Talking Turkey: the American Thanksgiving and Turkey

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The unique American holiday, Thanksgiving, brings everyone together—it’s no coincidence it’s the biggest travel day of the year in the United States. People gather for a number of reasons beyond thankfulness– reconnecting with family and friends, to watch and play football, to relax for a day and get ready for the Christmas holidays, and for a lot of people, to celebrate our lucky abundance by eating a feast.

 So many Americans refer to Thanksgiving as “Turkey Day”, since the turkey is traditionally the centerpiece of that big feast. Weeks before the holiday arrives, fliers for turkey sales are everywhere; recipes pop up in your email inbox; cooking shows run hour-long specials the turkey dinner with all the trimmings, and news outlets start talking about turkey shortages. There are so many decisions to make when choosing a turkey. Do you buy a frozen or fresh bird? Do you choose a heritage breed or factory-raised? Do you buy a breast or do you need a whole turkey? How many pounds to feed everyone? You need to get answers for all of those questions before you even get to the cooking. The cooking raises an even larger round of questions, and if you’re like me, a round of obsessive research. Cooking poultry requires smart handling. Not only do you want your bird to be delicious, you want it to be contamination- and germ-free.

In your quest to find answers to these questions, no doubt you’ll turn to family and friends. You may even dial a local extension service or talk to the source from which you bought the bird—the supermarket, the turkey company or the farmer.  The Federal government is another excellent source you shouldn’t forget. Your best friend may be busy driving to his mother’s house, but you can call the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline all Thanksgiving morning, or link to Ask Karen on the Web.  Ask Karen is the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) Web chat page to answer all of your food safety questions at any time.

You should check their Common questions section first, which FSIS has conveniently organized by topic and product. So you can pick turkey from the products list, and choose all, and enter the word “smoking” to find information about how to smoke a turkey. If you click on the question,

“Do you need a thermometer when smoking meat?” you get the answer,

“Yes. To ensure meat and poultry are smoked safely, you’ll need two types of thermometers: one for the food and one for the smoker. A thermometer is needed to monitor the air temperature in the smoker or grill to be sure the heat stays between 225 °F (107.2°C) and 300 °F (148.8°C) throughout the cooking process. For more information, please visit  Smoking Meat and Poultry “

I tested the Ask Karen site on a couple of topics: cooking stuffing in the turkey cavity, brining, deep frying, marinating, and thawing. There are hit results for all of the topics other than deep frying; I found no information on that topic. When you have questions on deep frying, you could proceed to the Live Chat section of Ask Karen.

If you’re cooking your Thanksgiving turkey for the first time, and just want a basic overview of the whole process, start with Safe and Easy Thanksgiving Dinner. This short two-minute video, narrated by USDA, starts by telling you when to thaw the turkey. It’s not too late for you to start thawing now if you thaw it in cold water. The video also tells you to be sure to cook stuffing outside the bird, and how to store your leftovers. It also reminds you about the USDA’s hotline help service at 1-888-MPHotline. The Hotline is open on Thanksgiving Day from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p. m., Eastern Time, so you can call while you’re getting ready to cook. It’s hard to imagine a country that takes its turkey more seriously than the United States; it’s the ultimate family meal.

Don’t take your meal too seriously, though. Loads of folks have their very own turkey disaster story, and this year may be the one for you to collect your own story. If you’ve accidentally cooked the giblets in your turkey’s cavity, or left on the plastic bits that wind the turkey’s legs together, the USDA has answers for your questions on those topics too. Hock Locks and Other Accoutrements will tell you what to do to resolve these conundrums, and like another famous volume, should come with the cover label: “Don’t panic!” Hock locks is the turkey producer’s name for the plastic bits that lock together the turkey legs, and according to the document, the hock locks are made of nylon or metal, and while it’s generally safe to cook your turkey with them on, the turkey legs will be more evenly cooked if you remove the locks before cooking. With reassurance like this document offers, you can manage a stress-free meal, even if you wind up fighting with your family over the Thanksgiving bowl games.

Want to serve the perfect bird this Thanksgiving? Want some more tips on brining? Make this Thanksgiving a safe and tasty one; try reading some of these documents before you turn on the oven or fire up the grill. There are records for Ask Karen, Safe and Easy Thanksgiving Dinner, and Hock Locks and Other Accoutrements in the Catalog of Government Publications. You can finish the meal with a recipe for pumpkin pie from the USDA’s National Agriculture Library Web site.

How can I access these publications?

Guest Blogger Jennifer Davis is Manager of the Bibliographic Control Section of GPO’s Library Services and Content Management Division

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