Big Daddy's Kitchen

Tall Tales and Anecdotes

  Morton Thompson's Turkey

Time to see who has the guts to try this at Thanksgiving.

There is only one way to stuff and roast a turkey. I make this statement boldly and without fear of successful contradiction, knowing that I am asking for the indignant protests of countless housewives who have been cooking turkey superbly for years, by recipes handed down from the time of the Pilgrims. Nevertheless, there is only one way to cook a turkey, and I am confident that I will be backed in this claim by anyone who has ever eaten turkey cooked according to the recipe devised by the late Morton Thompson. In the minds of most people, Thompson is remembered chiefly as the author of a best seller, Not as a Stranger, which later became a motion picture. Around my house, he is remembered — and revered — for his turkey recipe, which gives him hall-of-fame status and puts him in the same class as the man who invented the wheel, Plato, Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, Eli Whitney, Flaubert, Babe Ruth, and Santa Claus.

Merely sitting here and thinking about Thompson's turkey makes me wish I were cooking one now — and if I know me, I will be cooking one sometime within the next few days. The thought of this wondrous culinary creation is not merely maddening, it is compelling. It is also tiring. Thompson's turkey demands hard work, which ought to be divided among a number of people. But it is worth it. I have been cooking turkey Thompson's way for about a dozen years. Every one of the vast collection of acquaintances to whom I have served it has gasped, raved, and wound up pronouncing it the best ever. There is no other turkey recipe that comes close to it — and this is odd, in a way, for the ordinary Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey, cooked according to any number of old reliable recipes, is a handsome sight at the table, and Thompson's turkey is an absolute horror. Even a poached turkey, removed white and dripping from a steaming pot looks better than Thompson's.

This turkey comes out of the oven looking as though someone had made a fearful mistake. It is covered with a hard jet-black crust that seems to be a combination of coal and ashes. When they first catch sight of it, guests wish they had gone elsewhere for dinner. When they begin to eat it, they realize they never before have known turkey. They refuse to leave until they have eaten every scrap of it. Some ask to take the bones home to boil them up into a heartening soup. Others stuff bits into pockets, handbags, or paper napkins. The only trouble with Thompson's turkey, from the cook's point of view, is that there is seldom any left over.

The truth is that Thompson's turkey is to turkey as Miss Monroe is to women, as Jones was to golf, as — well the reader may choose his own champions. Thompson's turkey, beneath that hard black shell, is browned in a variety of tones ranging from light tan to mahogany, and has a variety of tastes stretching from marvelous to unbelievable. Now these are all strong claims. But here is what one Thompson's-turkey admirer said about it: "Several years ago I ate a turkey prepared and roasted by Morton Thompson. I didn't eat the whole turkey, but that wasn't my fault. There were outsiders present who ganged up on me.


The turkey must be a big one, not less than sixteen pounds and not more than twenty-two. The bigger it is, the more economical it will be. If it is eighteen pounds or more, it ought to be a hen; a hen has a bigger, meatier breast. Go to the market yourself to buy the turkey so as to give the butcher proper instructions. Have him cut off the bird's head to leave as much neck as possible. Then ask him to peel back the skin and cut off the neck, with a cleaver, as close as possible to the shoulders. This leaves a tube of neck skin that can be stuffed with any stuffing left over from the body cavity. Some butchers clean away most of a turkey's fat before handling the bird over. If your man does that, protest. You need the fat.

Rub the bird inside and out with salt and pepper and let it stand while you go ahead with other preliminaries.

Into a stewpan put the chopped gizzard, the neck, and the heart. Cover with 4 or 5 cups water, and add a large bay leaf, a teaspoon of paprika, half a teaspoon of coriander, a clove of garlic, and salt to taste. Put it over a low fire and let it simmer while you work on the dressing. When I say work, I mean work. Get a large bowl, and into it put an apple and an orange, both diced, a large can of crushed pineapple, the grated rind of half a lemon, and 3 tablespoons chopped preserved ginger. You can get the latter at a Chinese store or at candy stores or specialty shops. Then add, Thompson advised, a can of Chinese water chestnuts, drained. I prefer to add two cans, and I chop the chestnuts in half before throwing them in. Nearly every grocery store that sells chow mein dinners, or bamboo shoots, carries or will order water chestnuts.

Now get another bowl — and hold your breath. Merely assembling all the ingredients is a time- consuming process. In this bowl you put:

2 teaspoons hot dry mustard
2 teaspoons caraway seed
3 teaspoons celery seed
2 teaspoons poppy seed
2 1/2 teaspoons oregano
a well-crushed bay leaf
1 teaspoon black pepper
half a teaspoon of mace
4 tablespoons finely-chopped parsley (preferably fresh, although dried parsley flakes will do)
4 or 5 crushed cloves of garlic
4 large chopped onions
4 cloves (take off the heads and crush them)
half a teaspoon of tumeric
6 chopped stalks of celery
half a teaspoon of marjoram
half a teaspoon of summer savory
and 1 tablespoon poultry seasoning.

Then sprinkle in some salt — about a teaspoon, or more if you wish. Those are Thompson's ingredients. To them I have added a sprinkle of monosodium glutamate which probably isn't necessary, but which in my view brings out all the flavors more fully.

The end is not yet in sight. Take a third bowl. Put in 3 packages of bread crumbs, preferably the kind you get at the bakery. To the crumbs add 3/4 pound ground veal, 1/4 pound ground fresh pork, and 1/4 pound butter and all the fat (render it first) you have been able to take off the turkey.

Now begin mixing. "Mix in each bowl the contents of each bowl," Thompson wrote. "When each bowl is well mixed, mix the three of them together. And mix it well. Mix it with your hands. Mix it until your forearms and wrists ache. Then mix it some more. Now toss it so that it isn't any longer a doughy mass." Thus spoke Thompson.

Stuff the turkey and skewer it, tying the strings that go over and around the skewers. Pack the remainder of the stuffing into the neck tube and tie it shut securely. Turn the oven on full blast and let it get red hot. Put the bird on the drip pan in your roaster or, better than that, breast down on a rack. Then put it into the red-hot oven.

Right here you must work fast. In a cup make a paste consisting of the yolks of 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon hot dry mustard, a clove of crushed garlic, 1 tablespoon onion juice, 2 pinches of cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, and enough sifted flour to make it good and stiff.

When the bird in the oven is beginning to turn brown all over, take it out and turn the heat down to moderately slow (325 F). The skin may possibly have begun to bubble or split and crack. Ignore it. Take a pastry brush and paint the bird all over with the paste. Put it back in the oven. A few minutes later, when the paste has dried and set, take the turkey out again. Paint it again, every part of it you can touch. Keep doing this, putting it in and taking it out and painting it, until the paste is all used up.

Now add a cup of cider to the simmering giblet stock. At this point I put the liver in and keep the stewpan simmering, adding half cider and half water from time to time to replenish it. This is your basting fluid. The bird must be basted every fifteen minutes. After it has cooked about an hour and a half, turn it on its stomach and let it cook in that position until the last fifteen minutes; then put it on its back again. That is, unless you are using a rack; if you are, don't turn it on its back until the last half hour.
The bird should cook for five and a half hours. As it cooks, it will alarm you. The paste will begin to turn black very early in the process, but don't worry about it until the end. Thompson wrote: "You will think, 'My God! I have ruined it.' Be calm. Take a tweezer and pry loose the paste coating. It will come off readily. Beneath this burnt, harmless, now worthless shell the bird will be golden and dark brown, succulent, giddymaking with wild aromas, crisp and crunchable and crackling. The meat beneath this crazing panorama of skin will be wet, juice will spurt from it in tiny fountains as high as the handle of the fork plunged into it; the meat will be white, crammed with mocking flavor, delirious with things that rush over your palate and are drowned and gone as fast as you can swallow; cut a little of it with a spoon, it will spread on bread as eagerly and readily as soft Wurst. You do not have to be a carver to eat this turkey; speak harshly to it and it will fall apart."

Thompson did not describe the taste of the stuffing for the simple reason that it is indescribable. It is full of a vast collection of elusive and exotic flavors, of fruit and of greens, bits of crispness (the water chestnuts) and of delicate meats — well, no wonder he made no attempt to write about it. It has to be eaten to be understood.

There is no gravy required for this bird because it is in itself so moist — but if the family insists on gravy it may be made in the usual way, using the drippings from the pan. The giblets from the basting mixture may be chopped up and added. The beauty of Thompson's turkey, by the way, is that in the unlikely event that any of it is left over, the meat somehow remains as moist for days as it is when it first comes from the oven.

So, that's the turkey. I urge anyone to try it. Urge? I insist. Anyone who does will have an extra prayer to offer on Thanksgiving Day, a prayer of thanks for the genius of a man named Morton Thompson, who died on July 7, 1953. I don't know if Thompson is in heaven or not, but if he is, this is his second visit. I don't know of any other place where he might have picked up the original inspiration for Thompson's turkey

Richard Gehman's "The Haphazard Gourmet"  

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