Some time ago my father-in-law sent me an enormous knife in the mail. Actually it was more than a knife: It was a hand-forged carving blade with a saber tip accompanied by a two-pronged fork, each with a handle made of sanbar stag horn from India, presented in a carrying sleeve of royal purple. He may as well have put a horse’s head in my bed. There was a message here.
“A certain type of man always likes to carve,” wrote Emily Post in 1922, “and such a one does.” What we all knew (I, my father-in-law, and Emily Post) was that I was not of the carving kind. Carving is intimidating. It requires a basic butcher’s knowledge largely forgotten now that we eat only hamburgers and Soylent Green. Were it just a matter of cutting up dead things, I could handle it. Instead, this is butchery brought to the center of the home, performed by candlelight while wearing a nice blazer. All this overstated civility is a kind of theater, covering up carving’s barbarous origins — hairy protoman divvying up the kill with his hands — and transforming the act into a gracious metaphor for civilization itself.
And my new carving knife gleamed at the sort of challenge only a father-in-law may make: “Civilization is crumbling. What are you going to do about it?” I got the message.
In medieval times, when the art of cutting up dead things was arguably at its apex, the carving knife was indeed a weapon. “They were made by the swordsmith,” says Robin Easton, general manager of London’s Simpson’s-in-the-Strand restaurant. “Because with a carving knife you really shouldn’t be able to feel it in your hand. It should be an extension of your arm. And only the swordsmith could get the balance right.”
Simpson’s opened 175 years ago as a chess club, but it has since become renowned for its expert carving of massive meats. Easton, along with the impossibly aptly named master carver Richard Blades, hosts a monthly seminar at Simpson’s for those wishing to get in good with their fathers-in-law. Since I and my turkey are in New York, I am getting the short version by phone.
Easton recommends that every man keep two knives: a strong, pointed blade for working through the joints of fowl and lamb, and a long, thin, flexible blade with a rounded edge for cutting very thin slices of beef roasts already off the bone. These knives should be kept very sharp and never be used for anything else, or by anyone else.
In carving’s medieval heyday, the professional carver kept a vast kit. “A different knife for everything he might carve,” Easton explains, which could be anything from swan to heron to porpoise. Indeed, Wynkyn de Worde’s 1508 manual, the Boke of Kervynge, lists a separate term for the dismantling of each animal: one “breaks” a deer, “spoils” a hen, “disfigures” a peacock, and “strings” a lamprey. (Has my father-in-law gone cheap on me? I can’t string a lamprey with this.)
The reason for carving was simple: Bad teeth made gnawing on bones a mouth-breaking hazard. But it became at once an art of supreme humility and, simultaneously, social climbing. “It was one way for young courtiers to work their way up in court,” says Easton, “with the ultimate prestige being to serve for his majesty.”
I am fascinated by what he’s saying, but as he moves on to explain undercuts and joint separation techniques, I realize that learning to carve by phone is akin to learning to be a surgeon by mail. Eventually you have to set aside your fear, grab the knives by the sambar stag horns, and cut into some flesh.
Turkey is not in the Boke of Kervynge. It’s a New World food, not introduced to Europe until the mid-16th century, as the “Indian chicken.” So the task of coming up with a term for its dismantling fell to me. Neither “demeating the turkey” nor “choking the Indian chicken” felt quite right. Bearing in mind the number of birds who gave their lives for this cause, “apologizing” seemed most apt. So here’s how you do it.
Step 1: After your turkey has rested 15 minutes to half an hour, hone your knife on a steel. It must be absolutely sharp, for it — not you — must do the work. “Use it gently, like a violin bow, using the whole length of the blade,” says Easton. When you’re doing it right it will feel almost as if it’s falling through the meat.
Step 2: Arrange the bird, legs to your right, on an ample cutting board with a well to catch the juice. If the turkey wobbles, stabilize it.
Step 3: The dark business of the dark meat comes first. Hold the bird firmly with your carving fork and cut gently through the skin surrounding the drumstick.
Step 4: Push the drumstick firmly down to the cutting board with the flat of the knife. The joint that connects thigh to bird will either pop out or be revealed enough that you can insert the point of your knife — that’s why you have that saber tip — and with a twist dislodge it. This will make a sickening, sucking sound as the entire leg comes free.
Step 5: Lay the drumstick skin side down and, letting your knife find the joint between drumstick and thigh, separate it.
Step 6: Carve the thigh parallel to the bone. You may serve the drumstick whole or, holding it at an angle, carve along the bone, removing the long, white, inedible sinews as you go. At this point everyone will be disgusted. Some of your queasier guests may be crying gently. But you must keep your composure, take a breath, and make the undercut.
Step 7: As close to the wing as you can get, make a long cut parallel to the table from the front of the breast to the cavity. This is where all your slices will naturally stop. Step 8 Now begin slicing, working from the outside of the breast in. Still holding the fork, let the leading edge of the knife just touch the skin, and move it gently forward until you feel it begin to bite the meat. Then draw the blade back to slice straight down, perpendicular to the table. When you reach the undercut you will find the slice — no more than a quarter inch in thickness — hugging the outside flat of the blade, which you may then use to transfer the slice to a platter, using the fork to stabilize it.
Now, quit while you’re ahead. There’s plenty of meat to be found in the corners of the bird (including the prized “oysters” — unctuous nuggets of dark meat on either side of the backbone), but that’s best left for protoman scavenging by refrigerator light. For now we’re keeping it civilized, and if you worry that you’re leaving too much breast meat on the bone, remember that it’s better than cutting it too close and serving a slice of sternum.
Staring at my own perfectly sliced pile of turkey meat, I realized that this is the great Zen of carving: the quiet communication between man and knife as the knife finds its way through dinner. My father-in-law may have known this when he sent me my knife, but I had to learn by doing that the art of carving is not about control but surrender — to the blade, to the bird, and to those you aim to serve. And once again, by a knife’s edge, civilization survives for another year.