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Stuff It: 1937

Stuff It: 1937

December 4, 1937. Washington, D.C. "Note to housewives: your turkey-baking troubles will be over and the bird you serve for dinner this yuletide will be tender, juicy and flavorsome if you follow the method used by the expert cooks at the Bureau of Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Continual testing and experimenting with various recipes has taught Uncle Sam's cooks that many a prize bird has become a 'ham' when improperly prepared. The best recipe so far discovered by the Bureau of Economics is demonstrated in the following set of pictures, made under the supervision of Miss Lucy Alexander, Chief Cooking Specialist. Miss Alexander, a graduate of Vassar and the University of Illinois, has been on her present job for 11 years. Mrs. Jessie Lamb, Assistant Cook, is stuffing the turkey under her watchful eye. The turkeys on the table will go into the ovens at regular intervals, and be tasted and judged by a group of experts who are determining which diet and feeding program will produce the best flavored meat." Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative. View full size.


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L. M. Alexander, Food Scientist extraordinaire

Apparently Lucy was a Food Scientist and had numerous publications of her research. Here's two of my favorites:

Alexander, L.M., Schopmeyer, G.E., and Anderson, R.B.: "A Standardized Method for French Frying Potatoes."

Nicholas G. Barbella, O. G. Hankins and Lucy M. Alexander: "The Influence of Retarded Growth in Lambs on Flavor and Other Characteristics of the Meat"

The old girl was interested in much more than turkeys.

They look so forlorn

Creating a flavorsome turkey is a loneful job, I suppose.


Our Canadian Thanksgiving was a month ago, of course.

My mother loves to describe the first American Thanksgiving she celebrated (Americans like to think they "invented" Thanksgiving but in England the end of harvest was long celebrated with a Thanksgiving feast). My father was an artist living in Greenwich Village and Mom invited all his friends for a dinner in their cold-water walk-down flat on Charles Street.

She recalls it as a wonderful, succulent dinner.

Several years ago, I talked to one of the friends who attended that dinner and he told me the "real" story.

Apparently, my mother had never cooked a turkey before (this being just after the War with the attendant rationing and shortages). Apparently, what came to the table was a none-too-well-cooked bird which everyone politely nibbled at. Knowing my mother's cooking, I believe his version of the dinner.

Bureau of Economics

Does this department still exist? Or does one go to the the Butterball hotline for one's turkey help in 21st century America?

re: Miss Alexander

The Washington Post, Times Herald, Jan. 30, 1969

Lucy M. Alexander, Agriculture Specialist

Lucy Maclay Alexander, 80, an Agriculture Department home economist for 38 years, died Jan. 22 in Belleville, Ill., after a long illness.

Miss Alexander retired in 1953 from the Agriculture Department, where she conducted meat and poultry research and wrote several home economics publications. She moved to Belleville to join her family in 1964.

Born in Pennsylvania, she held bachelor's degrees from Vassar College and the University of Illinois. She received the Department's Distinguished Service Award in 1950.

She is survived by a brother, R. P. Alexander, of Belleville, and a sister, Mrs. F. A. Ingalls, Palo Alto, Calif.

Small turkeys

I walked into the kitchen and there were eight wild turkeys on my deck totally ignoring my cats at the sliding door. But these guys are still young and have to be at least 20 pounds! Hmmm, maybe I won't have to buy a bird.

Another Federal Waste

Ms. Alexander is now eleven years at the federal teat putting dressing inside turkeys where they can quickly turn into a mass of salmonella. Why on earth are the taxpayers paying for research that is done so much better by the private sector? Dressing should never be cooked inside the turkey!

The federal government's benevolence apparently does, indeed, go back a long time. Imagine paying to set up all that kitchen gear, paying all those people, and getting such meager results.

[Do a little research I think you'll find you are quite mistaken. Class? - Dave]

Thanksgiving memories

I grew up in New York City. Thanksgiving Day, Mom would make my Dad, me and my little sister leave the apartment to go see the Macy's parade while she cooked. We'd return 5 hour later to awesome smells and even better tastes. No science there.

Turkey Tasters

Washington Post, Oct 5, 1938

The Federal Diary

By Scott Hart.

. . . the pleasant odor of roasting turkey comes to the upper corridors of Agriculture South Building later this month, as the Bureau of Home Economics begins experimental cookery work. And the last thing heard of the champion turkey carver (he carves the scientifically-cooked birds) was that he was on vacation. The professional turkey tasters: (they taste the cooked birds to test seasoning and flavors) are expectantly waiting.

Washington Post, Nov 18, 1938

The Federal Diary

By Scott Hart.

... NOTES: Again on the subject of the turkey carving experiments in Home Economics, Agriculture. we suspect that those bored looks on the faces of the seven tasters are stage faces. The conclusion ls based on this: Six of the seven who sit about the tables three or four times a week were the tasters of last year - and there is nothing in the Civil Service rules and regulations that say they have to volunteer a second time. Anybody who ever saw Miss Lucy Alexander pull one of those golden brown birds from the experimental ovens on the sixth floor knows how much persuasion would be required to get somebody to taste of that chunk of juicy meat

Miss Alexander

Any more backstory on her? She seems supremely over-qualified to be a single lady cooking turkeys for 11 years.

Tiny Turkeys

These turkeys are tiny compared to birds today. These would be in the range of only 8-10 pounds, whereas most commercial turkeys today are 14-20 pounds. Look at the pronounced breast bone without nearly as much muscle mass as modern turkeys. This means these birds were almost certainly free-range rather than caged. Personally, I like wild turkey best, but a free-range bird is pretty darn good. The cooking for one of these is completely different than modern birds, too. These need a lot more basting, more moisture to start with, and are best served brined. Modern birds are almost all previously brined or injected with some salty soupy solution that pumps up the weight and keeps the bird moister.

No wonder turkey had such a dismal reputation with housewives for so long - dry dull meat was the norm!

And how about those spiffy "nurse in the kitchen" outfits?

[Below, the turkeys in (or on) their cages in Beltsville, Maryland. - Dave]

re: Flavorsome

I suppose that's a few notches below 'flavorful.'


Is that a real word?

Too Clean

Stuffing a turkey is a messy job but you wouldn't know it from looking at this photo. You could perform major surgery in this room just by pushing the turkeys off to one side.

Don't leave us hanging

But what is the best way to prepare a turkey?

And is roasting them on their sides part of the best way?

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