“Let’s be hon­est: a lot of us can’t cook tur­key, but in­sist on do­ing it all the same...” Phil Daoust

The Guardian - Cook - - Comment -

Some peo­ple will eat any old muck at Christ­mas. The Caribbean is­land of Do­minica echoes to the slurp­ing of tripe soup. The Inu­its of north­ern Green­land treat them­selves to kiviak, made by sew­ing hun­dreds of auks in­side a seal skin and bury­ing the lot for up to 18 months, af­ter which the birds’ heads are bit­ten off and their guts squeezed out. In the UK, the undis­crim­i­nat­ing can tuck into a pizza topped with chicken, roast pota­toes, brus­sels sprouts and cran­berry sauce. Asda, the su­per­mar­ket be­hind this abom­i­na­tion, de­scribes it as “a fes­tive feast with none of the fuss”.

So you may be feel­ing smug if you’re plan­ning to cook tur­key on Mon­day. This is a bird that for cen­turies has rep­re­sented taste and lux­ury in Bri­tish cui­sine. First brought to the coun­try in the 16th cen­tury, and said to have been en­joyed by Henry VIII, tur­key was a rich per­son’s food, re­plac­ing pea­cock at royal ban­quets and even­tu­ally goose in com­mon­ers’ Christ­mases.

As re­cently as the 1930s, one bird cost as much as a week’s wages. Even to­day, when Ice­land flogs frozen tur­keys for just three quid a kilo, you could still spend six times as much on some­thing fresh and free range. When a sin­gle piece of poul­try can cost £100 or more, splash­ing out says that you are se­ri­ous about Christ­mas, about good food, about show­ing your friends and fam­ily a good time. It’s not just the money. Even if you don’t brine your bird, which can add an­other half-day to the process, you could spend seven or eight hours prep­ping and cook­ing a tur­key and ev­ery­thing that goes with it. Be­cause, of course, tur­key isn’t tur­key with­out the trim­mings.

I come from a big fam­ily, and my mother be­lieved in feed­ing us un­til we couldn’t move. She would set the alarm and start Christ­mas din­ner at 5am. Was it worth it? To a child who’d get three more hours in bed, yes. Her tur­key was al­ways tasty and moist, fragrant with sausage­meat-and-onion stuff­ing. The left­overs lin­gered for ages, but eat­ing them never felt like a chore.

I’m in my 50s now, and a few years ago I was lucky enough to marry a woman just like dear old Mum

(at least where poul­try skills are con­cerned). But be­tween these two marvel­lous women I spent decades in the wilder­ness, al­ways eat­ing tur­key at least once over Christ­mas in a spirit of nos­tal­gia and af­fec­tion, but never sure what awaited me. I had at least as many dull dishes as bril­liant ones, in pubs, can­teens, restau­rants and friends’ homes. Per­haps be­cause tur­keys grow so fast, their flesh is of­ten bland, or tainted by the sus­pect sub­stances they are fat­tened on. Be­cause they are so huge, and ev­ery­one is ter­ri­fied the legs will be un­der­cooked, the white meat is of­ten dry. There are ways round this, not least hack­ing up the bird and cook­ing the legs separately, but that feels like cheat­ing. And so we carry on, fol­low­ing the let­ter of Christ­mas hos­pi­tal­ity but not its spirit.

Let’s be hon­est: a lot of us can’t cook tur­key, but in­sist on do­ing it all the same. We’d be bet­ter off mak­ing some­thing more for­giv­ing but still fancy, like rab­bit in cider, or slow­cooked shoul­der of pork, or even a Christ­mas favourite from an­other coun­try, such as bi­gos or baeck­e­offe. I’m not let­ting my­self off the hook here: I’m a de­cent cook, but I’ve never tack­led a whole tur­key, mainly be­cause I sus­pect I’d make a balls-up of it.

So, here’s my sug­ges­tion. The die is cast this year. If you’re plan­ning to cook tur­key on the 25th, you’ll al­ready have the bird, the brus­sels, the ba­con, the bangers and so on. Ask your­self hon­estly if your past at­tempts have been up to scratch. If they haven’t, do some re­search. Find a recipe you like, from a cook you trust, and give it one last go. Once your tur­key is in the oven, watch it like a hawk. Baste it like mad; do what­ever it takes to stop the breast from dry­ing out. Ask your par­ents for tips if you have happy mem­o­ries of child­hood meals and you’re still lucky enough to have them with you. And then, when the bird is ready, judge it as if it had been cooked by a stranger, and all you could taste was the flesh and not the ef­fort that went into the cook­ing. This is the most im­por­tant meal you’ll cook all year. Did you make a good job of it? And if the an­swer’s no … for god’s sake, give up. Let some­one else take a turn in the kitchen next year, or try some­thing dif­fer­ent.

Not kiviak, ob­vi­ously. Have you seen the price of auks?

Phil Daoust is a colum­nist and ed­i­tor for the Guardian

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