Talking Turkey with Pierre Berton

Submitted by plessla on Filed under Library News:  Mills Archives & Research Collections

Searching the internet for a great turkey recipe? Look no further—we offer you a recipe used by Canadian literary icon Pierre Berton beginning in 1947. This very detailed recipe, interspersed with Berton’s often humourous editorial comments, is found in the Berton archives in the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections in McMaster University Library. The original version of the recipe, created by author Morton Thompson, appears widely on recipe-sharing sites—where variations of it abound—and is still in use around the globe.

Of Thompson’s recipe, Berton wrote, “It works, as I can attest, and most of the people who have tried it on my advice find that it works for them, too. (A few I must confess report total disasters).”

We hope you experience Berton’s success with your own turkey. Happy Holidays!

Here is the recipe in Thompson’s own words, as told by Berton:

THE TURKEY SHOULD NOT BE LESS THAN 16 POUNDS, AND NOT MORE THAN 22. When the butcher eliminates the head, see that he chops it off so as to leave as much neck as possible. Have him peel back the neck skin and remove the neck from under the skin, close as possible to the shoulders. The tube of neck skin thus left will be admirable for stuffing with whatever stuffing is left over. When he cleans the bird have him make a small opening and skewer it shut, using string between the pegs, like old-fashioned lace shoes or a peasant bodice.

Rub the bird inside and out with salt and pepper. In a stew pan put the gizzard the neck and the heart, chopped, to which add one bay leaf, one teaspoon of paprika, a half teaspoon of coriander, a clove of garlic, four cups of water and salt to taste. Let this simmer while you go ahead with the dressing.

Dice an apple and an orange in a bowl and add to this bowl a large can of crushed pineapple, the grated rind of one-half lemon, one can of drained water chestnuts, three tablespoons of chopped, preserved ginger. (Get the kind that comes in jars—in syrup.  It’s easier to chop than the candied ginger.)

In another bowl put two teaspoons of (dry) English mustard, two teaspoons of caraway seed, three teaspoons of celery seed, two teaspoons of poppy seed, two and a half teaspoons of oregano, one well-crushed bay leaf, one teaspoon of black pepper, one half teaspoon of mace, four tablespoons of well-chopped fresh parsley, four or five finely minced cloves of garlic, four cloves without the heads and well chopped, one-half teaspoon of turmeric, four large well-chopped onions, six well-chopped stalks of celery, one-half teaspoon of marjoram, one-half teaspoon savory, and one tablespoon of poultry seasoning. Salt to taste.

Till Your Wrists Ache

In another bowl dump three packages (12 oz) of bread crumbs bought at a bakery. Add to this three-quarters of a pound of ground veal and one-quarter of a pound of ground fresh pork, a quarter of a pound of butter (melted) and all the fat (first rendered) that you have been able to find and pry loose from the turkey. (Render the fat by melting it in a small skillet).

Mix in each bowl the contents of each bowl. 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 enough so that it isn’t any longer a doughy mess.

Stuff your turkey, but not too full. Pretty full, though. Stuff the neck and tie the end. Skewer the bird. Tie the strings. Turn on your oven full force and get it red hot. Put your bird on the drip pan or, best of all, breast down in a rack.

In a cup make a paste consisting of the yolks of two eggs, a teaspoon of dry English mustard, a clove of minced garlic, a tablespoon of onion juice, a half teaspoon of salt, two pinches of cayenne pepper, a teaspoon of lemon juice and enough sifted flour to make a stiff paste.  Take a pastry brush or a big ordinary paint brush and stand by. (Thompson errs here, I think, in not making nearly enough paste; I use at least twice this amount and sometimes still have to make more).

Put your bird into the red-hot oven. Let it brown all over. Remove the turkey. Turn your oven down to 325 degrees. Now, while the turkey is sizzling hot, paint it completely all over with paste. Put it back in the oven. The paste will have set in a few minutes. Drag it out again. Paint every nook and cranny of it once more. Put it back in the oven. Keep doing this until you haven’t any more paste left.

To the giblet-cider-neck-heart-liver gravy that has been simmering add one cup of cider. Don’t let it cook any more. Stir it well. Keep it warm on top of the oven. This is your basting fluid. Baste the bird every 15 minutes! This means you will baste it from 12 to 15 times. (This basting is most important. I use a timer with an alarm to remind me and one of those patented basters with a rubber bulb. Don’t forget to keep adding water to the gravy in the pan or the pan will go dry and black and your gravy will be burned).

“I’ve Ruined It!”

After the bird has cooked about an hour and a half turn it back on its stomach, back in the air, and let it cook in that position until the last 15 minutes, then you restore it to its back again. That is, unless you use a rack. If you use a rack don’t turn it on its back until the last half hour. It ought to cook at least four hours and a half to five hours and a half.

When you remove the turkey it will be a dead black. 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. (It never does for me; I have to scrape it off—but no matter.) Beneath this burnt harmless, now worthless shell the bird will be golden and dark brown, succulent, giddy-making with wild aroma, crisp and crunchable and crackling.

The meat beneath this crazy panorama of lip-wetting skin will be wet, juice will spurt from it in tiny fountains 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.

This is the end of it. All but the dressing. No pen, unless it were filled with Thompson’s gravy, can describe Thompson’s dressing, and there is not paper enough in the world to contain the thoughts and adjectives it would set down, and not marble enough to serve for its monuments.

Morton Thompson has long since gone to his reward. He did not live, alas, to enjoy the financial fruits of his great novel. But he did, quite obviously enjoy his own turkey and, I think it safe to say, this single recipe has given more people pleasure than anything else he wrote in a long and honourable career.