Morton Thompson's Turkey – unexpurgated

The legend of Morton Thompson’s Turkey has grown far and wide with the advent of the internet.
If you scour the net, you will find the recipe in ever decreasing lengths – the longest being a complete excerpt “How Do You Roast Thompson Turkey” from a 1959 issue of The American Weekly. Gehman included the entire recipe in his seminal cookbook fleshing it out and putting in all the tasty bits.
Maito Sewa Yoleme’s blog – Notes from the Dreamtime serves up a pretty acurate complete history of the recipe (which includes the recipe in ‘recipe’ form.)

For your t-day pleasure here it is in all its glory:

From Richard Gehman’s THE HAPHARD GOURMET, 1966-

Turkey. There is only one way to stuff and roast a turkey, and is the way invented by Morton Thompson, the writer, and upon by your ob’t. svt. To most people, Thompson is – chiefly as the author of a best-seller, Not as a Stranger, which later came a motion picture. Around my house, he is remembered revered for his turkey recipe, which gives him hall-of-fame status puts him in the same class as Plato, Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, Eli Whitney, Flaubert, Babe Ruth and Santa Claus.

Merely sitting here and thinking about Thompson’s turkey me wish I were cooking one now – and I know me, I will be cooking one some time within the next few days. The thought of this wondrous culinary creation is not merely maddening, it is compelling. It is also tiring. Thompson’s turkey demands hard work which ought to be divided among a number of people. But it is worth the work. I have been cooking turkey Thompson’s way for about a dozen years. Every one of the vast collection of acquaintances to whom I have served it has gasped, raved, and wound up pronouncing it the best ever. There is no other turkey recipe that comes close to it-and this is odd, in a way, for the ordinary Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey, cooked according to any number of old reliable recipes, is a handsome sight at the table, and Thompson’s turkey is an absolute horror. Even a poached turkey, removed white and dripping from a steaming pot, looks better than Thompson’s.

This turkey comes out of the oven looking as though someone had made a fearful mistake. It is covered with a hard, jet-black crust that seems to be a combination of coal and ashes. Guests, when they first catch sight of it, wish they had gone elsewhere for dinner. When they begin to eat it, they realize they never had known turkey at all. They refuse to leave until they have eaten every scrap of it. Some ask to take the bones home, hoping to boil them up into a heartening soup. Others stuff bits into pockets, handbags or paper napkins. The principal trouble with Thompson’s turkey, from the cooles point of view, is that there almost never is any left over.

The truth is that Thompson’s turkey is to turkey as Miss Monroe is to women, as Jones was to golf, as . . . well, the reader may choose his own champions. Thompson’s turkey, beneath that hard black shell, is browned in a variety of tones stretching from light tan to mahogany, and is edible in a variety of tastes stretching from marvelous to unbelievable. These are all strong claims, but here is what one Thomp- son’s turkey admirer said about it “Several years ago I ate a turkey prepared and roasted by Morton Thompson. I didn’t eat the whole turkey, but that wasn’t my fault. There were outsiders present who ganged up on me.

“Now turkey, in spite of its big build-up as the Great American can be, and usually is, a mighty full slice of nothing teed up mound of double-nothing billed as ‘dressing.’ Not so with turkey. I am not even going to try to describe Thompson’s leave all that sexy writing to the younger men. I win say just decided at the time that Morton Thompson was the Savarin, and, for all I know, Savarin wasn’t as good as Morton Thompson. Could be.”

The author of the above lines was the late Robert Benchley, used them in an introduction to Morton Thompson’s first book, “Joe, Wounded Tennis Player.” The book was a collection of published by Doubleday, Doran and Company in 1945. who had been a working newspaperman and columnist, sat down put together a long series of stories he had heard, some funny, some tragic. As I gather it, he had not planned to write he had planned to write a cookbook called The Naked Countess, title suggested by J. B. Priestley on the grounds that it was perfect cause it had everything-sex, romance, aristocracy, mystery and challenge. The trouble was that he had asked Benchley to write the introduction to The Naked Countess.

Benchley was an extraordinarily amiable man, always willing oblige a friend. But be had one terrible vice. He hated to write. would go to any lengths to avoid touching pen to paper. He four years over the piece he had promised Thompson. “I got so worried about this literary impasse that I consulted an analyst ‘”- .and he told me the reason I couldn’t write the introduction was I was secretly jealous of Thompson for being able to cook a turkey well . . .”

After those four years, Thompson lost interest in publishing Naked Countess, which was just as well, for by then Benchley had the manuscript. By way of atoning, the humorist then wrote introduction. to Joe, the Wounded Tennis Player.”

Thompson was born in New York City in 1907, son of a man owned a number of hotels. He attended school fitfully and finally left in his teens to become a newspaperman, working at various times in New York and California. He learned to cook as a small boy; his teacher was a man he described in Joe. He wrote, “My stanch boyhood friend, when I was home from school for some holiday or other, was Peter. He was an Alsatian, of the nation which excretes the best chefs in the world and keeps the really best for Alsatians and for God.” Sometimes, young Thompson would sneak into the kitchen where Peter reigned to steal macaroon paste and lobster. The chef always caught him.

Peter did not teach Thompson to make Thompson’s turkey-Thompson made up the recipe himself. It evolved over a period of nearly twenty years, and there are traces of American, French, Italian and Chinese cookery in it. One year he published the
recipe in his news- paper column, around Thanksgiving. “It was received with broad grins,” he wrote. “All my readers thought I was kidding.” Those who tried it did not grin; they became converts, and they were never again satisfied with anything but Thompson’s turkey from then on.

I first picked up a copy of Joe and read the turkey recipe when I was in the army in Tennessee. Army food was pretty bad everywhere, but where I was, it was masterfully bad; it was as though the cooks had spent all their lives practicing to destroy every last vestige of the art of cooking. A friend of mine, Al Werner, once seriously suggested to the master sergeant that, instead of giving the company weekend passes, he give us a real treat. “Let us shoot a cook,” Al begged. That was the frame of mind I was in when I read Thompson7s instructions on turkey cooking. I could not wait to try it out. Some men wanted to get out of the army to go home to hot dogs, apple pie, and Mom. I wanted to get out so I could get to a stove and cook that turkey.

The turkey must be a big one, not less than sixteen pounds and not more than twenty-two. The bigger it is, the more economical it will be. If is is eighteen pounds or more, it ought to be a hen; a hen has a bigger, meatier breast. Buy the turkey in person so as to give the butcher proper instructions. Have him cut off the bird’s head so as to leave as much neck as possible. Then ask him to peel back the skin and cut off the neck, with a cleaver, as close as possible to the shoulders. This leaves a tube of neck-skin which can be stuffed with any stuffing left over from the body cavity. Some butchers clean away most of the turkey’s fat before handing it over. If your man does that, protest. You need the fat.

When our butcher in Carmel first was given these instructions, he looked at me as though I had gone out of my mind. Then he said, recognition dawning angrily, “Oh, you read that damn-fool recipe in the paper, didn’t you?”

“I wrote it,” I said.

“Damn fool,” he said.

Rub the bird inside and out with salt and pepper and let it stand while you go ahead with other preliminaries.

Into a stew pan put the chopped gizzard, the neck, and the heart. Set aside the liver. Liver cooks very quickly, and you will not want to put it in with the other giblets until about an hour before you are ready to make your gravy. Cover the giblets in the pan with four or five cups of water, and add a large bay leaf, a teaspoon of paprika, a half-teaspoon of coriander, a clove of garlic and salt to taste. Put it over a low fire and let it simmer while you work on the dressing. When I say work, I mean work. Get a large bowl, and into it put one apple and one orange, both diced, a large can of crushed pine- apple, the grated rind of one-half lemon, three tablespoons of chopped preserved ginger. You can get the latter at a Chinese store or at candy stores or specialty shops. Then add-Thompson advised-one can of Chinese water chestnuts, drained. I prefer to add two cans, and I chop the chestnuts in half before throwing them in. Nearly every grocery store that sells canned chow-mein dinners, or bamboo shoots, carries or will order water chestnuts.

Now get another bowl-and hold your breath. Merely assembling all the ingredients is a time-consuming process. In this bowl, you put two teaspoons of hot dry mustard, two teaspoons of caraway seed, three teaspoons of celery seed, two teaspoons of poppy seed, two and a half teaspoons of or6gano, one well-crushed large bay leaf, one tea- spoon black pepper, one-half teaspoon of mace, four tablespoons of well-chopped parsley (preferably fresh, although dried parsley flakes will do), four or five crushed cloves of garlic, one-half teaspoon of turmeric, four large, well-chopped onions, six well-chopped stalks of celery, one-half teaspoon of marjoram, one-half teaspoon of summer savory, one tablespoonful of poultry seasoning, and four cloves, crushed and headless. Have a drink, for God’s sake.

To these ingredients I add one green pepper (chopped, naturally), a dash or two of Tabasco, and a half tablespoonful of sesame seeds. Then salt to taste-about two teaspoonfuls. Also, a sprinkling of mono-sodium glutamate. This probably isn’t necessary, but in my view it brings out all flavors more fully.

The end is not yet in sight. Take a third bowl. Put in three packages, or about six cups, of bread crumbs, preferably those you obtain at a bakery. To the crumbs add three-quarters of a pound of ground veal and one-quarter of a pound of ground fresh pork and a quarter of a pound of butter and all the fat (render it first) you have been able to take off the turkey.

Now begin mixing. “Mix in each bowl the contents of each bowl,” Thompson wrote. “When each bowl is well mixed, mix the three of them together. And mix it well. Mix it with your hands. Mix it until your forearms and wrists ache. Then mix it some more. Now toss it so that it isn’t any longer a doughy mass.”

Stuff the turkey and skewer it, tying the strings that go over and around the skewers. Use the remainder of the stuffing in the neck- tube, and tie it shut securely. Turn the oven on full blast and let it get red hot. Put the bird on the drip-pan in your roaster or, better than that, breast-down in a rack. Then put it into the red-hot oven.

Right here you must work fast. In a cup make a paste consisting of the yolks of two eggs, a teaspoon of hot dry mustard, a clove of crushed garlic, a tablespoon of onion juice, two pinches of cayenne pepper, a teaspoon of lemon juice, and enough sifted flour to make a good stiff paste.

When the bird in the oven is beginning to turn brown all over, take it out and turn the heat down to 325º. The skin possibly will have begun to bubble or split and crack. Ignore it. Take a pastry brush, use the paste, and paint the bird all over. Put it back in the oven. A few minutes later, when the paste has dried and set, take the turkey out again. Paint it again, every part of it you can touch. Keep doing this, putting it in and taking it out and painting it, until the paste is all used up.

Now add a cup of cider to the giblet-neck-heart gravy that has been simmering. At this point, I always put the liver in; and I keep the stew pan simmering, adding half-cider and half-water from time to time to replenish it. This is your basting fluid. The bird
must be basted every fifteen minutes. After it has cooked about an hour and a half, turn it on its stomach, back in the air, and let it cook in that position until the last fifteen minutes; then put it on its back again. That is, unless you are using a rack; if you are, don’t turn it on its back until the last half-hour.

The bird should cook for five and one-half hours. As it cooks, it will alarm you. The paste will begin to turn black very early in the process. Thompson wrote,

“You will think, ‘My God! I have ruined it.’Be calm. Take a tweezer and pry loose the paste coating. It will come off readily. Beneath this burnt, harmless, now worthless shell the bird will be golden and dark brown, succulent, giddy-making with wild aromas, crisp and crunch- able and crackling. The meat beneath this crazing panorama of lip- wetting skin will be wet, juice will spurt from it in tiny fountains as high as the handle of the fork plunged into it; the meat will be white, crammed with mocking flavor, delirious with things that rush over your palate and are drowned and gone as fast as you can swallow; cut a little of it with a spoon, it will spread on bread as eagerly and readily as soft wurst. You do not have to be a carver to eat this turkey; speak harshly to it and it will fall apart.”

Thompson did not describe the taste of the stuffing for the simple reason that it is indescribable. It is full of a vast collection of elusive and exotic flavors,* of fruit and of greens, bits of crispness (the water chestnuts) and of delicate meats-well, no wonder he made no at- tempt to write about it. It has to be eaten to be understood. There is no gravy required for this bird because it is in itself so moist-but if the family insists on gravy it may be made in the usual way, using the drippings from the pan, and the giblets from the basting-mixture may be chopped up and added. The beauty of Thompson’s turkey by the way is that in the unlikely event that any of it is left over, the meat somehow remains moist as it it when it first comes out of the oven for days.

Anyone who tries this turkey will have an extra prayer to offer on Thanksgiving Day, a prayer of thanks for the genius of a man named Morton Thompson, who died of a heart attack on July 7, 1953. I don’t know if Thompson is in Heaven of not, but if he is, this must be his second visit. I don’t know of any other place where he could have picked up the original inspiration for Thompson’s Turkey.


One Response to Morton Thompson's Turkey – unexpurgated

  1. pleasant November 17, 2008 at 7:39 pm #

    Thanks for posting this!

    Papa would be proud!

    We are posting a slightly amended version of our family’s stuffing at

    Happy thanksgiving,

    Pleasant Gehman

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