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A Serving of Grammar for Thanksgiving

Last year for Thanksgiving, I did something gastronomically delicious but linguistically impossible: I dry-brined my turkey. The very word brine implies water. Tons of seafaring stories reference the briny deep as a euphemism for the salty sea. So what could a dry-brine possibly be?

It turns out that salt is the key. A dry-brine is salt and maybe some herbs spread onto a turkey without the water. Many people want the flavor a brine imparts without the hassle of the water and finding a vessel big enough to fit a huge piece of meat, and for these people dry-brining provides a decent solution to their problems. The name suggests that a dry-brine is a type of brine, and this is comforting, because if it's a type of brine, perhaps the results will be the same as a "true" water-based brine.

Dry-brine also seems to belong to a world of much more sophisticated palettes than a possible alternative name for the activity, salting. Salting sounds clumsy and the results sound inedible. Historically, a brine has always been saltwater, but the key element had always been the water. Dry-brine as a term focuses on the only thing left after the drying: the salt.

If serving your turkey intact in a picturesque, Norman Rockwell-style isn't important, and you'd like to get dinner on the table quickly, there is a great method with an unusual name that is worth a try. If you cut out the backbone of the turkey and push down on the breastbone, the shape of the turkey changes so that a lot more of the meat will come in contact with the heating surface and cooking time will be radically reduced. 

This method is called spatchcocking and dates back to the late 18th century. As for the name, this method of cooking was usually applied to chickens, and was also something that was most often done in a hurry. The spatch comes from dispatch, which had the meaning of doing something fast, often to get rid of something or someone. A flurry of violent imagery may accompany this word, but it is a delicious and easy way to enjoy some poultry.

When it comes to food, we often erect protective linguistic barriers between the eater and the thing to be eaten. In American English, we eat pork instead of pig meat, beef instead of adult cow, and veal instead of young cow. Trying to get beyond this kind of artifice, which only increases when dealing with the pressure to make everything perfect on a holiday like Thanksgiving, is I think, worthwhile.

The world of modern cuisine is a fascinating place and going along for the ride can sometimes mean dealing with some pretty inventive uses of language. Taking note of these usage quirks doesn’t have to spoil the enjoyment of one's meal.


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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 26th 2014, 7:16 AM
Comment by: JOSE C. (BROWNSVILLE, TX)
You are correct. What I like the most is the polemic that brings to the table on this days when we all get together. We don't have many festivity days like this.
Tuesday December 2nd 2014, 8:52 AM
Comment by: vivek (India)
i have an query adam and i want it to share with you ..

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