By Mark Wieser
Nothing brought more comfort and joy to major holidays in the Wieser household than the aromas associated with my mother preparing a turkey. In our home we had a turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas. A baked ham was always our fare for New Years and Easter. If we had been away from the house, upon returning these aromas reached us even before we came into the kitchen. Perhaps, like in many homes, the kitchen was the center of all our activities.
The Living Room concept wasn’t a reality in our house until after 1945. My dad then added three rooms onto the house permitting one to be furnished as a living room. A new upholstered sofa and a huge chair were bought. Another chair, with an Ottoman, was added to compliment them. We even acquired a coffee table and a tall end table. Doilies were crocheted to protect their tops. Then the entire room was closed off so no one, particularly me, could sit on the new upholstered furniture.
Acquiring television in ’54 changed all that. Pre-TV, we had only one heated room in winters—the kitchen. It was a lot of work maintaining a wooden heater so we spent a lot of time in our kitchen. On many cold, winter mornings, I grabbed my school clothes upon getting out of bed and dressed behind the stove. Ours, a wood burning one, had ample space behind it and the wall for that. That is also where, in pre-school years, I spent hours just playing on the floor because it was warm.
However, I digress, back to the matter at hand. Nothing announced Thanksgiving dinner like the aroma of my mother baking a turkey with her famous meat -dressing. This was the day for turkey to rule the roost. The dressing, however, was perhaps the most sought-after dish of all that graced our holiday table. The dressing’s entire purpose is supposedly to help keep the meat moist while also adding flavors to the turkey itself.
Yankees called it “stuffing,” Southerners, on the other hand, ate “dressing” and a few Pennsylvania Germans called it “filling.” I am not certain when stuffing a turkey became popular among the German colonists who celebrated their first one here in 1846. That those who settled Fredericksburg adopted the holiday so thoroughly is a topic for another discussion. What distinguishes my mother’s turkey dressing from others was that it called for meat, not corn bread. In fact, it was rather startling to me when I first learned that not everyone enjoyed a “meat-based filling.”
Clearly, turkey dressing is a regional issue. Southerners found talk of “stuffing” and “filling” somewhat sacrilegious. They insisted that a “dressing” be created—and that this dressing consist of cornbread to which pork was often added, either in the form of bacon or, more commonly, as salted pork. A biscuit-based dressing became standard in many parts of the Deep South.
In the American West, “fillings” often featured a blending of traditions from the South and North. San Franciscans took advantage of leftover sourdough, creating a bread filling that added a tang to the turkey. Cooks in the Pacific Northwest used seafood in their stuffing, adding not just oysters, but clams and mussels. All sound delicious, but whether one is reared in the North, South, or West, the one “filling” that everyone remembers best is the one that was made by “Mamma.”
Filling the turkey or stuffing the bird, if you prefer, was the last step in readying the turkey for the oven. A piece or two of old, often stale bread was pushed into place before sewing up the big bird. We had continued the art of stuffing our bird as had been done for many years. In fact, in the 1st century AD a chef by the name of Apicius created a cookbook entitled, “Apicius de re Coquinaria” in which he listed his main ingredients for his “filling” which appears to have been vegetables, herbs, nuts, liver, and brain. Of course, the bird wasn’t a turkey. Turkeys are an American bird.
Our regulatory agencies now recommend that we cease stuffing our birds claiming that today we are more at risk for food-borne illnesses. A decent-sized turkey does require a few hours to cook—a stuffed one, even more. They fear our bird will not reach its proper cooking temperature killing potentially harmful bacteria (e.g. salmonella) that lurk in the meat and its juices. Packing one’s turkey with all these ‘fillings”, they claim, hinders reaching the proper cooking temperature. Moreover, the USDA recommends that the safest way to avoid illness is by buying a frozen, (never fresh) pre-stuffed turkey. So much for making memories that way.
For a 12 to 14-pound turkey
1 ½ pounds ground beef
The turkey’s liver, heart gizzard
2 stalks of celery
1 medium white onion
1 ½ tbsp butter
4 cups-soaked bread
1 tsp nutmeg
Salt and Pepper to taste
In a large frying pan melt the butter. Add the ground beef, liver, heart, celery, onion. Sauté until browned. Then put it in a large bowl and add the eggs and the bread. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste, then stuff your bird. Sew with the proper thread recommended for baking.
The internal recommended temperature for baking stuffed turkeys is 325ºF. The time this takes depends on the size of one’s bird. It can be as little as 2 ½ – 3 ½ hours for a 6 to 8-pound bird to as long as 4 ¼ to 5 ¼ hours for those over 20 pounds. Consult your cookbook and use a thermometer. Extra filling can be baked in a Pyrex™ dish.
Serving: When the turkey is done, simply remove the string and remove the filling and present it in its own dish. In many families it will be the star of your dinner. Leftover filling can also be used for sandwiches and presented alongside cheeses, crackers, and dips.