A young man born in Cayuga County, New York in 1817 had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge; so much so that he eventually became a physician. Dr. Alvin Wood Chase penned a book that became a staple in nearly every household in the late 1800s.
Dr. Chase’s 800-page Receipt Book and Household Physician was full of every kind of information an early 19th century rural household could possibly need. Dr. Chase used the term ‘receipts’ in his title, a word from medieval English that meant formula or prescription for a medicinal preparation.
The book opens with descriptions of common maladies, many of which are unheard of or renamed today. After describing diseases in as much detail as was known at the time, Dr. Chase writes highly detailed receipts, or medical advice, for each. He makes suggestions for food for sick patients, including homemade syrups that were made from plant-based ingredients such as spearmint, horehound, St. John’s wort and poppy.
Since the book was written at a time when many rural families raised poultry either for themselves or as part of a farm enterprise, Dr. Chase includes copious instructions on how to care for birds. According to Dr. Chase’s recommendation for feeding young poults, which he borrowed from Fanny Field in ‘The Ohio Farmer’, the chicks’ first meal should not be given until chicks are 12 hours old. The meal should include a crumbled hard-boiled egg or stale wheat bread moistened with milk. At one week, chicks can be fed cooked oat meal, boiled potatoes or cooked rice. Cooked corn meal can be added after the third or fourth week, along with a bit of cooked meat, unless there are plenty of insects.
Farmers were advised to choose from several poultry diet plans to fatten poultry for market. The American plan included buckwheat meal mixed with skim milk to make a mush. The French plan incorporated stored grain with suet, coarse gravel and Belgian yellow carrot (boiled or stewed) to impart a rich flavor. The English diet included a similar grain mixture along with suet and sugar. Milk was given several times a day, and farmers claimed that young turkeys gained as much as three pounds a week. The goal was to bring 40-pound turkeys to the lucrative New York City market.
At the time of Dr. Chase’s book, common thinking was that poultry could not be successfully raised on a large scale, and large scale meant more than 50 birds at one time. To prove that wasn’t the case, the New York Farmers Club visited the poultry farm of Warren Leland in Rye Station, NY, about 25 miles north of New York City. The farmers found that Leland’s assortment of 150 turkeys and 300 laying hens along with ducks and geese were housed in outstanding winter quarters. The south-facing stone poultry building included windows, double doors that could be opened on sunny days and a fireplace with a crane and a camp kettle. In winter, a fire fed with old logs kept the birds warm, which was especially useful for warding off disease in damp weather. The entire building could be closed for fumigation if necessary, and to accomplish that, smoking logs would be rolled to the center of the building then stoked with feathers and sulphur to start a smoky fumigation that killed lice and drove away vermin.
Dr. Chase wasn’t finished with turkeys after providing advice on how to raise them.
His book included recipes on how to prepare the traditional holiday favorite. He explains the English method of placing a carrot, an onion and sweet herbs in a kettle of boiling water, then trussing the turkey and boiling it for several hours. After boiling, the turkey was coated with a sauce called Golden Rain. This colorful topper was made from diced boiled eggs added to a cream sauce. Additional egg yolks could be rubbed on the finished bird for additional color.
Although turkeys were often the focus of a special Sunday meal for many families, today, they’re most often associated with Thanksgiving, the quintessential American holiday. Some interesting facts surround the holiday, including the commonly held belief that Ben Franklin proposed that the turkey should be the national symbol. As is the case with many tales passed down from one generation to the next, this one has a chink. The real story is that in a private letter, Franklin made comments about the eagle, commenting that it was ‘a bird of bad moral character that does not get his living honestly’ and ‘is too lazy to fish for himself’. He referred to the turkey as ‘a much more respectable bird’ and ‘a true original native of America’. So while he never actually claimed that the turkey should be chosen as the nation’s symbol, Franklin was less than pleased that the eagle was selected.
So even though the turkey never really had a shot at becoming the national bird, how was it named? According to Mental Floss, Turkish traders had been importing African guinea fowl to Europe, and North American explorers were shipping Meleagris gallopavo (Latin for both the wild and domestic turkey we know today) back to the Old World. The American birds looked similar to the African birds known as ‘turkey cocks’, so the Europeans referred to them as turkeys. The name stuck.
Many of today’s turkeys are the product of careful genetic selection, raised in modern facilities with plenty of room to walk around and fed carefully designed rations. Some producers prefer to raise heritage breed turkeys outdoors, which are popular among consumers who want a more natural product. It’s important to note that no turkeys are raised with added hormones or steroids.
What about that incredibly sleepy feeling that overtakes nearly everyone after the Thanksgiving meal is finished? Turkey contains the amino acid L-trypophan, a precursor to serotonin and melatonin. But it also contains a significant amount of protein, which helps regulate insulin levels and subsequently combats sleepiness. Since turkey contains about the same amount of tryptophan as other meats, the bottom line is that the fatigue that hits after a Thanksgiving dinner is likely due to carbohydrate overload — all those mashed potatoes, rolls, corn and other starchy foods contributing to the overwhelming urge to take a nap.
The National Turkey Federation (NTF) website provides information on how to safely thaw and prepare a turkey, suggested food pairings and what to do with leftovers. The site also includes a link to a modern turkey facility for those interested in a virtual visit to see some of the thousands of turkeys grown by farmers for this holiday favorite.
Visit the NTF at www.eatturkey.com/thanksgiving.