Turkey Dinner in the Regency

“When turkeys mate, they think of swans.” — Johnny Carson

As an indifferent cook, my holiday turkey preparations never vary lest something untoward occurs in the kitchen. The method I use is therefore simple and reduced to as few steps as possible. Put the bird in a paper bag soaked in oil and roast all night in the oven for no more than 180 degree F.

Stay in your lane, Bro.

In England, the turkey first appeared on the royal table of Henry VIII. Apparently they were difficult birds to raise and less profitable than chickens, which reliably produced eggs. By the time of the Regency, turkeys remained expensive but more plentiful due to better transportation of livestock to the London markets. It would not be long before the turkey dinner at Christmas became an English tradition.

One of several historic locations for London’s meat, the Leadenhall Market as it appears today.
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The Cook’s Oracle of 1822 provides wonderful insight into the Regency’s taste for turkeys, and the process of getting them to the table.

Relying on advice from local London butchers, the author instructs the Regency-era cook that turkeys are best acquired between September and March. Cooler weather keeps the meat fresher. Safety reasons aside, temperature was important to the particular way late Georgian kitchens prepared such a large bird for cooking. In those days, turkeys were not dressed, that is, prepared for cooking, until three or four days after they were killed. Six or eight days in cold weather!

Alternatively,

“No man who understands good living will say on such a day, I will eat that Turkey–but will hang it up by four of the large tail feathers, and when, on paying his morning visit to the Larder, he finds it lying upon a cloth, prepared to receive it when it falls, that day let it be cooked.”

–The Cook’s Oracle (1822) *

Even in those days, cooks had to be warned to thaw the bird beforehand, for they often froze in the larder that time of year. The author cynically notes that ‘Jack Frost has ruined the reputation of many a turkey-roaster.’

Do not cook a frozen turkey in the fryer–a public service announcement from a reported admirer of Jane Austen.

Once dressed, turkeys were boiled or roasted, hens being preferred over male “stag” birds. In all cases, the cooked meat should be as plump and white in color as possible. When boiling the turkey, cooks are strongly advised to skim off any byproducts with this result in mind. Wrapping the bird in white cloth as an alternative is unreliable and a sign of a lazy cook.

On the other hand, roasting turkeys during the Regency required both delicacy and violence. One must singe the skin with a burning white piece of paper. Then break the breast, cut off the claws and skewer the feet away from the bird. Retain the liver but don’t break the “gall-bag.”

This cannot be stressed enough: in case you’ve committed the cardinal sin of skin discoloration, coat the bird with bechamel sauce–a process called veiling.

You loose screw! You proposed to the wrong woman!

Stuff the bird prior to cooking using a variety of recipes. During the Regency, there was a decided partiality for “forcemeats” in stuffing, made from tongue and organ sweetmeats. Much like today, the gizzard and liver were used in the stuffing or to make gravy.

No part of the turkey was wasted back then. Spices, broth, side bones, a merry-thought (wishbone) and leftover turkey meat were stewed to make pulled turkey. Trimmings and bones cooked in leftover liquid from boiling the turkey made a broth for hash.

Indeed, a dozen turkey heads would make a fine soup. At the time of the Oracle’s printing, heads could be had for a penny each.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

*The cook’s oracle : containing receipts for plain cookery on the most economical plan for private families, also the art of composing the most simple, and most highly finished broths, gravies, soups, sauces, store sauces, and flavoring essences : the quantity of each article is accurately stated by weight and measure, the whole being the result of actual experiments instituted in the kitchen of a physician.

By  Kitchiner, William, 1775?-1827

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