Adding a bit of variety to Thanksgiving dinner can bring both angst and anticipation to a family. Depending on the group, a cook’s attempt at putting something new on the table may be met with groans of departing from tradition.
However, the meal that most Montgomery Countians eat today only resembles the one early Americans dined on. By going back in history a bit, cooks will realize that they can serve up true American tradition, and they might just be putting a few new ingredients onto the menu this year.
“We recall President George Washington, who proclaimed our first national day of public thanksgiving to be observed ‘by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God,’ and President Abraham Lincoln, who established our annual Thanksgiving Day to help mend a fractured Nation in the midst of civil war,” according to whitehouse.gov.
George Washington probably did eat turkey on his Thanksgiving feast.
“British colonists were already in possession of recipes for turkey before they landed in the New World, where they would find flocks of up to 5,000 wild turkeys gathered by certain rivers, making a veritable feast for starving émigrés,” according to “City Tavern: Birthplace of American Cuisine”
In fact, it wasn’t the pilgrims, but the Founding Fathers who served turkey the way Americans think of it at Thanksgiving.
“Roasting was one of the most common means of preparing turkey in colonial times. Amelia Simmons’ recipe in American Cookery calls for stuffing the bird with bread stuffing, roasting and basting it. In what many have set the precedent for the modern Thanksgiving, she instructs the cook to serve the turkey with ‘cranberry-sauce’ and mashed potatoes,” the cookbook states.
Simmons’ book was published in 1796.
But Washington most likely enjoyed a Virginia ham, as well. Martha Washington was said to have ordered 400 hams smoked each year, meaning there was a ham a day at Mount Vernon Estates and Garden, and sometimes more, according to mountvernon.org.
Many people in Montgomery County also eat ham for their feast, although it’s not as popular as turkey.
Barry Clemens, owner of Clemens market, located at 2208 Old Arch Road in Norristown, sells about 100 raw, fresh birds the week before Thanksgiving. Customers must reserve their turkeys, or hams, by Monday before Thanksgiving.
“We sell about 50 of the honey glazed hams for Thanksgiving, and then a lot more at Christmas. We sell close to 100 for Christmas,” Clemens said.
The butchers at Clemens glaze and roast the hams for customers, so they are ready to eat upon pick-up. They don’t bake the turkeys though.
“These turkeys are fresh. I’ve got to go up Sunday and pick them up from Allentown. They are fresh off the truck on Monday, and it’s a much fresher bird than you’ll find at a supermarket. It doesn’t go through a lot of procedures or a brokery,” Clemens said.
He grew up in the family business. Clemens has been in Norristown since 1956, and business continues to pick up.
“We sell more hams and more turkeys every year as more people learn about us,” he said.
Beyond hams and turkeys, Clemens sells chitlins and pig feet this time of year.
“Southern people come in asking for those things. They cook them, but beyond that I don’t know what they do them,” he said.
He just sticks to turkey at home, but Clemens doesn’t know how to bake or roast, fry or brine a turkey.
“I’m the butcher. I’m not the baker. My wife cooks our turkey,” he said with a laugh.
Even a store that specializes in baked ham sells turkeys for the holidays. HoneyBaked Ham, located at 20 Park Ave. in Willow Grove, gears up production this time of year.
Montgomery County residents apparently prefer ham on other holidays, although manager Scott Bentz said national numbers show that southern people order more of it for Thanksgiving. Yet, even the Willow Grove ham sales are strong.
“This Thanksgiving, HoneyBaked Hams will sell over 1,500 pieces of ham the week before, Bentz said.
He’s never heard of people combining oysters with the HoneyBaked Hams, a popular recipe in the 18th century. Most people, from Abington to Collegeville, and Montgomery County wide, just serve it as is on the feast day and make sandwiches the next day, he said.
“Our hams are all fully cooked. People take them home and leave them out at room temperature. Our goal is to make things as simple as possible so they focus on the family aspect of things,” he said.
Whether it’s roasting, glazing, frying or brining, most families in Montgomery County will enjoy a turkey in the style of Amelia Simmons for Thanksgiving. However, some cooks will be slicing a ham, much like Martha would, and perhaps this year, they can try their hand at cooking it with oysters for something old and new.
Roasted Turkey with Goblet Gravy
From The City Tavern Cookbook: Recipes from the Birthplace of American Cuisine ©2009 by Walter Staib
Serves 8 to 10
1 (18- to 20-pound) turkey, with giblets
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium yellow onion, quartered
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons dried rubbed sage
2 medium shallots, finely chopped
11/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup imported Madeira
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
1/4 cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
3 cups chicken stock
11/2 tablespoons cornstarch
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Place an oven rack on the bottom level. Place a wire roasting rack in a large roasting pan and spray it with vegetable cooking spray.
Remove the giblets and neck and any visible fat from the turkey cavity and reserve for the giblet stock. Discard the liver and fat. Rinse the turkey inside and out with cold water and pat dry with paper towels.
Sprinkle the turkey cavity with salt and pepper. Place the quartered onion in the cavity.
In a small bowl, combine the parsley, thyme, sage, shallots, and 1 tablespoon of the oil. Sprinkle with salt and a generous grinding of pepper.
With your fingers, separate the turkey skin from the breast meat, taking care not to tear the skin or pierce the meat. Rub the herb mixture on the meat under the skin on each side of the breastbone. Tie the drumsticks together with kitchen string and twist the wing tips behind the back. Place the turkey, breast side up, in the prepared roasting pan.
Roast the turkey for about 2 hours, until the breast is browned. Cover the turkey with aluminum foil and roast for 3 to 4 hours, until a meat thermometer inserted in a thigh muscle registers 185°F. Add 1/2 cup of the Madeira, and baste the turkey every 15 minutes.
While the turkey roasts, heat the remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, add the coarsely chopped onion, the carrots, celery, and reserved giblets and neck, and cook, stirring frequently, for about 15 minutes, until the giblets, onion, carrots, and celery are well browned. Add the white wine to deglaze the pan, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Cook for about 1 minute, until it comes to a boil. Add the stock and bring back to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover the pan, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Strain the giblet stock through a fine sieve into a medium bowl (you should have about 2 cups). Chop the giblets and add them back into the stock. Bring to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
When the turkey is done, transfer it to a carving board, loosely cover it with aluminum foil, and let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes before carving.
While the turkey rests, pour the drippings from the roasting pan through a fine sieve into a small bowl. Place the bowl in the freezer for about 20 minutes to solidify the fat.
Meanwhile, set the roasting pan back on the stovetop over medium heat. Add the rest of the Madeira to deglaze the pan, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Cook for about 1 minute, until it comes to boil. Strain the liquid through a fine sieve into a medium saucepan.
Skim the fat from the chilled drippings and discard. Add the drippings to the Madeira mixture in the saucepan. Add the reserved giblet stock and giblets. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
In a small bowl, dissolve the cornstarch in 2 tablespoons cold water. Slowly add to the simmering Madeira mixture, whisking until the gravy thickens slightly. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Remove the string from the turkey and carve (see directions below). Serve with the warm Madeira gravy.
Chef’s Note: Carving a Turkey
Once you learn a few basic cuts, you’ll get the carving right, every time.
Using a carving knife and fork, cut between the lower part of the breast and the thigh, pushing down until the leg joint separates. Wiggle each leg to find the joint between the thigh and the drumstick and slice downward through the joint. Slice the meat off the bones. Bend each wing to find the joint, then cut straight downward to remove the wing. Make a long cut along one side of the breastbone. Carve the meat from the breast, working toward the first cut in smooth, even slices.
Virginia Ham and Oysters
A Recipe by Chef Walter Staib, as seen on A Taste of History
Oysters traveled very well, especially in cooler months. While Colonial cooks would have used whole oysters, it takes practice and a steady hand to shuck them, so home cooks should buy them ready to cook. Frugal 18th Century cooks would have made this with leftover ham, but this recipe uses a new ham and requires 3 days of advanced preparation so please plan accordingly.
1 Virginia ham
2 shallots, minced
6 tablespoons butter
¼ cup sherry
1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons flour
1 dozen oysters, shucked, and their liquid
1 bunch of chives, minced
½ teaspoon catsup to last 20 years
1 bunch parsley, minced, for garnish
Remove ham from wrapper and submerge in cold water. Store in the refrigerator and continue to soak in water for 3 days, changing the water at least twice daily. When ready, remove the ham from salty water and boil in fresh water for 1 hour, or until heated through. Carefully remove from water and slice the ham thinly.
Combine 3 tablespoons cold butter with flour to make a beurre meunière.
Melt 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat in a skillet. Add the minced shallots and sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes. Deglaze the pan with sherry. Add cream and season with salt and pepper. Add beurre meunière and whisk to combine. Finish with catsup to last 20 years.
Pour the oysters and their liquid into the cream sauce and let simmer over low heat until the oysters have curled and are still soft. Do not over cook or the oysters will become hard and rubbery.
Chop the chives and add to the simmering sauce. Keep warm but do not continue to cook the oysters. Arrange the ham on a large platter and pour the oysters and cream sauce over the ham. Garnish with parsley.