Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Tomorrow - November 24, is officially Thanksgiving Day, sometimes known as "Turkey Day" in the U.S. I heard a TV commentator (on a business program) say today that this celebration dates back to 1942. Not quite true. That was the year that a joint resolution by both houses of the U.S. Congress in 1941 designated as the beginning of an annual Thanksgiving holiday to be held on the last Thursday of November. But the holiday itself dated back much further. And so does the turkey part of the celebration.

George Washington actually proclaimed the first Thanksgiving Day in 1789. After that, he and various subsequent Presidents renewed the tradition, although the date kept shifting a bit, and it wasn't celebrated every year. But the whole idea of such a day really dates back much earlier to the colonial settlers of the "New World."

Turkey seems to have usually been part of the feast. However, don't picture a big fat turkey such as we eat these days. What was eaten centuries ago was a scrawny wild turkey, like that bird that seems to always turn up in our neighborhood about this time of the year, and wander down the road. No one quite knows why it has never been run over - or, roasted.

So yes, these days we eat huge turkeys thanks to genetic improvements, better feed formulation and modern management practices. No, hormones are not allowed to be used in turkey production in the United States. We usually eat these turkeys between the ages of four and nine months (older ones are too tough).

Enough of the background: let's turn to the safety aspects. Raw turkeys quite often carry bacteria which can make you ill -and there are plenty of cases of "stomach flu" (really food poisoning) every year around this time, due to undercooked or poorly stored turkey. So remember some simple rules.

First, think of safety when basting, stuffing or otherwise handling the raw turkey. Wear disposable gloves, or thoroughly wash your hands afterwards, and don't let the raw turkey contaminate any surface (for instance, don't put it down on a counter - use a tray, foil sheet, or something that can be washed or discarded).

When roasting the turkey, you need to make sure that you roast it to an internal temperature of 165ºF or higher. Check by inserting a food thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh or the thickest part of the breast, and recheck in the other breast or thigh, in case it has cooked unevenly. It's quite OK to cook the turkey at a very low oven temperature (such as 325ºF) for a longer period of time, rather than at a higher temperature, as long as you do this internal temperature check.

And what if you start to carve, and when you get closer to the bone, you find that in spite of your focus on safe temperature, some of the meat is pink instead of white? Don't panic. It's safe, as long as you have cooked all parts of it to 165ºF and the juices run clear. What happens is that when you roast, smoke or grill very young turkeys, with immature and porous bones, the hemoglobin inside can leach out into the turkey meat, turning it pink.

Enjoy! And even though it has been a pretty rough year everywhere in the world, let's be thankful for what we have - including that turkey.

To your good health,

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