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culture

Historical Holiday Hints: Carving a Turkey

Looking to the past for tips on how to slice a holiday bird.

Source: the Telegram, December 19, 1931.

With the holiday season upon us, local media is full of advice on how to celebrate. From picking the best Christmas tree to a litany of gift guides, there is no shortage of tips. We like to draw our inspiration for holiday cheer from the history, even though it requires traditionalists to wade through pages of conflicting advice. While some advice is redundant, other tips still provide useful guidance for a 21st century revellers.

Take the following hints on how to carve a turkey that will impress any sized gathering.

When picking a turkey, 19th century consumers weren’t concerned with whether a bird was freezer-burned or over-plumped, pumped-up with hormones. They were dealing with live or very recently deceased gobblers. “In choosing your Christmas turkey,” the Mail noted in 1889, “see that the legs are black and smooth and the feet flexible. If old the eyes will be sunken and the feet dry.” By the 1960s, consumers were urged by the Star to look for fresh turkeys with skin that resembled “an old man’s hands—dry and slightly speckled. A watery look is a warning not to buy.”

On Christmas Day, once the turkey has cooked, will your fellow diners savour an exquisitely sliced piece of succulent meat or receive a pile of crumbling bits on their plate? The Globe relied on the test kitchen of Good Housekeeping to provide its readers with carving tips in 1887, a time when lifestyle pages were just starting to appear in local papers:

Skillful carvers do not agree as to the position of a bird on the platter. Some prefer to have the neck at the right hand, but I think the majority prefer to have it on the left. Some can cut more easily toward the right than toward the left hand, just as some women needle a thread more easily than they can thread a needle. The carving will be done with more grace if the one who carves works easily and naturally, instead of attempting to follow an arbitrary rule.

Source: the Telegram, December 19, 1931.

The uncredited advice dispenser chose the majority’s preference when positioning the neck. Next, the drumsticks were removed via a careful cut through the shoulder. Removing the side bone was left to the discretion of the carver, though it was recommended that it be left in if one were to dine on a tough old bird. At the time, the side bone was considered by many to be “the choicest portion, and is often left untouched because the carver is too negligent to offer it, or the guest does not like to express a preference for it for fear of exposing the host’s inability to carve it easily.” Breast meat was to be carved on a slant in thin slices with the skin left on. Rather than scoop out the stuffing, it was to be carved out through a series of delicate cuts, because nothing in the 19th century was ever to be simple. If the turkey was being served to a small family who wanted leftovers, the bird was to be carved only from the side closest to the carver; the remainder was to be garnished with parsley during meal number two.

The Telegram was far more creative when it offered a carving guide in 1931. Writer L.M. McKechnie recounted a vivid nightmare about poorly carving a giant turkey as a party of 15 watched in horror. When he woke up, he decided to consult experts, beginning with the Depression version of the internet, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He then talked to a librarian, who offered a book called Ten Lessons on Meat which offered the following advice in its carving chapter: “The art of carving is apparently little understood by the average person, man or woman.” He next read the following advice on holding a carving knife:

The steel should be held in the left hand, the point raised and inclined slightly toward the carver’s body. The knife should be held in the right hand, the point raised and inclined slightly toward the left hand at an angle of about 35 degrees from the steel. The knife is drawn along the side of the steel from the point of the steel toward the hand and from the handle end to the point of the knife, the strokes being reversed from side to side of the steel.

Confused? So was McKechnie (“I am still trying to figure that one out.”).

Source: the Telegram, December 19, 1931.

When the book recommended that the carver should know the anatomy of what they were cutting up, McKechnie mulled what a good surgeon would do and headed to Toronto General Hospital to have his turkey x-rayed. He then consulted Claude Baujard, master chef at the Royal York Hotel, who shook his head sadly at the loss of the fine art of carving. Baujard lamented a dinner he had recently attended where the host carved two chickens so badly that he could still hear the birds squeal. Baujard brought out a chicken and showed McKechnie his graceful technique. The secret to impressing diners was keeping everything neat when serving: “One spoon of stuffing on the plate, then lay the dark meat across the stuffing and the white meat over that.” Baujard also disclosed a technique bound to amaze any table:

If you wish to impress with the ease of your carving, it is possible to do all the carving in the kitchen except that you leave each cut just uncompleted. Then you press the slices back into place, reform your bird, hide the incisions with a little parsley. When the bird is brought to the table all you have to do is complete each cut simply and quickly and your guests will be amazed at your skill.

Feeling confident following his discussion with Baujard, McKechnie discovered that “all my zest for Christmas has returned.” He left the Royal York and, with head held high, “prepared to dismember the biggest turkey Ontario ever produced.” We hope his guests had a lovely feast.

Additional material from the December 10, 1887, edition of the Globe, the December 21, 1889, edition of the Mail, and the December 19, 1931, edition of the Telegram.

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