Tag Archives: turkey

Turkeyburgers

If the turkey growing industry had one marketing mission in the early 20th century it was to get consumers to eat more turkey, and to eat it year-round.

So, during the Depression turkeyburgers arrived upon the dining scene.

In the mid-1930s humorists found rich material in California cuisine, notably in the range of burgers found at weird and fanciful roadside eateries. Among them chickenburgers, nutburgers, onionburgers, lobsterburgers, even mysterious huskyburgers. And on Los Feliz Boulevard in Los Angeles a commentator spotted a neon sign advertising “The Snack with a Smack – Our Toasted Turkeyburger.”

The stories that appeared in the press attributed turkeyburgers to California’s bizarre culture. But what they didn’t say was that in the 1930s California was becoming a major turkey producer. Production had moved westward from its East Coast home of origin. In California, dry weather conditions were more favorable for turkey raising. But in 1936 overproduction resulted in a serious drop in prices. This was bad for producers but good for Depression-era drive-ins and roadside stands. And now producers were more interested in increasing turkey consumption than ever before.

Gonzales, Texas, was another important turkey-raising area. A local newspaperman there had a product placement idea about how to stimulate turkey sales. He suggested that since the comic strip character Wimpy was known for his love of hamburgers, it would make sense to introduce turkeyburgers into the strip. Wimpy started eating them in December of 1939.

Meanwhile, in Corpus Christi, Texas, a drug store was offering a December holiday lunch of sorts, “Something New”: a Turkey-Burger with waffle potatoes and cranberry sherbet, for 19 cents. Also in 1939, someone in Phoenix registered the trade name Turkey-Burger with the Arizona Secretary of State. It’s interesting, too, that the Berkeley, California, menu shown below, possibly from the 1930s, says “copyrighted!” following “Turkeyburger Sandwich.” (Thanks to the reader who sent me a scan of this menu and inspired this post.)

With rationing of beef, pork, veal, and lamb in World War II more restaurants added turkeyburgers and other turkey dishes to their menus. In 1941 the magazine Chain Store Age tested recipes for turkeyburgers and turkey salads on behalf of in-store soda fountains and luncheonettes. It showed that turkeyburgers had high profit potential: if a turkeyburger on a bun was served with cranberry sauce, sliced tomato, and potato salad, the magazine reported, it could be priced at 25 cents while costing only 6.55 cents. A few years later Payless stores in Albany, Oregon, cashed in on the idea, boldly charging 40 cents for their sandwich.

In the 1950s drive-ins served turkeyburgers. In 1950 they were up to 65 cents at Vogel’s Drive-In in Ogden, Oregon, though only 30c a few years later at Moeby’s Hamburger Palace in Eureka, California. A Texas drive-in revived the idea of burger variety, offering sandwiches made of chicken, turkey, rabbit, shrimp, or pork, all for 40 cents. Somewhat surprisingly, in 1969 Ferdinand’s in Honolulu’s Coral Reef Hotel, which specialized in 16 kinds of burgers, offered a Turkey Burger Deluxe on Thanksgiving Day.

Starting in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s – and continuing today — turkeyburgers came to represent a healthier substitute for a hamburger, one with less fat and fewer calories.

Have a delicious Thanksgiving!

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under drive-ins, food, restaurant customs, roadside restaurants

Turkey on the menu

In previous years I’ve written about restaurants serving Thanksgiving dinners and about the special meaning of Thanksgiving to Chinese restaurant workers. Obviously Thanksgiving is about much more than turkey, but I found myself wondering how turkey has figured on restaurant menus the rest of the year. My first thought was that it is rarely seen in restaurants but I discovered that isn’t entirely true.

Turkey by the slice was seasonally available in taverns of the colonial and early-American eras. In 1800 NYC eating places put up pots of preserved turkey wings for sea voyages. Roast turkey was among the delectable dishes at Julien’s in Boston about this time.

Whole roast turkeys were part of the English tradition which prized big chunks of meat and fowl ready to carve up. Before the Civil War they were a staple of American plan hotels where copious meals were included with the room charge.

Although turkeys fell in the culinary category that one critic would later call “great vulgar joints,” they could be gussied up if boned and covered in aspic. Boned turkeys occasionally appeared on the menu of fine hotel dining rooms, such as Boston’s Tremont House. In 1843 the hotel menu offered “L’Aspic de dindon sur un socle, garni d’atelettes,” i.e., a pedestal on which rested a turkey in aspic decorated with little ornamental spears stuck into it.

The boning operation, performed from the uncooked turkey’s neck, wing tips, and drumsticks by loosening the flesh from the bones with a long knife, required great skill. According to directions published in 1860, after all the loosening was done, the person was to “take the turkey by the neck, give it a pull and the whole skeleton will come out entire … as easily as you draw your hand out of a glove.” The result resembled a deflated football which was then restored to turkey shape with stuffing and roasted.

Boning turkeys was a specialty of confectioners and caterers, including Afro-American Thomas Downing who prepared them during the holidays.

But generally turkey did not find favor with luxury restaurants that featured French cuisine in the later 19th century. Game birds were more highly prized. It remained plentiful on menus of everyday eating places and was popular enough that a 1902 restaurant run by Seventh Day Adventists offered a meatless turkey substitute. I wonder if it resembled “tofurkey”?

In ordinary lunchrooms turkey usually cost a little bit more than other dishes served around the turn of the last century. At the Electric Restaurant at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 a diner could have Roast Beef with Potatoes for 45 cents, while Stuffed Turkey and Apple Sauce was 50 cents. Cheap turkey could be hazardous. As a waiter revealed in 1908, “When you get young turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, celery, bread, butter, coffee, and mince pie for the sum of 25 cents, you can figure that something was wrong with the turkeys.”

Turkey burgers might seem like recent inventions but in fact they were found in California restaurants as early as 1938. Storing, roasting, and slicing turkey, as well as dealing with the carcass was a nuisance to restaurants, so turkey sandwiches were something of a rarity before WWII. In the 1950s boneless turkey rolls became available. They made it convenient for any restaurant to offer triple deckers with turkey (instead of chicken as previously) or turkey dinner specials with sliced white meat and gravy that undoubtedly came from a can.

A few restaurants, mainly those connected with turkey farms, have specialized in turkey, among them the 620 Club in mid-century Minneapolis: its owner grabbed publicity in 1944 by paying $6.20 a pound for a prize-winning turkey. Still, if you search for turkey recipes in books compiling the “great recipes of great restaurants” you may be disappointed by the absence of turkey dishes. I include a recipe for my favorite turkey dish, the famous open-face “hot brown” sandwich of toast and turkey covered with cheese sauce and bacon strips developed at Louisville’s Brown Hotel.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012/2017

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