• Mei Chin

My First Thompson Turkey

Updated: May 31

A Morton Thompson Turkey is 1930s recipe that contains poppy seeds, water chestnuts, pineapple, and tears.

I was first seduced by the Thompson Turkey when I was twenty-two, having first read about it courtesy of the humorist Robert Benchley, who was a pal of both Dorothy Parker and Mr. Morton Thompson, and who immortalised this recipe in the 1930s.

A Thompson turkey requires ingredients that sound like they were collected by a Richard Yates’ housewife on a gin fizz bender-- poppy seeds, water chestnuts, crushed pineapple, raisins and ground veal. Your guests, Benchley writes, “will think you are demented and drunk on your butt.” For me, the most enticing aspect about Thompson’s turkey was that it could not work; it was a set of instructions for disaster. What can I say? I like complications.

But tradition dictates that the only time that one roasts a turkey is on Thanksgiving Day, and my mother has always made the turkey. My mother’s turkey, like her desserts and her general person, is beautifully turned out, engendered from a recipe that she culled from the creased pages of a much-used magazine. She would also make four desserts, leaving me in charge of canapés and sides. Every year, I would cook at my mother’s Connecticut house from Wednesday evening until four AM, after which my mother would rise at dawn. On Thanksgiving Day itself, my stepfather would be on hand to furnish me with a drink and a cigarette while my mother and I bickered about oven space. Then our guests would filter in. “Thanksgiving,” my mother and I would declare, wobbling slightly, “is our favorite holiday.”

A lot of time elapsed, therefore, from when I was first introduced to the Thompson to when I was finally allowed to consummate my crush. It was a strange year, my Thompson year, and quite eventful. I had spent a spring in the South American mountains, broke my hip, and while still on crutches, met a man who I liked, which then broke my three-year spell of man-hating celibacy. This partially explains why I decided to spend that Thanksgiving in San Francisco with my younger brother Yar, for it was a time when I wanted to shake things up.

Yar and I had not spent Thanksgiving together since he went away to college. Even though I persisted in thinking of him as little, he had acquired a wife, a dog, and now a daughter, who was my first niece. Over the years he had also established his own Thanksgiving tradition, a casual potluck among friends. That year, he was making the mashed potatoes. His wife was making a galette de roi in the toaster oven. Other guests would then bring other dishes; one friend Sha insisted every year on green bean and Campbell’s mushroom soup casserole and and cranberry jelly that still bore marks from the can.

Yar asked me to do the turkey.

“Go crazy, sister,Yar said to me, “You have total control.

The other reason why I decided to fly away was because that year, I did not want to spend Thanksgiving with my mother, whom I dearly love.

A Thompson turkey requires ingredients that sound like they were collected by a Richard Yates’ housewife on a gin fizz bender craving exotic locales -- poppy seeds, water chestnuts, crushed pineapple, raisins and ground veal.

Thompson turkey is retro, literary, and delightfully mad in an American-Caucasian privileged way. That day before Thanksgiving, every surface of Yar’s kitchen was covered with candied ginger, white bread (the most ordinary sandwich variety that we could find); cans and boxes of herbs and powders. My brother had no large roasting pan, so we bought several foil trays. The only turkey we could find the day before Thanksgiving was a recently defrosted twenty pound Butterball. Normally, I don’t follow recipes, but with the Thompson turkey I pretty much followed things to the letter. After all anything so lunatic (I mentioned the crushed pineapple, right?) leaves no room for instinctual improvisation. I used dried herbs, not fresh. I did not brine the turkey, which made me nervous because my mother swore by brining. My one addition was to make my mother’s sage butter, which I planned to rub on the bird underneath the Thompson turkey paste of egg yolks, cayenne, and Colman's mustard powder.

Robert Benchley

“Let me emphasize,” Yar said, “You can make a huge mess. Seriously, I am looking forward to this even while I am a bit…” he paused, as I shoved veal, celery, bacon, apples, butter, and pork into the refrigerator, “…skeptical?” My brother is a laid-back fellow.

It was the first night before a Thanksgiving that I had slept well. I retired at midnight and woke up at the civilized hour of eight . The turkey needed string and skewers. A gallon of cider had to reduce to make a basting liquid. I mixed the stuffing by hand, which with all the chopping, does take two hours. I browned butter and let the sage steep. I grated onion and strained the juice. Furthermore, there was a shaggy black dog called Mopple licking my toes.

At eleven AM when I was trussing the turkey, which weighed twice as much as my newborn niece, my boyfriend called me on the telephone to break up. The two skewers in my hand slipped as he told me, gashing my arm and spewing blood. I wrestled the bird into the oven, and when Yar came into the kitchen, he found me tearful and bleeding.

“He broke up with me,” I gasped.

Yar replied, “Sister, let me fix you a drink.”

My mother’s turkeys are ruddy and glorious. My turkey emerged a twisted, smoking mess.

For a while, my brother and I sat next to the oven, sipping our bourbon in sympathetic silence. In the oven, my mother’s sage butter, which I had lavishly smeared on the bird, began to drip through the cracks of the foil, because not even four foil trays can bear the weight of a twenty pound turkey with five pounds of stuffing inside. Then, before we knew it, the turkey was in flames. These were not playful little crackles, and I know, because I have started many kitchen fires in my past. These particular flames were large and blue, leapt from the bottom of the oven to the top, and cloaked the turkey altogether.

“Come look,” Yar’s wife Jan cooed from the living room, “your daughter just smiled for the first time!”

“That is awesome,” said Yar, “but we may have to evacuate the house.” He added, “Jan, can you Google ‘kitchen fire’?”

My mother’s turkeys are ruddy and glorious. My turkey emerged a twisted, smoking mess. “By the time it is finished,” Benchley writes about the Thompson Turkey, “it will look as though we have ruined it. Take a fork and poke at the black cindery crust.” If Benchley hadn’t told me this, I would have climbed into the oven myself.

Thompson Turkey is not a pretty bird.
Thompson Turkey is not a pretty bird. Photo: Jan Chong

Objectively, once we had broken into the turkey, the Thompson was exactly the magical product I hoped it would be. One never thinks that turkey could achieve sophistication, but my Thompson was subtle, delicate, and exotic. It spilled golden juice from every filament, it was perfumed with cinnamon, ginger and citrus and it was haunted by witty 1930s spectres. I enjoyed the black Thompson crust, which Benchley advised to discard. It tasted like xian ya dan, or the Chinese salted duck eggs. I also appreciated the addition of my mother’s sage butter, for it is important when one changes the rules to maintain a sense of continuity.

“This,” Yar declared, “is the best turkey I have ever had.”

Of course there may have been other factors that contributed to my Thompson’s flavour. Such as the fact that in the process of making the turkey, my heart had been torn, my blood had been spilled, and my brother’s house had almost been sacrificed. To be honest, I preferred my mother’s turkey, which tasted so much more like homecoming in the fall, and my favourite dish that day was Sha's green bean and Campbell’s soup casserole. However, Yar and his wife Jan make the Thompson every Thanksgiving since, while I, after moving to another country, stick to a variation of my mother’s (handsome, straightforward) bird instead. Someday soon, I hope to spend another Thanksgiving at my mother’s house, for since that year, Thanksgiving has been the one holiday that the two of us spend apart. Maybe this time, she will labour over canapes and side dishes through the night while I rise at dawn to make a Thompson and order dessert from a bakery.

After all, sometimes the most enduring traditions are the ones that have been, at some point, burnt and broken.

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