Thanksgiving Then And Now: How Jews Transformed Turkey For Their New World

What can a Jewish cookbook from 1946 tell us about the 21st-century Jewish-American experience? Liza Schoenfein, the Forward’s senior food writer, and Jane Ziegelman, a culinary historian, took our signature collection of Yiddish recipes off the shelf and found a direct line from the balaboostas of yore to the kitchens of today.

The Original Crowd-Sourced Cookbook

For as long as people have been eating dinner, home cooks have been swapping recipes. In 1934, Regina Frishwasser, an editor at the Forverts, started a weekly recipe contest, an instance of recipe swapping on a grand scale, that lasted for more than a decade.

An example of crowdsourcing before its time, the contest was an instant hit with Forward readers: each week’s grand prizewinner was rewarded with $5 (runners up got $1 each) and the chance to see their delicacies in print.

In 1946, Frishwasser compiled the winning submissions into the “Jewish American Cook Book,” a storehouse of culinary wisdom which she said in the introduction could reunite daughters with their mothers’ recipes and traditions. The cookbook featured 15 recipes for blintzes, including ones stuffed with veal and lung; knishes stuffed with everything from lima beans to liver; even chicken chow mein.

Born Reki Leventhal, Frishwasser immigrated to the United States around the turn of the 20th century (where she is from in Eastern Europe is unknown). Her five-decade career at the Forward started in 1918, when she became a contributor to the “women’s page,” writing about women’s suffrage, abusive husbands, and what she thought were Judaism’s unjust divorce laws. Eventually, she became the Forward’s voice on all matters culinary.

Like Frishwasser, most of the women who contributed to the “Jewish American Cook Book” were immigrants, born into one culture but living in another. One of their challenges was reconciling their shtetel-selves with their new identity as American citizens. Food turned out to be an excellent medium for working that out.

Jane Talks Turkey From The 1940s

A New World bird, turkey was never a big item on traditional Jewish dinner tables. Immigrant cooks, however, were enthusiastic experimenters, and opened their kitchens to all sorts of novel foods, from the super-exotic (bananas) to the ultra-modern (Jell-O). As the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table, turkey was a special case.

When Jewish immigrants first heard the Thanksgiving story, they were struck by how familiar it sounded. Like the Pilgrims, they were a minority fleeing religious persecution. They had crossed the same ocean, looking for a new Promised Land. And like the Pilgrims, they had found it in America.

Eating turkey on Thanksgiving was both a demonstration of patriotism and an expression of belonging. In preparing their turkeys, however, Jewish cooks gave used distinctly Old World treatments.

In one of the 1946 book’s turkey recipes, the stuffing is a savory version of noodle kugel. In another, the bird is first rubbed with schmaltz, then stuffed with mashed potatoes and fried onions, a mixture closely related to the insides of a potato knish. The result, a melding of Old and New Worlds, was an edible symbol of the immigrant’s new blended identity.

The Original Turkey Recipe:

For the contest, Frishwasser asked cooks to describe the dishes as they might in conversation, because she wanted to convey a sense of women sharing recipes at the kitchen table. Another way of showcasing that conversational tone was to run recipes in paragraph form, as opposed to the more formal recipe style, where step-by-step instructions follow a list of ingredients. While both formats were used in the newspaper at different times, for the cookbook Frishwasser chose to use the paragraph format exclusively.

Clean and singe the pin feathers from a 10 pound turkey. Spread over it crushed garlic mixed with 1 tablespoon fat, 1¼ teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon paprika. Place into refrigerator over night. When ready to roast, prepare the stuffing as follows: Peel 3 large sized potatoes, and cook in salted water until half done. Drain the water and cool potatoes. Grate the potato when cool, and mix with 2 cups fried onions, 4 well beaten egg yolks, ½ cup matzoh meal, 1½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, 2 tablespoons minced parsley, and 4 stiffly beaten egg whites. Fill the turkey, and sew up opening. Place turkey into a double roaster, spread over and around it 2 sliced onions, pour 2 cups water into the roaster, cover, and bake in a medium oven until tender. Baste with gravy that gathers in the pan. Yields 10-12 portions.

Liza Talks 21st-Century Turkey

I had the highly enjoyable task of interpreting the original turkey recipe for a modern Thanksgiving table — my version is below. I love that the first instruction in this recipe is to singe off the turkey’s feathers — and I’m grateful that I didn’t have to do it. I was struck by the fact that — as with other recipes that required baking or roasting — Regina told the reader to “bake until tender,” without offering a temperature or cooking time. While I’m happy to embrace a certain amount of ambiguity in life, I’m not able to do so in recipes — so I worked out the timing and temperature.

Reading through the ingredients in the original recipe, I was optimistic that the flavors would be fabulous. It didn’t occur to me until I was smearing the bird with the fragrant mixture of garlic and paprika that I was making a kind of turkey paprikash — my Hungarian grandmother, who was born in 1901 and immigrated to America in the 1920s, would certainly have approved.

As noted, the mashed-potato mixture in the original recipe seemed an awful lot like knish filling. While mashed potatoes do have a place on the modern Thanksgiving table, they’re not as appealing to me in stuffing form, so I cut the potatoes into cubes, tossed them with the onions and herbs, and roasted them. This would give the stuffing more flavor and texture. I intentionally made more potatoes than would fit inside the turkey cavity so I could serve some separately — a boon for any vegetarians at the table.

Honestly, I had my doubts about potato stuffing, because it’s just not something you hear about. But it turns out that potato stuffing isn’t exactly a unicorn. A recipe for goose stuffed with potato appears in “The Fanny Farmer Cookbook,” which was first published in 1896. It is, in fact, a classic Pennsylvania Dutch preparation used with all kinds of poultry, including turkey. A 1972 James Beard cookbook includes a recipe and describes its popularity with the Pennsylvania Dutch.

So I was happily surprised that the potato stuffing was a huge hit with everyone at my table. The whole meal was a delicious example of the Old World meeting the new, in more ways than one. The original recipe took a New World ingredient — turkey — and fashioned it in such a way that it felt familiar to the immigrant from Eastern Europe. The new recipe adhered to Frishwasser’s flavor combinations, while employing just a few contemporary ideas and practices to place this Thanksgiving turkey firmly in the present.

RECIPE: Today’s Potato-Stuffed Roast Turkey

In the original 1947 recipe, the 10-pound turkey was meant to serve 10–12 — and some modern guidelines do suggest a pound per person — but our 10-pound turkey fed six hungry people without a whole lot of leftovers., so you might round up to 1½ pounds per person if you’re hoping for sandwiches over the holiday weekend. If you do go with a larger bird, add 15 minutes to the cooking time for every extra pound.

Serves 6–8

For the turkey:

One 10-pound turkey

8 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons chicken fat or olive oil

2 teaspoons salt, divided

2 teaspoons paprika, divided

½ teaspoon pepper

2 cups chicken broth

For the potato stuffing:

3 medium russet potatoes (2½ pounds), cut into ½-inch dice

2 medium onions (1 pound), peeled and finely sliced (about 4 cups)

⅓ cup chicken fat or olive oil

3 tablespoons minced parsley

3 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary

1 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon pepper

For the gravy:

All the turkey drippings, minus any excess fat

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups chicken broth (or water)

¼ cup orange liqueur such as Cointreau and/or bourbon

  1. Place turkey on a platter or in a roasting pan just big enough to hold it comfortably. Remove any giblets from the cavity and reserve for stock if you like.

  2. In a small bowl, combine garlic, fat, 1¼ teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon paprika and mash into a paste. Spread mixture all over the turkey. Cover turkey with plastic wrap or foil (or place in a 2-gallon zip-top plastic bag) and refrigerate overnight.

  3. The following day, about 1½ hours before before roasting the turkey, prepare the stuffing: Place potatoes and onions in a large bowl, add the fat and stir to coat. Toss with parsley, rosemary, salt and pepper.

  4. An hour before roasting the turkey, preheat the oven to 425° F. Take the turkey out of the refrigerator and transfer it to a sturdy rack in a heavy roasting pan. In a small bowl combine remaining paprika, salt and pepper and sprinkle over the turkey. Allow turkey to come to room temperature.

  5. Meanwhile, arrange potato mixture in another roasting pan, in one layer if possible, and cook 30 minutes, until edges are becoming golden and potatoes are barely cooked through. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then carefully spoon as much of the potato mixture into the turkey’s cavity as will fit, about 3 cups. Cross the turkey legs at the “ankle” and tie with kitchen twine. Keep the rest of the potatoes in the roasting pan (or transfer to a smaller one). You’ll finish them in the oven when the turkey comes out.

  6. Pour two cups of chicken stock into the turkey roasting pan. Roast turkey for 45 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375° F and roast until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165° F, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. (Start checking after 1 hour, and cover with foil if turkey appears to be getting too brown.)

  7. Remove turkey from oven, transfer to a large cutting board or platter and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes before carving.

  8. Drizzle a little olive oil over the reserved potatoes, return to oven, and cook for 20-30 minutes, until golden. Make the gravy: Remove the rack from the turkey’s roasting pan and pour off excess fat, leaving all the drippings. Place roasting pan across two burners over medium-low heat. Sprinkle flour over the drippings and stir with a wooden spoon, scraping up the brown bits, until all the flour is incorporated, about 2 minutes.

  9. Add broth and whisk until most of the lumps dissolve. Stir in liqueur, lower the heat to low and simmer until gravy reduces by almost half. Serve alongside the turkey.

Liza Schoenfein is the senior food writer of the Forward. Follow her on Instagram @LifeDeathDinner. Jane Ziegelman is a culinary historian and author of books including “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families.”

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Thanksgiving Then And Now: How Jews Transformed Turkey For Their New World

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