In Praise of a Turkey-Free Thanksgiving

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Six firemen gathered around the blackened turkey, picking the most burnt pieces off the bird, now both charred and slightly soggy. It's unclear what caused the in-oven flames, but it still turned out to be one of the best turkey preparations I'd ever eaten. Really, it was the ultimate in the quick-high-heat method. With the wailing sirens and embarrassment crawling up my 14-year-old face until my cheeks matched the color of the fire trucks parked outside the house, you'd think this incident might have launched my distaste for turkey. But I can't pinpoint the dawn of my anti-turkey stance exactly. It just gradually came to me that, when it comes to Thanksgiving, we should really consider going turkey-free.

Call me a curmudgeon, but in a Pepsi challenge between cardboard served under a pile of sweet cranberry sauce and meaty gravy and a real bird, my money's on the FedEx box. Thanksgiving celebrators feel the need to follow some vague sense of tradition, but it's hard to ascertain if the Pilgrims ate turkey 400 years ago at all.

Before you accuse me of being like Chandler Bing on Friends—as Joey says, "It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without Chandler bumming us out"—please note: my anti-turkey stance is not anti-Thanksgiving. It's rather the opposite: I am very much in favor of making Thanksgiving a more delicious holiday.

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Prime rib is where it's at. [Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Why would I want to eat a dried-out, chewy bird when I can let the juices flow freely out of a striking centerpiece like prime rib or leg of lamb? Or a roasted suckling pig—thus multiplying the quantity and tastiness of the crispy skin over which so many of us fight our siblings? Have you ever thought about why there are entire restaurants devoted solely to serving extraordinary renditions of prime rib, but the only places specializing in turkey are deli cases and salad bars? It's because turkey, no matter what you pile on top of it, no matter how good a cook you are, is just never as good as steak.

The guilt-ridden may try to hide turkey's inherent blandness. "What about turkey mole? Or basteeya? Maybe a roulade?" a friend asked me last week, trying desperately to find a way to make turkey better. My advice, from years of such attempts (yep, I've done the turducken and the grand Peking turkey effort): skip it. Be bravely anti-turkey. Get to the good stuff.

If you don't want to stray too far from tradition, but you do want to add more juicy flavor to the meal, consider roast chicken for your first foray beyond the classic big bird. It's easy and cheap, a jumping off point into the deep fowl pool. It goes with gravy. It's great with stuffing.

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Cornish game hens. [Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Even better: put the star of the show on everyone's plate with Cornish game hen. It's the personal pan pizza of poultry, packing more punch into one of its tiny drumsticks than any oversized turkey leg ever could. The skin, massaged with olive oil and herbs or with a compound butter slipped underneath, will crisp up, while the short cooking time keeps the meat moist. Cornish game hens will cook in less time than a turkey needs to rest after its trip to the oven, and somehow end up far juicier. And everyone looks elegant while nibbling the meat from a petite drumstick, so you can banish those nightmare flashbacks of Uncle Roger going all Ron Swanson on his turkey leg forever.

Dark meat aficionados (or as I like to call them, people with taste buds) would be smart to seek out a goose as their turkey alternative. Bon Appétit editor Andrew Knowlton (another anti-turkeyist) suggests this smoked (pre-cooked) and easily re-heated one, saying that no matter what kind of turkey he eats—factory-farmed, wild, heritage breed—"it always underwhelms, even when it's perfectly cooked with juices flowing." Or roast your own goose, using the fat to cook your potatoes and sit back as the compliments from your guests roll in for best side dish ever.

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Porchetta. [Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

But these birds are really just the beginning. Once you feel free to celebrate Thanksgiving without turkey, you can really branch out. Since everyone else is slaving for hours over the hot oven, why not do the same—only instead of the end result of turkey, have shatteringly crisp skin, meltingly soft meat, and air perfumed with rosemary and garlic? In his introduction, even Kenji had to describe his porchetta recipe as "easily more delicious than turkey." (He also points out other advantages of porchetta over turkey: looking awesome, easy to carve, every slice is the same, easy to cook, not expensive, and makes amazing leftovers). Seattle chef Mike Easton of Il Corvo is of a like mind, sending out his annual reminder to "remember last year, how your lips were glistening with pork fat," to encourage people to pre-order his Thanksgiving porchettas.

As cool as the porchetta looks on the table, it's hard to beat the bright color of a whole side of salmon. Thanksgiving is hardly a time to be looking for a way to consume fewer calories, but a lighter main dish does free up more stomach space for the important things in life, such as stuffing and potatoes.

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Consider takeout roast duck. [Photo: Max Falkowitz]

Spent too much time in the kitchen prepping those side dishes? My brothers, one of whom considers his 5-4-3-2-1 Thanksgiving (five servings of turkey, four of stuffing, three of Brussels sprouts, etc) a life highlight, were aghast when my mother proposed that she save time by picking up a roast duck from our local Chinese barbecue joint. But frankly, if you are lucky enough to live in a city with decent Chinese food, there's no easier, better-tasting heart of a Thanksgiving meal. Not to mention, in my mother's case, it had the added advantage of greatly reducing the risk of a return visit from the fire department. Of course, if that's not an issue in your house, you could also DIY the Chinese duck with Kenji's recipe for Peking Duck at home.

Lasagna. [Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

My brothers and their ilk aside, there are more adherents to the turkey-free T-day concept than you might imagine. The Philadelphia family of an Italian-American friend of mine gathers over homemade lasagna every Thanksgiving. The tradition came from his great-grandmother, who emigrated from Italy when she was a little girl. Even my own personal hero, Calvin Trillin, prefers his fourth Thursday in November to involve Italian food: "turkey is basically something college dormitories use to punish students for hanging around on Sunday," he said in the New Yorker in 1981, proposing that the day be changed to Spaghetti Carbonara Day. Like turkey, lasagna takes a long time to make, earning you immunity when it comes to drawing straws for doing dishes, but it can also easily be made in advance, freeing up your day to spend with your family. Or a bottle of wine. Or, if your family is anything like mine, preferably both.

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Go beefy. [Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Speaking of family, if yours is still too turkey-focused, I promise you that the easiest way to convince them otherwise is to serve up what I like to call Steaksgiving. The situation is something like when a baby drops her rattle. She starts crying because she doesn't have the rattle, but then you hand her a stuffed bear and HOLY CRAP, who cares about rattles, because how awesome is this bear? By the time cousin Jodie has walked in the door and smelled the heaven that is gravy made from prime rib drippings, she won't even remember what turkey is.

Beyond improving your gravy, Steaksgiving mostly leaves the rest of the Thanksgiving dinner intact. Steak is the little black dress of meals: you can dress it up with stuffing and green bean casserole and call it Thanksgiving—but tomorrow morning, nobody will complain when it's at breakfast with scrambled eggs. And since Thanksgiving is all about gluttony (wait, that is what we're celebrating, right?), a prime rib centerpiece also opens up the doors to add a few new side dishes to the table, my personal favorites being Yorkshire pudding and wedge salad, both of which are at least as deserving of their own holidays as turkey.

The final step in converting to a turkey-free Thanksgiving is the feeling of superiority you get as you flip through your friends' Facebook and Instagram pictures of dried-out turkey breast and half-eaten, abandoned wings, knowing that your Thanksgiving dinner was made of something for which you're actually thankful. If you're feeling gracious, invite them over the next day for French dip sandwiches made from leftover Steaksgiving prime rib.