During the ’80s, my mother and uncle divided the holiday responsibilities. This meant that every other Thanksgiving, his wife took on the great American turkey challenge. One of those years, when I was young and full of big holiday expectations, we arrived to find she’d followed a fad recipe that involved shellacking the poor bird in a thick, black tar made of herbs and spices.
The recipe (Thompson’s Turkey) was from the ’50s (generally not a good sign) and had been resuscitated by Vogue’s Jeffrey Steingarten, a stickler for crisp skin. But in our case the tar, which was meant to form a hard shell that could be cracked and removed easily after roasting, had become one with the turkey. We tried to peel the stuff off and go on with our lives, only to experience the horror of seeing sheets of delectable skin tear away with it.
Having sacrificed the skin (weepily), we moved on to the meat inside and discovered that the shellac had leached all the life out of it, leaving a sad and crumbling heap. The idea, of course, was the opposite: to “seal” the moisture in the flesh—a noble endeavor, since the lean breast meat is almost always dry by the time the thigh is cooked through. This dilemma weighs heavily on Americans every year. This is why Butterball has a “Turkey Talk-Line,” with experts available to coax hysterical home cooks down from the ledge throughout November.
Asking this paltry poultry, which we have bred for maximum blandness (big boobs), to be succulent and satisfying is just not fair. The breast meat on your plate Thanksgiving Day is only a star within a larger ensemble, kind of like Jason Priestly on 90210—it tastes a lot better slathered with Luke Perry. Now that this year’s offerings have been roasted to various degrees of dryness and smothered in gravy to compensate, let’s celebrate their only real glory—as sandwich meat. The weekend after Thanksgiving will always be turkey’s real time to shine, and I’m not talking about anything complicated like soups, casseroles, or salads.
A good turkey sandwich, once a reliable fallback in New York delis, is an increasingly rare thing. The water and hormone-injected Boar’s Head version, with its fake golden tan (that’s not skin—why would it be brown?) and slick, smooth surface, has taken over, inadvertently making Thanksgiving a little more special for deprived New Yorkers. For up to a week after the holiday, it’s turkey sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The reason the bird works so well between slices of bread is in fact the exact reason it disappoints on a platter: it’s a blank slate.
In a sandwich, all the players are united (yes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, brussel sprouts—everything), with the addition of some mayonnaise, if you have your head on straight. Not that anyone can tell you how to make your sandwich—that’s the other great thing about this weekend. But you’d be a fool not to use the gravy in its spreadable form—cold and congealed and straight from the fridge.