turkeys, like most birds, he said, do not have a penis.
“The sperm issues from a small lymphoid ejaculatory organ, one-quarter to one half-inch in length, in the cloaca [the common cavity into which the intestinal, genital, and urinary tracts open in birds]. Turkeys,” said Proudman, “when they mate naturally, stand on the back of the female and lower this lymphoid organ onto the vagina. In response to this, the hen everts her vagina outward and the two organs come into contact. There is no actual penetration. The semen is put, very shallowly, right on the surface of the cloaca. A colleague of mine speaks of this as ‘a cloacal kiss.’ The semen is then deposited on the vagina, the male dismounts, and the hen draws the vagina back inside, bringing the sperm back in.”
Turkey-breeding farms employ insemination teams to “milk” sperm from the male and then place that sperm in the female. To acquire turkey sperm takes two to three workers.
“You set a male turkey in a holder to hold it still,” said Proudman, “and begin to massage at the base of the tail and along the stomach. The ejaculatory organ everts and a little semen rolls down on it. It’s a very small volume, and it oozes rather than spurts. Then, using a straw, you aspirate, or suck, the sperm off the ejaculatory organ into a small vial. The objective is to get a clean, uncontaminated sample, uncontaminated, that is, with fecal matter.”
Does the male turkey enjoy this?
“Oh, yes, they become perfectly happy, after they go through a short training period. In fact, they will be eager to get up there and be worked on.”
Does the male turkey have an orgasm?
“I’ve not seen them with a smile on their face. But perhaps it does give them pleasure.”
Turkey sperm, Proudman said, “is highly concentrate, more so than bird sperm in general and mammalian sperm. So, typically, before the hen is inseminated the sperm will be diluted quite extensively in a saline solution. You can cover as many as 30 hens with semen from one tom. And, your average hen will produce about 90 eggs in a reproductive lifetime of 22 to 25 weeks.”
To inseminate the female, said Proudman, the “artificial insemination teams march the turkeys one at a time into an apparatus that holds them while the operator squeezes them in such a way that they evert the vagina just as they would were a tom on top of them. They have the ejaculate in straws and either blow it in by mouth or aspirate it inward with a bulbed tube.”
Ralph Ernst, University of California at Davis Cooperative Extension poultry expert, has worked with turkeys since 1960. In what Ernst spoke of as the “old days,” the ’60s, breeders had not yet perfected methods of storage for turkey sperm. (Now the sperm can be stored for as long as 24 hours and retain motility.)
“Back then,” said Ernst, “the male would be milked for his sperm and then the sperm would be rushed to the hen. One person would sit down and put the head of the hen between his legs and hold her feet. From that position, you could push the oviduct and pop it up. The other person, the actual inseminator, would then take a slender four-inch tube filled with semen, insert it into the hen, and blow in the semen. It was hard work. These turkeys were big. But they didn’t fight much. They get used to being handled.”
How old does a hen have to be before she can be inseminated?
“You can push them to come into lay early, but it’s not a good idea. If they are not big enough to lay eggs, you are likely to have a prolapse of the oviduct and the eggs are too small. Also, if you start them too soon, they end up by not laying as many eggs in a cycle. So, you lose at the other end. In the old strains you waited until the hen was 36, 37 weeks old. Now it’s about 33 weeks of age that you can inseminate. When they are in lay condition, you can put a little gentle pressure right around the cloaca and get them to evert, just pop right out.”
When the tom is in what Ernst called “reproductive condition,” at about 30 weeks of age, insemination teams will “pre-milk toms, because the semen isn’t necessarily that good the first time. When the tom is ready, is in reproductive condition, and when he gets used to being milked on a regular basis, he will sometimes ejaculate prematurely, which can be a problem if you’re not ready with a straw or an aspirator.”
Into the kitchen.
For the cook, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner can be an ordeal. I remember, in my first years as a housewife, getting up out of a warm bed while my husband and children slept. I pulled on my old blue chenille bathrobe over my flannel nightie and tiptoed across cold floors into the kitchen. After tossing the dachshund out the back door, I wrested the 25-, 30-pound thawed turkey out of the refrigerator (one of whose shelves I would have had to remove to accommodate the huge bird). I undid the metal wire that bound the turkey’s legs together at the ankle and spread apart the still-frosty legs; the cold flesh squeaked. I put my hand deep into the bird’s chilly interior and pulled out the slimy paper bag that held the turkey’s neck and giblets (giblets are the heart, liver, and gizzard of a fowl).
By that time, our two daughters likely would be out of bed, watching while I mixed stuffing in a big bowl, massaged salt and softened butter into the turkey’s skin, and placed him or her, breast up, in the navy-blue enamel roaster. Then, by the time I lifted the heavy pan into the oven, my husband would have wandered in and filled a bowl with Grape Nuts and wandered back to our bed to read. Slightly nauseated from my contact with the turkey, I would bathe and dress. Soon the aroma of roasting turkey perfumed the house. I would begin the rest of dinner.
By the time I’d managed three or four Thanksgivings, nothing about the dinner caused me worry except the giblet gravy. I worried about how ugly the giblets were, and I worried that my gravy would have lumps. Generally, gravy is made by thickening and seasoning juices that drip and ooze from cooking meat. Those juices, really, are a gift, as in one of the American Heritage’s definitions for gravy, “payment or benefit in excess of what is experienced or required,” and for the slang expression “gravy train,” defined as “income that requires little effort while yielding considerable profit.”
One good way to describe that “benefit in excess” is a poem titled “Gravy” that Raymond Carver wrote not long before he died in 1988. Carver from the time he was a teenager had been a big destructive drinker, and then in the mid-’70s, when a doctor told him he had to quit the bottle or die, he got sober. Ten years later, when another doctor told Carver he had lung cancer, he wrote “Gravy,” in which he urged readers, “Don’t weep for me...I’m a lucky man. I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”
Dobson’s chef, Deborah MacDonald Schneider, doesn’t make giblet gravy. She says she “hates guts,” that she “wouldn’t eat the giblets at gunpoint.”
But Schneider does make a turkey gravy and was kind enough to type out her recipe. “No quantities are specified,” she writes, “because if readers know how to cook they don’t need them (and if they don’t know how to cook, they ought not to start practicing with Thanksgiving dinner).
“Start the day before, as follows. Buy a fresh turkey if possible (or thaw a frozen one). Trim off wing tips, parson’s nose, etc. Throw in the neck, and if you are a bit short on bones, toss in a piece of chicken or chicken bones. Make a brown stock by roasting the bones in the oven and adding water with a little wine, onion, celery, carrot, bay leaf, parsley stems, and a pinch of dry thyme and pepper. Simmer for several hours to make the stock on the strong side and cook off the wine. Strain and refrigerate. Remove hardened fat before using.
“On The Day: Roast your turkey with some sliced onions in the pan (these brown up and add color to the sauce). When the bird is done, remove to a platter. Strain off the fat. SAVE THE FAT! Pour your turkey stock made the day previous into the roasting pan and boil it up (add water if necessary) to get every wonderful brown bit off. Strain off the pan stock and set aside. In a heavy saucepan make a light roux with the turkey fat and flour, cooking it and stirring constantly until it is light brown. Pour on your stock and whisk it smooth. Cook at a gentle simmer for at least one half hour. If too thick, thin it with water or Swanson’s Chicken Broth, or, God help you, sherry. If too thin, it will reduce when you simmer it. Strain before serving. Enjoy.”