Let's talk turkey

| 11/23/2005

White meat, dark meat, Tom or hen – everybody has their favorite when you’re talking turkey on Thanksgiving Day. But what about the day after? Do you know how long before those delicious leftovers become deadly?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Web site offers a number of fascinating facts about the bird of the hour, as well as safety tips for preparation and storage. In particular, be sure to put the bird in the fridge immediately after your feast.

“Perishable foods (including cooked turkey) should not be left at room temperature more than two hours,” the USDA Web site warns, otherwise you run the risk or contamination from the bacteria staphylococcus aureus.

But those turkey sandwiches that can serve as lunch for days and days and days after the big feast can be hazardous to your health even if they have been in the fridge. Cooked turkey can be safely refrigerated and eaten for only three to four days. In the freezer it can be safely kept for up to four months. Those same time frames apply to cooked turkey dishes, such as casseroles.

Turkey gravy and broth are another story, however. In the fridge, leftover turkey gravy and broth can be safely kept for only one to two days. In the freezer they can be safely kept for two to three months.

The USDA has operated a toll-free poultry hot line in past years. One call to the hot line went as follows:

“Say, what’s this plastic thing holding the legs together on our turkey? Won’t it melt if we put it in the oven?” asked a confused cook.

“A hock lock,” the USDA specialist responded.

“A what?” asked the caller.

“A hock lock secures the hind legs – or hock – of a chicken or turkey. It can be made of heat-resistant nylon or metal, and it’s perfectly safe to leave it in the bird while it roasts. However, it’s more difficult to get a bird done evenly, especially in the leg joints, if the legs are locked or trussed together.”

Here are a few more turkey facts to share over the dinner table this holiday season.

From the Library of Congress

Why do turkeys have dark and white meat? In a turkey the active muscles such as the legs store a lot of oxygen and become dark, while less active muscles like the breast remain white. Turkeys do not fly, but they do plenty of running around. Active muscles, such as the legs and thighs, are full of blood vessels. These blood vessels contain myoglobin (or muscle hemoglobin), which delivers oxygen to the muscles. The more myoglobin the muscles contain, the darker the muscle.

Scientists often refer to these active muscles as slow-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch fibers are built for endurance, which allows the muscles to work for long periods of time. Thus the turkey can run around all day without getting tired.

On the other hand, white meat is the result of well-rested muscles. The breast muscles, which are used for flying, are hardly used by turkeys. There is no need to have a rich supply of oxygen delivered to these muscles. Scientists refer to these types of muscles as fast-twitch fibers. Fast-twitch fibers are designed for quick bursts of energy, but they fatigue quickly.

From the U.S. Census Bureau

  • The typical American in 2002 ate 14 pounds of turkey and, if tradition is true, a hearty helping of it was devoured at Thanksgiving time. Per capita turkey consumption is virtually the same as in 1990 when it was 13.8 pounds, but 70 percent higher than in 1980 when it was 8.1 pounds.
  • Several communities in the United States are named after the holiday’s traditional main course. Turkey, TX, was the most populous in 2003, with 507 residents; followed by Turkey Creek, LA, with 359; and Turkey, NC with 267. There also are nine townships around the country named “Turkey,” three are in Kansas.
  • What many regard as the nation’s first Thanksgiving took place in December of 1621 as the religious separatist Pilgrims held a three-day feast to celebrate a bountiful harvest. The day did not become a national holiday until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving. Later, President Franklin Roosevelt clarified that Thanksgiving should always be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the month, not on the occasional fifth, to encourage earlier holiday shopping.
  • There are 20 places in the United States named Plymouth, as in “Plymouth Rock,” legendary location of the first Thanksgiving. Plymouth, MN, is the most populous, with 69,164 residents in 2003; Plymouth, MA, had 54,109. Speaking of Plymouth Rock, there is just one township in the United States named “Pilgrim.” Located in Dade County, MO, its population is 135.