My debt to Pierre Berton has nothing to do with his contributions to Canada as an author, broadcaster, historian or humanitarian. It's a more personal gift I want to thank him for: his turkey recipe.
In December, 1971, I was a Jewish girl fresh out of cooking school who wanted to impress her non-Jewish boyfriend and his circle. We were having Christmas dinner with his close friends the Houghs and I volunteered to do the turkey. Not just any old turkey, mind you, but this "half-French, half-Chinese" recipe that Pierre Berton was touting in a magazine called The Holiday Host.
The method had been adapted from a recipe by American novelist Morton Thompson. It was so complicated many of Thompson's readers thought it was a gag. But I was intrigued by the unconventional method of "painting" the bird with a special paste. The result promised to be so tender that, in Thompson's words, "You do not have to be a carver to eat this turkey. Speak harshly to it and it will fall apart." I was hooked.
Once into the process, however, I lost my nerve. I had never roasted a bird this size before (17 pounds), and there were so many ingredients I became hopelessly confused. I wasn't sure if I should roast it breast up or breast down. I finally did what nervous cooks the world over do before an important meal: I picked up the phone. But I didn't call my mother. I looked up Pierre Berton's number and called him.
Pierre's article had said he got quite a few of these calls, and he must not have minded too much because he was utterly gracious on the phone. He said he was in the middle of cooking his own turkey. He said he liked to cook his turkey breast down, and turn it once at the end. And he said not to worry, because this recipe was pretty hard to mess up.
He was right. Even though the recipe warns you not to leave out a single ingredient, I skipped the pork. It was a huge success regardless. But the fact that I had been able to speak to the master himself was almost better than eating it.
That was 33 years ago. At that point, Pierre had been doing his turkey for 24 years, since 1947, recommending it in newspaper columns and articles, and even demonstrating it once on TV. He and his family loved to cook together and in 1985 they codified the recipe in The Berton Family Cookbook (McClelland and Stewart). By then, I had met his daughter Patsy, whose cartoons appear in the book. In my copy, she has signed herself a "fellow 'Morton Thompson Turkey' eater."
I had joined Pierre's turkey club. It was like a secret handshake, knowing about the arduous basting requirements, or the fact that the blackened covering on the finished bird is utterly delicious (Thompson recommended peeling it off and discarding it). Even Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson is a member of the club, as evidenced in her statement on Berton's passing. "For those of us who remember it, his recipe for turkey will never be forgotten."
Pierre's turkey is the kind of creation that inspires memories both fond and hilarious. Newcomers who see the blackened bird think you are the world's worst cook. Then they beg for the recipe. Like all memorable meals cooked for the important people in our lives, it's about sustaining traditions and sharing joy.
In the years since I began cooking Pierre's turkey, I have written two books on how passionate people can inspire the rest of us to live richer, fuller lives. Pierre Berton was such a man, another example for me about how we must live.
I celebrate Hanukkah, not Christmas, but I still make the turkey every year. And this year, I'll be having a champagne toast to Pierre.
Dr. Elaine Dembe is the author of Use the Good Dishes: Finding Joy in Everyday Life (John Wiley).
THE MORTON THOMPSON TURKEY
1 large turkey (up to 25 lbs), with neck, heart, gizzard and liver
Dressing, Bowl No. 1
1 apple, peeled, cored and sliced
1 orange, peeled and sectioned
½ lemon, peeled and sectioned
1 26-oz can water chestnuts
3 tbsp preserved ginger
1 26-oz can crushed pineapple
Dressing, Bowl No. 2
2 tsp dry English mustard
2 tsp caraway seeds
3 tsp celery seeds
2 tsp poppy seed
2½ tsp oregano
1 bay leaf, crushed
1 tsp black pepper
½ tsp mace
4 tbsp parsley
5 cloves garlic
½ tsp turmeric
4 large onions, chopped
6 stalks celery, chopped
½ tsp marjoram
½ tsp savory
1 tbsp poultry seasoning
Salt to taste
Dressing, Bowl No. 3
Fat from turkey
3 11-oz packages breadcrumbs
¾ lb ground veal
¼ lb ground pork
½ cup butter
Basting fluid and gravy
1 bay leaf
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp ground coriander
1 clove garlic, chopped
4 cups water
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup apple cider
8 egg yolks
2 tbsp dry English mustard
¼ cup onion juice
2 tsp salt
½ tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1. Mix all Bowl No. 1 ingredients thoroughly.
2. Mince cloves after discarding the heads. Mix all Bowl No. 2 ingredients thoroughly.
3. In a small skillet, render as much fat as possible from the turkey. Mix fat in a bowl with other ingredients from Bowl No. 3.
4. Mix together all the dressing bowls. "Mix it until your forearms and wrists ache," Thompson wrote. "Then mix it some more. Now toss it enough so it isn't a doughy mass."
5. Chop up the turkey's neck, heart, gizzard and liver. Place in a saucepan with bay leaf, paprika, coriander, garlic and water. (Do not add the cider at this point.) Simmer. The longer you simmer this basting fluid, the better. Keep adding water.
6. We make our stuffing the night before and simmer our basting fluid all night. If you do that, keep the stuffing refrigerated all night.
7. Rub the bird inside and out with salt and pepper and stuff it reasonably full at both ends. Sew it up, or skewer it and tie both ends. Tie the legs and wings tightly to the body with good strong cord.
8. Place the bird on a rack, or place breast side down on a drip pan. Put in 450 F oven.
9. Mix together the ingredients for the paste cover. Sift in enough flour to make a stiff paste. As soon as the turkey is browned all over from the red-hot oven, haul it out, sizzling. Using a pastry brush, cover it completely with paste. Slip it back into the oven so that the paste will set. Then haul it out again, and in Thompson's words, "paint every nook and cranny of it once more."
10. Turn the oven down to 325 F, put some water in the drip pan, and roast the turkey. The paste will keep the heat in. Never cook it more than nine or 10 minutes to the pound.
11. Add the cider to the giblet gravy simmering on the stove. Keep it warm. This is your basting fluid. You should baste the turkey thoroughly every 15 minutes. We use an aluminum baster with a rubber bulb, and we set the timer on the stove alarm to remind us when to baste. And don't forget to keep adding water to the gravy in the pan to keep it from burning.
12. When you remove the turkey from the oven, it will be dead black. Don't let that worry you. You can remove the paste, if you want, with tweezers, but we don't bother because beneath that shell the bird will be, in Thompson's words, "succulent, giddy-making with wild aroma, crisp and crunchable and crackling."
13. The gravy in the pan can be thickened with a little flour and cooked on top of the stove.
Excerpted from The Berton Family Cookbook, published by McLelland and Stewart, copyright © 1985 by Pierre Berton Enterprises Ltd.