Thanksgiving turkey recipe and why we eat the big bird

How did the turkey become the main mascot of modern-day Thanksgiving.

There are a couple of myths told each year at my house on Thanksgiving. One is that the chef won’t get gee-eyed and kick everyone out of the kitchen. The other is that there's a natural chemical in turkey called tryptophan that makes you sleepy after the meal.

While the first myth stems from wishful thinking on my wife’s part, the sleepy-turkey myth lingers around each year because it sounds so logical.

Alas, it is only marginally true. What's making you sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner is any combination of booze, bad conversation, family members and a carbohydrate-heavy meal, but not the turkey itself.

The tryptophan trip

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid crucial for good health. Human bodies need tryptophan to build certain kinds of proteins. There is a sleep connection, though. The body uses tryptophan in a multi-step process to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps regulate sleep.

Turkey does have tryptophan. But all meat has tryptophan at comparable levels. Cheddar cheese, gram for gram, has more. While cheddar isn't the most exciting cheese in the cheese cellar, no one connects it with sleep. Turkey gets singled out for no other reason than being eaten during the biggest meal of the year.

So we have finally come to our main event, the Thanksgiving Day Turkey but why do we eat turkey for Thanksgiving?

Although turkeys are the main cuisine of today's Thanksgiving celebrations, these birds were NOT the most popular centerpieces on the first Thanksgiving tables.

In 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians celebrated the first Thanksgiving, they were gobbling up many more foods than just turkey. Since lobster, goose, duck, seal, eel, and cod were plentiful during this time, these foods were most likely the main courses of this first feast. Deer meat and wild fowl are the only two items that historians know for sure were menu of this autumn celebration.

So how did the turkey become the main mascot of modern-day Thanksgiving if we don't know for certain that turkeys were at this first feast?

One story tells of how Queen Elizabeth of 16th century England was chowing down on roast goose during a harvest festival. When news was delivered to her that the Spanish Armada had sunk on it way to attack her beloved England, the queen was so pleased that she order a second goose to celebrate the great news. Thus, the goose became the favorite bird at harvest time in England. When the Pilgrims arrived in America from England, roasted turkey replaced roasted goose as the main cuisine because wild turkeys were more abundant and easier to find than geese.


A step-by-step instruction on how to roast a stuffed or unstuffed turkey.


16- to 24-pound dressed turkey, fresh or frozen (allow 1 pound per serving}
Kosher salt and ground pepper
Dried herbs and spices of choice: sage, thyme, garlic powder, onion powder
Dressing (stuffing) of choice, optional
Vegetable oil
Turkey Gravy {keep yer knickers on, the recipe is below}


To prepare the turkey for roasting:

Do not stuff the turkey until immediately before roasting. When ready to roast the turkey, rinse the outside and cavities of the bird under cold, running water. Cut away and discard any fat remaining on the bird. Place the turkey on several layers of paper towels to drain. Using additional paper towels, pat the outside and cavities dry. Sprinkle cavity liberally with salt and pepper.

To stuff the turkey, stand the bird on its tail end in a large bowl; using a tablespoon, stuff the neck cavity loosely with dressing. Pull the neck skin over the dressing and fasten it to the body with a poultry skewer. Turn the bird and place the neck end in the bowl; stuff the body cavity loosely with dressing. It is important to stuff the dressing fairly loosely in the bird because dressing expands during cooking.

Remove the turkey from the bowl and lay the bird, breast side up, on a piece of waxed paper or directly on a clean work surface. Pull the legs close to the body and tie the ends together with cotton string. If the tail has been left on the bird, tie the legs to the tail to partially close the body cavity. Some frozen turkeys are packed with a metal clamp to secure the legs, in which case it is not necessary to tie the legs with string. Fold the wings under the bird to provide a platform for roasting.

Place the turkey, breast side up, on a wire rack in a shallow roasting pan. Brush all the exposed surfaces with vegetable oil. Sprinkle liberally with your choice of herbs, spices, salt, and pepper. Insert a meat thermometer into one of the inner thigh areas near the breast, making certain the tip of the thermometer is not touching bone. While many commercial turkeys are packed with a disposable thermometer preinserted into the breast which is designed to pop up when the bird is done, a standard meat thermometer, inserted into the thickest part of the thigh at the time the turkey is placed in the oven for roasting, is considered a more reliable means of determining doneness. Also, a standard meat thermometer makes it possible to know how close the turkey is to being done -- an aid in timing preparation of the remainder of the meal.