What is Tradition?
What is tradition? Is it different for you than it is for me? In order to be a “tradition” does more than one person have to believe it’s a tradition? Or can it just be something I hold sacred? A secret I keep that eventually becomes an inside joke between myself and that version of myself I wish I could record for the world to see? Like coming up with the best vows ever for Jonathan’s and my non-existent wedding. A set of vows that are hilarious and condescending at the same time. Or if I’m the only one that does it, is it more a ritual and less of a tradition? Is fantasizing about winning the lottery a tradition?
Merriam-Webster says it’s ‘a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc. for a long time.’ If that were true, then I guess my personal tradition of imagining all the traveling I’d do, amazing homes I’d buy and non-profits I’d start if I won the Powerball really is a tradition because everyone does it. Right?
You might counter that with the argument that while fantasizing about winning the lottery is a favorite pastime for many, it hasn’t stood the test of time like other traditions. And you’d have a good argument if that were the end of it, but how are you defining “a long time.”
Isn’t time relative? Sure it’s an actual unit of measurement, but the emotional impact of a moment can mean different things to different people.
As a kid, sitting through two hours of Yom Kippur services felt like an eternity. An elaborate drawn out form of torture my parents made us sit through, because their parents made them sit through it, because their grandparents sat through it and so on—and because it somehow builds character. A kids’ life is short relative to someone who has roamed the earth for decades. The impact a few hours of boredom in shul can have on a child is compounded by the fact that it’s such a significant chunk of the total life lived by the kid compared to an adult who is 82.
But now, thanks to the Ritalin-spawned internet and the instant speed at which life’s every whim occurs I’m impatient and intolerant with events that don’t transpire quickly. Its so bad I feel like my beard turns a lighter shade of gray in just the three minutes it takes a newbie Uber driver to figure out I’m standing on the north side of the street. So time is relative, no?
Or is time in the Merriam-Webster context really just a function of how often the so-called tradition occurs? I’ve been using the same charcoal exfoliating face wash from Lush every day for a year is that a tradition? It’s happened at least 365 times. That’s more than the sum of Thanksgivings my entire extended family has celebrated in their lives so if the sum of occurrences has any influence on the matter is my face wash routine more traditional than Thanksgiving—the holiest of American traditions?
And if tradition really does require some trifecta, or combination, of time, frequency, and popularity then wouldn’t dropping molly brown off at the pool be a tradition? People have been pinching a deuce since the beginning of time. Since everyone throws nautical ropes into their personal pots, wouldn’t pooping be a tradition?
Who cares? Why does it matter?
These are questions I’ve asked myself, because why should it matter what is or isn’t a tradition. If it’s a tradition for you then so be it. Unfortunately that’s not a sentiment shared by so many in the world, especially around the holidays when people get so proprietary about the way they’ve always done something. Well guess what…NOT EVERYONE DOES THANKSGIVING THE SAME WAY YOU DID GROWING UP!
I’m hoping that by asking the question “what is tradition?” people will start to better understand that it’s not well defined. And since there’s really no tradition authority policing the matter, maybe we can all learn to be a little bit more tolerant of one another when it comes to how they do things—around the holidays and in general too. Let’s judge our hosts a little less for their take on cranberry sauce and choice of tacky table setting, because life’s too short to sacrifice happiness in the name of tradition. Instead let’s make new traditions. Let’s make them together and with the spirit of community and inclusion. Maybe tradition is really not a specific act or series of tasks, but the idea of people co-existing in harmony to learn, grow and support one another in this world? Isn’t that a tradition you’d be willing to endorse?
Now that I’ve left you to ponder the proclivity of poop, and before Zero Mostel rises from the grave to smite me, I’m going to share an untraditional way of cooking a Thanksgiving turkey—roasting it in pieces. I originally saw this on an America’s Test Kitchen episode, and they were putting their twist on a technique Julia Child is credited with so let me be clear….this is by no means my genius, although I typically don’t think things need to be measured to a T for this to work.
The meat comes out moist and tender every time, and the cooking time is significantly decreased. And if less time and better tasting meat weren’t enough, this way of roasting a Thanksgiving turkey in pieces allows you unobstructed access to the delicious thigh meat, making it super easy to carve so you can arrange the turkey in beautiful medallions on your Martha-Stewart-perfect platter!
Tradition is Roasting Turkey in Pieces
- 1 turkey (13-15 lbs and remove the giblets et al and reserve for gravy)
- 3 tblsp minced fresh sage
- 1 ½ lbs hearty French bread cut into ½ -1 inch cubes
- 1 tblsp vegetable oil
- 3 tblsp unsalted butter
- 3 medium onions finely chopped
- 6 celery ribs finely chopped
- 1 cup dried tart fruit like cranberries or cherries
- 4 large eggs
First you need to go to a good butcher. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been in San Diego for Thanksgiving the last few years, and we’ve been able to go to Iowa Meat Farms, a butcher my mother used take me to ever since I can remember. These days it’s an amazing butcher, with a fantastic beer selection, fresh produce, unique spices, delicious apple pie, and cooking tools, etc. But when I was little, the place was super industrial, and I remember going through the plastic curtains at the entrance of the walk-in fridge like a car goes through an automatic carwash.
A good butcher is not only going to have access to hormone-free pasture-raised turkeys, and they’ll hold one for you at whatever size you want so you’re not stuck without a turkey come the big day (Iowa Meats recommended Diestel turkeys so that’s what we got) but they’ll also have the skills and patience to butcher the turkey for you. You can definitely do it yourself, but if you can get the pro to do it for you (oftentimes for free) why not?
Ritchie ended up helping us. I gave him the Cook’s Illustrated article with the step-by-step instructions for how to butcher the bird and as I watched him and his skilled hands being I started a little banter.
“How long have you been working here?” I asked.
“Nearly 40 years now,” he said.
“Well then you probably helped my mother and I when I was growing up. We used to come here for your carne asada and chicken fajita mix. Do you remember me?” I asked.
He laughed me off politely, and commented on the stability of their customer base over the years as he went back and forth from the bird to the magazine. I cringed each time he leaned over to read the next step and touched his salmonella-coated knife to the article to see where he was reading. It was like a cantor using a yad (pointer) to read the torah, which was fitting, because for me, Cook’s Illustrated is a sacred text.
And while Ritchie sliced and cut, I explained my life story from when I left San Diego to present. To which Jonathan rolled his eyes.
This is how you want to have butcher the turkey.
First remove the legs from the bird (keeping the drumstick and thighs attached to each other) while capturing as much of the “oyster” as possible. To do this you cut through the skin webbed between the breasts and legs. Once you get down to the bottom of the bird, you can pull the leg away from the body and bend it back. This should cause the leg bone to pop out so you can run your knife around it and then scoop out some of the oyster.
Next you want to remove the thighbone from inside each of the thighs trying not to cut up the thigh meat too much in the process. And don’t cut through the skin on the cutting board either. You slice along the length of the thigh using the thin line of fat as your guide. Cut all the way down to the bone and then slice the length of the bone and separate as much meat from the thighbone as possible. Once the top of the thighbone is exposed, you can run the knife under the bone and then up and around the ends releasing them completely. Set the two whole legs aside.
With regards to the rest of the bird leave the wings attached and trim some of the excess neck skin away. You need to cut out the backbone. To do this use kitchen shears to cut through the rib cage on both sides of the bird. If you can see it, there’s a vertical line of fat that you can use as a guide. When you get near the bottom where the bones are thick, stick the bird upright on the counter and with their hands pull the spine away from the breasts and then cut through the joint to pull them apart.
Brine the turkey breast in a large plastic bin or even a giant pot. I recommend dissolving around 1.5 cups of salt in 2 cups of water. Then put the turkey breast in the container and fill it the rest of the way with cold water until the turkey is completely submerged. Let the turkey brine in the fridge (if it will fit) for at least 5 hours and overnight if possible.
Back to the thighs. Rub the interior of each thigh with salt, black pepper, and finely chopped fresh sage (½ tsp of sage each is fine). A good butcher will usually give you some skewers and twine for free if you ask, otherwise they’ll sell you some of you need.
Using two wooden skewers in each thigh (four total), pierce the skin on one side and thread the skewer through the other. Using twine, truss the thigh shut so it’s taught like a cylinder. Refrigerate the trussed whole legs for at least 5 hours and up to half a day.
While the bird is brining you can make the breadcrumbs.
Heat the oven to 300° F
On two rimmed baking sheets spread the ½- 1½ pieces of French bread out into even single layers. You want to bake the moisture out of the bread but not burn the bread. After the bread has baked for ~20 minutes and you’ve given them a shake once or twice along the way, you can start watching them carefully and when they’re starting to show the slightest amount of color, remove them from the oven and let them cool on the baking sheets until you’re ready to use them.
Raise the oven’s heat to 450° F
When you’re ready the cook the turkey, remove it from the brine and pat it dry with paper towels to remove any excess moisture on the surface. Tuck the wings behind the back so they’re sort of locked in place.
Brush the turkey breast and wing skin with 2 tsp of vegetable oil.
In a large nonstick skillet (needs to be oven-safe and large enough to fit the turkey breasts so probably at least 12 inch diameter) melt 3 tblsp unsalted butter over medium heat. Once melted add 3 medium onions that have been finely chopped and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly soft and translucent about 10 minutes. I didn’t have a large non-stick skillet handy (someone else’s kitchen) so I used the broiling pan on the stove instead.
Add 6 ribs of celery finely chopped to the onion mixture followed by 2 tblsp minced fresh sage and 1½ tsp ground black pepper.
Cook and stir this mixture until the celery is softened, another 5minutes, and then scrape the onion and celery mixture into the rimmed roasting pant you’re going to roast the turkey in. Add the dried bread crumbs to celery and onions.
Wipe the hot skillet (or roasting pan) with a paper towel to remove any small pieces of onion or celery that might burn and add the turkey breast to the skillet—breast side down. Place the oven-safe skillet with the turkey breast-side down in the 450° F oven and roast for 30 minutes.
While the turkey breast is roasting, add 1 cup dried cranberries (can use other tart dried fruits if you want) and 4 large eggs to the bowl with the onions and celery mixture, and the breadcrumbs. Stir everything together until the breadcrumbs are nicely coated and starting to absorb some of moisture from the eggs and veggies.
In a large roasting pan spread the stuffing out in an even layer on the bottom of the pan in a rectangle, leaving a 1 inch boarder between the stuffing and the edge of the roasting pan.
Take the turkey breast out of the oven and using paper towels invert the torso of the turkey on top of the stuffing so the turkey breasts are now up.
Then arrange the whole legs on the stuffing just next to the breast, almost as if you’re putting it back together. Brush the legs with 1 tsp of vegetable oil. Season the turkey (breasts and legs) with some more salt and pepper.
Using a spatula, tuck as much of the exposed stuffing back under the breast and leg meat. You want all the juices from the turkey to run into the stuffing, and you don’t want the stuffing that is exposed to burn.
Put the roasting pan in the oven and cook at 450° F for 30 minutes.
Then reduce the temperature to 350° F and continue to roast the turkey until the internal temperature of the thickest part of the breast is 160°-165° F and the thickest part of the thigh meat is 175°-180° F. Depending on your oven this is usually around 60 mins, but it could be as much as 20 mins more or less so keep an eye on it.
Look at how delicious the stuffing under the turkey looks. The edges are cooked a little more and they’re crunchy and everything under the turkey is soft and full of the juices from the bird.
Once the internal temps have been met, take the turkey from the oven and let it rest on a carving board for 30 minutes so the juices can redistribute and any residual cooking has stopped.
In the roasting pan stir the stuffing so the moist pieces that were under the bird are more evenly distributed in the pan and then put it back in the oven and turn the oven off. The heat left in the oven will crisp up some of the edges and help some of the moisture in the stuffing evaporate so it’s not mush.
Carve the turkey and serve it with the stuffing when you’re ready. You’ll want to do a final seasoning check on the stuffing and see if it needs any more salt or pepper before you eat.
And that’s it! Simple, right? Oh wait, we forgot the gravy! Well there are tons of ways to make delicious gravy. Here’s a classic turkey gravy recipe from Foodnetwork I’ve used before that was delicious!
Using an electric knife helps keep the slices of turkey clean and makes it easy to arrange on a platter. The images above with the turkey in the pyrex are from the first year of roasting our turkey in the Julia Child method. The photo below is of our third year doing it this way….and I think we’ll probably continue with it, because look at how gorgeous this is!