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Table Talk: In defense of the traditional Thanksgiving turkey
“Even anti-turkey barbarians usually allow that the big, golden bird looks good on the table,” Chris Herrington says. (circlePS/Getty Images)

“Even anti-turkey barbarians usually allow that the big, golden bird looks good on the table,” Chris Herrington says. (circlePS/Getty Images)

Welcome back to Table Talk, where The Daily Memphian writers and editors send the latest food news — along with a dash of this and that — directly to your inbox every Wednesday.

This is not the last Table Talk column before this year’s Thanksgiving day, but cooking decisions are being made now (if not already). 

If you’re cooking for, or with, a larger gathering, the core plan doesn’t come together the day before.


A Thanksgiving dinner is displayed on a table in Concord, N.H., Oct. 22, 2012. (/Matthew Mead/AP file)

Which means this is the right week to stand up for something in which I believe: The Thanksgiving turkey, Ben Franklin’s “respectable bird.” 

Every year, this holiday staple gets unjustly maligned. One such occasion on a radio appearance nearly a decade ago — the character assassination of the Thanksgiving turkey by the sports-talker Gary Parrish — forced me to think through my defense. 

Since then, I’ve made this case a few times: on radio, on podcasts and in “print,” most recently in a “There’s More to Life Than Basketball” answer to a question at the end of a Grizzlies Mailbag column a few years ago. But I’ve never written it in The Daily Memphian food section, the culinary equivalent of stone tablets. So here goes, a six-part turkey treatise:

1. Tradition is a good thing

In a changing world where institutions and ideals are ever fragile, your dining room table is the place to hold the line. The turkey is synonymous with the holiday. Don’t let it just be another meal. Let Thanksgiving be Thanksgiving. 


2. The turkey engages other senses

Even anti-turkey barbarians usually allow that the big, golden bird looks good on the table. Dining isn’t just about tastes or textures. It’s also about sights and scents. When others in my family get a turn at turkey duty, they’ve sometimes smoked or deep-fried. Tastes great, but it happens outside. A turkey roasting in the oven has a transformative olfactory impact on your home. This is what Thanksgiving smells like. 

3. Season your bird

 If your turkey is dry or bland, that’s more of a “you” problem. Don’t blame the bird. Cooking a whole turkey is a challenge, but you can do it. I used to say “brine your bird,” and generally went with the highly traditional method we pulled from an Alton Brown article in Bon Appetit 20 years ago, which involves brining the bird overnight in a saltwater solution. (You can find it online here.) But last year, my turn on turkey duty again, I decided to try the method suggested by late colleague Jennifer Biggs, which involves breaking down the bird and seasoning it purely with a salt-based rub rather than a brine. (“Dry brine” is an oxymoron, but whatever.)

Break the turkey down before you cook it and you can get it out of the oven in about an hour and a half. (Jennifer Biggs/The Daily Memphian file)

Breaking down a whole turkey was work (get some kitchen gloves), but the roasting went a lot quicker, it still looked impressive spread out on a platter, and it tasted great. I’d do this again, but I’m not retiring the brined and roasted whole bird. 

4. Accept that the turkey is the ‘glue guy’

 Because the turkey visually anchors the Thanksgiving table, people tend to set expectations too high for its role in the meal. Get past your “main dish and sides” frame of mind. Your crowded Thanksgiving plate is a more egalitarian zone. This is a feature, not a bug. 


Let’s put this in a language Memphis understands: Basketball. Just because the turkey comes out last in the pre-game introductions doesn’t mean it’s going to dominate the ball once the meal tips off. It’s a star on the table but a role player on the plate. It’s more Steven Adams than Ja Morant. It sets picks and boxes out while the dressing, yams, mac and cheese and mashed potatoes and gravy put numbers on the board. Here, the turkey’s milder, sturdier flavor is a complement that allows teammates to share the spotlight. It’s a gustatory glue guy. But it has staying power.

5. It’s about the leftovers

Because the turkey’s yield is so abundant and because there’s so much enthusiasm for the other components of the Thanksgiving meal, the turkey leaves a lot of leftovers. This, too, is a feature, not a bug. Thanksgiving is a four-day holiday, and one of the great pleasures of the extended Thanksgiving weekend is the leftover turkey sandwich the next afternoon. (Or, if you’re in a particularly gluttonous mood and/or had “dinner” on the early side, as a late-night snack on Thanksgiving night.)

6. The weekend soup or gumbo

 And here we are, the grand finale of the Thanksgiving turkey experience. DO NOT THROW AWAY THE CARCASS. Use it to make a stock. Use the stock and final leftover turkey meat to make a gumbo or soup. This is especially good for the breast meat if it does come out a little dry. I’m a turkey/andouille gumbo guy myself. But if you don’t want to spend 45 minutes stirring a roux, a simple turkey and rice soup with the fresh stock would be delicious, too. 

Grill steaks on Thanksgiving if you want, but it’ll feel like just another day and be over quickly.

You can order a fully cooked Thanksgiving meal if you’re pressed for time or not comfortable around the kitchen. (Business Wire/AP file)

And here’s where I confess that my household is not on turkey duty for our extended family Thanksgiving this year. My brother’s making a porchetta but also smoking some turkey legs. The leftover porchetta will make for a good sandwich, and the turkey legs a stock. But I may not have enough leftover turkey for a soup or gumbo. Oh well, the tips stand even if I may not fully follow my own guidance this year. 

If you’re still looking for a place to get a turkey, get Thanksgiving takeout or let others do the cooking, this guide can help you out. And we have other Thanksgiving tips here

This weekend, ahead of the holiday, the Church of the Holy Communion is hosting a giveaway of 40,000 pounds of locally grown sweet potatoes. And is looking for volunteers to help out. 

In other dining news, we just came off Downtown Dining Week, and now DeSoto County is getting into the act, announcing its first DeSoto Dining Week for January. 

In recent restaurant news, the team behind Rise Southern Biscuits has purchased Rock N’ Roll Sushi and Chick-fil-A could be coming to the northeast end of Downtown, no doubt bringing some traffic-flow complications with it.

We’ll meet again before Thanksgiving Day, but good luck getting your cooking (or even just eating) plan in place. 

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