Put my girth together with my love of wordsmithing and you might surmise that I am a fan of gastronomic literature. And you’d be right. The biggest and best remains dear M.F.K. Fisher, whose five-volume work, The Art of Eating, remains a potent delight even 52 years after its first publication. (I believe the guest room in every home should have three books on the nightstand: The Art of Eating; The Complete Saki—the collected short stories of H.H. Munro; and E.F. Benson’s wonderful Lucia series.)
Today I discovered Richard Gehman. Or, more specifically, his 1966 book The Haphazard Gourmet. Or, more specifically still, two essays/recipes from that book, one for a bean soup that sounds amazing, and one for Morton Thompson’s infamous Black Turkey. And, as Thanksgiving is next week, and you’ll need time to shop for ingredients, I thought I’d post the turkey recipe now.
Next week you’ll get my award-winning CraigNog recipe. (OK, the award was given at an office party, but everyone who tastes it says it should get medals for its audacity, so there.)
Settle back, kiddies, this is going to be a long one.
A Brief History of the Black Turkey
Gehman’s one failing in his incredible Thompson Turkey piece is that he fails to give a nod to writer and wit Robert Benchley (of Algonquin Roundtable fame), who introduced the recipe to a hungry public. In point of fact, the Thompson Turkey’s true origins are shrouded in myth. There are three different versions, variations on a theme.
The first goes like this:
The Thompson Turkey is a creature of myth—a reductio ad absurdum of Thanksgiving cooking. Thompson, if my usually unreliable memory has not failed again, was an American newsman of the hard-fisted drinking tradition. Indeed legend has it that he was not sober when he developed the recipe. The story of the turkey and its recipe were spread by fellow journalists of similar ilk.
Nope. Thompson was a novelist and screenwriter, not a hard-bitten journalist. But I like this writer’s style:
You will not find the recipe in the Betty Crocker cookbook; in fact, you will be hard pressed to find it at all. . . . This is not surprising. It is not the sort of recipe that is devised by a chef. No, it is the sort of thing created by a man cooking, a man who cooks not at all save for very special occasions when he creates insanely complicated concoctions. Cookbooks are created for people who cook every day and not for lunatics who cook once a year.
This second version of the recipe’s origins is the one most frequently recounted. It goes like this:
Rumors persist about this recipe. This blackened turkey is part of the 1930s legends associated with Harold Ross and The New Yorker’s team of contributing writers. First thought to have been contained in a manuscript given to Robert Benchley by Morton Thompson, this highly seasoned and ultimately blackened turkey pops up every year.
Perhaps to console his conscience (Benchley, it is said, lost Thompson’s manuscript titled The Naked Countess), this recipe became part lore, part recitation, and part of an annual holiday toast that Benchley included in his repertoire. We provide this to perpetuate the traditions of blackened holidays and crusty family stories.
So was it just a New Yorker piece from the beginning, a figment of Benchley’s fertile imagination? Or is he accurately reconstructing the Thompson recipe from his memory of this misplaced manuscript? If so, that’s one amazing memory.
Now, all the extant versions of the “original” recipe on the Internet have parenthetical remarks—comments on the recipe—that are indicated by the initials “R.E.B.”, which most people assume is Benchley, as if he were editing Thompson’s recipe. However, Robert Benchley’s middle name was Charles; the only “E” I can find in connection with Benchley is a character in several of his stories, “Uncle Edith,” and the thought that R.E.B. might be Robert “Edith” Benchley gives me the giggles. At any rate, the R.E.B. in question is not Benchley at all, but one Robert E. Brunjes, of Anacortes, Washington, who posted the Black Turkey recipe to the rec.food.cooking newsgroup way back in 1993.
Bob Brunjes wrote this third (and obviously loving) “history” of the Thompson Turkey:
This is a recipe that has been around for so long, cherished all the while, that it has acquired a considerable gloss, in the classic sense of the word. As scholarly medieval monks studied and interpreted their precious hand-copied books, they made notes in the margins and between the lines, to enhance the content of the book for the next reader. When the document was copied, much of this ‘gloss’ found its way into the new book. As the books grew with gloss, so has this recipe grown. When I first saw the recipe, thirty-one years ago, it had been transcribed by Morton Thompson from God-knows-where, and it bore the gloss of Robert Benchley and an Unknown Scribe. In my custody, it seems to grow like a warm yeast dough, from my efforts and those of Bill the Great Dane.
Each time it’s transcribed, including this time, I see something that needs clarification or correction. If this were an orderly world, the various levels of the recipe would be distinguished by stacked norkies (>>>), or wakas, if you will.
No such luck here, though. [In the following recipe], some notes [the material in parentheses] are identified; some are not. Some are me; some may go back to ancient Egypt.
This ambiguity saves me. I’ve been chastised before in this group for sanctioning alcoholic excesses in the kitchen, but it’s not so. I was just following the recipe, this recipe. And if you have an ounce of respect for tradition in you, so will you.
For about a dozen years, at the approach of turkey-eating season, I have been trumpeting to all who would listen, and to a good many who would rather not, that there is only one way to cook a turkey. This turkey is not my turkey. It is the creation of the late Morton Thompson, who wrote Not as a Stranger and other books.
This recipe was first contained in the manuscript of a book called The Naked Countess, which was given to the late Robert Benchley, who had eaten the turkey and was so moved as to write an introduction to the book. Benchley then lost the manuscript. He kept hoping it would turn up—although not as much, perhaps, as Thompson did, but somehow it vanished, irretrievably. Thompson did not have the heart to write it over. He did, however, later put his turkey rule in another book. Not a cookbook, but a collection of very funny pieces called Joe, the Wounded Tennis Player.
(You may be interested to learn that Joe, the Wounded Tennis Player was made into a 1947 film, My Brother Talks to Horses, starring Peter Lawford. His more famous book, Not as a Stranger, was made into a 1955 film of the same name which starred Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and a host of other big names. Then again, this may not interest you in the least. Such is life.)
Now, I’ve been pondering what to tell you next. If I were an editor worth my salt, I’d give you a nice, neat little précis of the recipe. But both the Benchley/Thompson original, and Gehman’s wondrous retelling, are delicious in their own ways, and you shouldn’t be deprived of either.
So at the risk of boring you, which I certainly may, and being redundant, which I certainly shall, I hereby present the succulent Gehman article, because it is such marvelous writing, followed by the original Benchley/Thompson recipe, which includes Bob Brunjes’s parenthetical comments in a lighter colored font.
As you read, take note of the differences between what Gehman says Thompson wrote, and the Benchley/Thompson version we have before us. I wonder if he was quoting from the version published in Joe, the Wounded Tennis Player? Or is there an ur-version we haven’t yet seen, just waiting to be rediscovered like some Dead Sea scroll?
(Hey, I told you this was going to be a long one!)
“Morton Thompson’s Turkey”
by Richard Gehman
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.”
Thompson’s Turkey Recipe
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.
The Original Black Turkey Recipe,
variously entitled “A Seasoned Bird?” and “A Seasoned Blackened Turkey—Serve to Spiced New Yorkers” and even “The Only Way to Cook a Turkey!!!!”, depending on the source
by Morton Thompson, as told by Robert Benchley
This turkey is work . . . it requires more attention than an average six-month-old baby. There are no shortcuts, as you will see.
Get a HUGE turkey—I don’t mean just a big, big bird, but one that looks as though it gave the farmer a hard time when he did it in. It ought to weigh between 16 and 30 pounds. Have the poultryman, or butcher, cut its head off at the end of the neck, peel back the skin, and remove the neck close to the body, leaving the tube. You will want this for stuffing. Also, he should leave all the fat on the bird.
When you are ready to cook your bird, rub it inside and out with salt and pepper. Give it a friendly pat and set it aside. Chop the heart, gizzard, and liver and put them, with the neck, into a stewpan with a clove of garlic, a large bay leaf, 1/2 tsp coriander, and some salt. I don’t know how much salt—whatever you think. Cover this with about 5 cups of water and put on the stove to simmer. This will be the basting fluid a little later.
About this time I generally have my first drink of the day, usually a RAMOS FIZZ. I concoct it by taking the whites of four eggs, an equal amount of whipping cream, juice of half a lemon (less 1 tsp.), 1/2 tsp. confectioner’s sugar, an appropriate amount of gin, and blending with a few ice cubes. Pour about two tablespoons of club soda in a chimney glass, add the mix, with ice cubes if you prefer. Save your egg yolks, plus 1 tsp. of lemon—you’ll need them later. Have a good sip! (Add 1 dash of Orange Flower Water to the drink, not the egg yolks.)
Get a huge bowl. Throw into it one diced apple, one diced orange, a large can of crushed pineapple, the grated rind of a lemon, and three tablespoons of chopped preserved ginger (If you like ginger, double this.) Add 2 cans of drained Chinese water chestnuts.
Mix this altogether, and have another sip of your drink. Get a second, somewhat smaller, bowl. Into this, measuring by teaspoons, put:
2 hot dry mustard
2 caraway seed
2 celery seed
2 poppy seed
1 black pepper
2 1/2 oregano
1/2 chili powder
In the same bowl, add:
1 Tbl. poultry seasoning
4 Tbl parsley
1 Tbl salt
4 headless crushed cloves
1 well crushed bay leaf
4 large chopped onions
6 good dashes Tabasco
5 crushed garlic cloves
6 large chopped celery
Wipe your brow, refocus your eyes, get yet another drink—and a third bowl. Put in three packages of unseasoned bread crumbs (or two loaves of toast or bread crumbs), 3/4 lb. ground veal, 1/2 lb. ground fresh pork, 1/4 lb. butter, and all the fat you have been able to pull out of the bird.
About now it seems advisable to switch drinks. Martinis or stingers are recommended (Do this at your own risk—we always did!). Get a fourth bowl, an enormous one. Take a sip for a few minutes, wash your hands, and mix the contents of all the other bowls. Mix it well. Stuff the bird and skewer it. Put the leftover stuffing into the neck tube.
Turn your oven to 500 degrees F and get out a fifth small bowl. Make a paste consisting of those four egg yolks and lemon juice left from the Ramos Fizz. Add 1 tsp hot dry mustard, a crushed clove of garlic, 1 Tbl onion juice, and enough flour to make a stiff paste. (This is a procedure that seems to need clarification. Make the paste about the consistency of pancake batter for the first coat. After a couple of coats, I thin the paste a little, with water or any other fluid that falls to hand. After a couple more coats, I thin a bit more, so that the final coats have about the consistency of whipping cream.) When the oven is red hot, put the bird in, breast down on the rack. Sip on your drink until the bird has begin to brown all over, then take it out and paint the bird all over with paste. Put it back in and turn the oven down to 350 degrees F. Let the paste set, then pull the bird out and paint again. Keep doing this until the paste is used up.
Add a quart of cider or white wine to the stuff that’s been simmering on the stove. This is your basting fluid. The turkey must be basted every 15 minutes. Don’t argue. Set your timer and keep it up. (When confronted with the choice, “Do I baste from the juice under the bird or do I baste with the juice from the pot on the stove?”, make certain that the juice under the bird neither dries out and burns, nor becomes so thin that gravy is weak. When you run out of baste, use cheap red wine. This critter makes incredible gravy!) The bird should cook about 12 minutes per pound, basting every 15 minutes. Enlist the aid of your friends and family.
As the bird cooks, it will first get a light brown, then a dark brown, then darker and darker. After about 2 hours you will think I’m crazy. The bird will be turning black. (Newcomers to black turkey will think you are demented and drunk on your butt, which, if you’ve followed instructions, you are.) In fact, by the time it is finished, it will look as though we have ruined it. Take a fork and poke at the black cindery crust. Beneath, the bird will be a gorgeous mahogany, reminding one of those golden-browns found in precious Rembrandts. Stick the fork too deep, and the juice will gush to the ceiling. When you take it out, ready to carve it, you will find that you do not need a knife. A load sound will cause the bird to fall apart like the walls of that famed biblical city. The moist flesh will drive you crazy, and the stuffing—well, there is nothing like it on this earth. You will make the gravy just like it as always done, adding the giblets and what is left of the basting fluid.
Sometime during the meal, use a moment to give thanks to Morton Thompson.
There is seldom, if ever, leftover turkey when this recipe is used. If there is, you’ll find that the fowl retains its moisture for a few days. That’s all there is to it. It’s work, hard work—but it’s worth it.
Talk turkey to me! Leave a comment.