The Perfect Turkey Doesn't Really Exist


As we look forward to Thanksgiving (and I already am), don't be too intimidated by the Marthas of the world. This short piece in the New York Times ends with an admission by a foodie mag editor that those too-perfect-to-be-true birds are, in fact, too perfect to be true.

"I know it seems like, hey, what could be simpler than roasting a bird? But the perfect roast bird is a challenge," Ms. Cowin said. "Turkey, as a model, is very much like a fashion magazine with fashion models. There are plump turkeys, and, I'm not kidding you, there's skinny turkeys, there are chesty turkeys, breasty turkeys, there are flat-chested turkeys." With one previous year's model, "I was like, 'I just need the breast to get a little bit higher,' " she said, then paused."We have enhanced the breasts of turkeys," she admitted.

I assume this means Photoshop enhancement, but the article doesn't say. She could easily be talking about more physical alterations. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I was a subscriber to Zillions, Consumer Reports' defunct magazine for kids, which I still mourn. (And not just nostalgically. We need more publications dedicated to introducing children to critical thinking, skepticism and the reality behind the advertainment that's targeted at them.) Zillions introduced 9-year-old me to advertising photo tricks like "ice cream" that's actually lard or vegetable shortening and fast-food hamburgers made to stand tall and proud with the help of cardboard inserts. I wish the Grey Lady had gone more into specifics like that here.

The New York Times "Coming Model of the Month: A Fuller Thanksgiving Turkey", via Barfblog.

Image courtesy Flickr user tuchodi, via CC.


  1. I loved Zillions, and I remember exactly which article you’re talking about… I was fascinated by the staging of food in advertising.

  2. Word up. I remember reading that same issue of Zillions, where they specifically outlined how fast food burgers were stylized to look nothing like what I ate. Not to take away anything from food stylists, but I’ve always skeptical about food presentation since then.

  3. I remember that issue of zillions so well! I have been critical of fast food commercials ever since I read that issue! You have great taste, Maggie. (Punny!)

  4. Do either of you remember the comic where they taught you how mass-produced boy-band music was made and marketed? I was the only little girl in my class who was all like, “Pshaw, New Kids On the Block. They’re a scam.”

    1. I remember in that same Zillions comic they were also mocking Alanis Morissette and her “one hand in my pocket” Song. I can’t recall the exact wording of the comic, but it took me years realize that Morissette was a bit different then some of the other artist featured in the Comic.

      I seem to remember Zillions would often put these comics on the back covers, but I could be wrong.

      I very much miss the magazine as well. It was so well done, and the issue which dealt with Acne and how to treat it was a lifesaver for me.

  5. Perfect turkeys do exist. Maybe I was lucky, but it happened to me. (Why is this starting to sound like some Penthouse letter?)

    The first time I cooked a turkey, it was for the extended family. So I did a lot of research: size, cooking instructions, and brining were key. Because this was my first time, I followed the instructions religiously. Lo and behold, the dang turkey turned out absolutely beautiful (better than the above picture), was cooked perfectly, tender and moist, and tasted fantastic.

    Unfortunately, it was a pain in the ass. I’m doing a brisket this year.

  6. Wow, I guess I’m the fifth person here (including Maggie) who remembers reading that specific Zillions article as a kid. I guess it really made an impression. I especially remember the discussion of gluing the sesame seeds on the hamburger bun one at a time using tweezers to ensure an aesthetically pleasant distribution.

  7. still can’t frickin log in….
    anyways, I’ve worked in TV commercials for years and the “perfect” Turkey in an ad will be raw on the inside and just barely cooked outside with the coloring basically “painted” in with….Kitchen Bouquet! (available at your supermarket)

    My wife recently was tasked with making a “perfect” potroast for a TV commercial that “matched” an uncooked one that was “ready to cook” but if you actually cook the thing for an hour or so, it shrinks and bends. She ended up cooking it in the oven for about 15 minutes and dressing it with..Kitchen Bouquet! It looked “perfect” but of course was not edible.

  8. I was married to a woman who worked in Martha Stewart’s test kitchens in Chelsea (NYC). They would have twenty five ovens with twenty five turkeys each being made slightly different in variation, like amount of time spent in brine baths and amount of time being cooked. It was quite an interesting view into that world.

    The number one rule in those test kitchens was to make food that was beautiful. And no short cuts were allowed. If anyone from the chef to the food stylist to the photographer ever tried to make the food look good either by using props or suggesting photoshop, you could lose your job. Anyone who thinks Martha Stewart has a team of photoshoppers making her food look beautiful doesn’t understand the insane perfectionism that flows through Martha’s veins. They once made 40 lasagnas per day for a week before they found the perfect one that was “beautiful” and delicious. Those people work their butts off to make that stuff look so good and Adobe is not in their recipes.

  9. The closest to turkey perfection I’ve ever had was deep fried. It was brown and crispy all over like a good TV turkey is, and the meat was very juicy. It wasn’t dry at all.

    It sounds like it would be massively unhealthy, but very little of the oil actually permeates the bird. It pretty much all goes into the skin- and you don’t get much skin with the mega-plumped, DDD turkeys they make now.

    Unfortunately, the turkey fryer fad has died down somewhat, so they can be hard to find. I would suggest going with an electric model if you get one… a lot less mess and danger.

  10. Most of the food photographers in the business, or at least the good ones, don’t use fake food. They will style the food to make it look great, or take 40 scoops of ice cream until they get that perfect scoop, but by and large the food they shoot is real.

    This is coming from a well known food photographer, you can see his work in Williams Sonoma.

  11. Mine are perfect but I cheat. I completely debone it, brine it, stuff it with herbs, vac seal it, simmer for 4 or 5 hours at 125F, then take it out of the bag and broil it to crisp the skin and get the internal temp up. Perfect. Carves like a loaf of bread and the light/dark meat and herbs layered together looks beautiful.

  12. @falsemoniker: Was that a quote or did you just refer to yourself in the fourth-person? I’m hoping for the latter.

    As for food advertising, I remember seeing something about the cereal box photography. Instead of milk, they apparently use Crisco because it doesn’t make the cereal soggy or have a wet, reflective surface. And the splash of milk that the strawberry is falling into is a fake, plastic milk splash.

  13. as others before me have stated, brining is super important to the deliciousness of a turkey. the first time i used a brine, i just bought a store bought bag of brine and it was fantastic. making your own brine is definitely better, but the store bought ones aren’t bad either.

  14. Was the Zillions article y’all are talking about also the one where I learned that cereal boxes typically show the cereal in Elmer’s glue instead of milk?

    Or did I read that somewhere else (perhaps in Penny Power before they renamed it Zillions)?

  15. Man, Zillions was awesome! I quoted the ‘glue instead of milk in cereal commercials’ and ‘raw spraypainted burgers in burger commercials’ info for YEARS!

  16. Don’t remember zillions, but it reminds me of a show I watched as a kid called “Buy Me That.” My parents wanted us to learn about the tricks they use in commercials to make toys and food appealing to people. Glue instead of milk in cereal for example.

  17. I just have to chime in as another Zillions fan… I loved that mag as a kid. Such perfect and useful fodder for a curious mind.

  18. I never got Zillions, but I remember a similar article from either World or 321 Contact magazine (probably Contact). You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve Googled to find pictures like the ones from that article. Never been successful.

  19. I loved Zillions, too! I was a tester for them for a while! And yeah, I totally remember that exact same article, too- I seem to recall them saying that they’d inject mashed potatoes into things like drum sticks- so perhaps that’s what they do to the turkeys, too.

  20. I also recommend deep frying, but I’m a fan of actual propane tanks and all the guys in the house standing outside next to it avoiding having to set the table or discuss someone’s new cat in the family. But that’s probably just how I like to celebrate.

    On side note, if you are roasting a turkey and want great crispy skin (after you’ve brined it, of course), dry it off and apply some baking soda and let it sit for about a day in the fridge. It sounds insane, but Cook’s Illustrated recommended it for roasting chickens and it works like a charm. Also: Trussing is for suckers.

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