What do Miss America and the turkey on the cover of this month's Gourmet magazine have in common? They are both beauty contest winners.
Editors at Gourmet selected the turkey for the cover of the Thanksgiving issue on the 22nd of August. With 152 food magazines out there, Gourmet's turkey has to be a contender in the only competition that ultimately matters: on newsstands, America's most seductive turkeys are shamelessly wooing you.
There are some standard requirements for a turkey that graces the cover of Gourmet. It has to have big thighs and be broad-breasted.
"It's supposed to first leap into your eye and then leap into your arms," Gourmet editor in chief Ruth Reichl told Sunday Morning correspondent Martha Teichner. "You know, it's 'I must make this Thanksgiving meal.'"
At Gourmet, Thanksgiving 2006 began in the summer of 2005. By Thanksgiving last year, the recipes for this year — not just the turkey, but menus for two complete Thanksgiving dinners, one big, one small — were being tested for perhaps the ninth time.
"We cook in season," Reichl said. "Now is the time when you get pumpkins and cranberries, when there are lots of turkeys on the market."
The trick for any magazine in the Thanksgiving dinner business is how to make it different every year, but not too different.
"You have the staples to make everybody happy, then you have four new dishes that people have never tried before," Doc Willoughby, Gourmet's executive editor said. "If we said, 'We've given you 22 turkey recipes,' how many more do you need? It wouldn't matter, 'cause they want this year's."
"We have in the past tried to veer away from a turkey, and used another bird, another game bird," longtime editor at Gourmet Zane Stewart said. "Disagreeable mail was the response."
This Thanksgiving will be Stewart's 34th at the magazine and she remembers years when November didn't have a turkey on the cover.
"On my watch, we will never not do a turkey," Reichl said. "I believe very firmly that there are some traditions that should be honored. And one of the great classic American traditions is the classic Thanksgiving meal."
This year, the pumpkin pie show on the cover is made with caramelized sugar. The magazine is also featuring muffin-size pear and almond cakes. The challenge is finding what foods are photogenic.
"The best-looking ones I always call the 'Cindy Crawford' — and there's always one," Stewart said.
All the Cindy Crawford-wanna-be turkeys had to audition for Gourmet's cover. They had to go through a rigorous turkey photo shoot.
"So you've got a turkey. They look pretty similar every year — a turkey is a turkey," Richard Ferretti, Gourmet's creative director, said. "But what you do with that turkey and what you put around that turkey could make all the difference, and so that's where ... we play. It's actually fun."
"We came to the set with five turkeys. We have roasted, so far, three turkeys," food editor and stylist Paul Grimes said.
Grimes wrangled the turkeys at the Manhattan shoot that took place in February.
"It's a beauty contest," Grimes said. "I mean, we judge their legs, we judge their wings, their overall shape."
"You don't really know until the camera hits it whether it's going to work or not going to work. You might have a gut instinct and it'll completely change once you see a Polaroid of it," Ferretti said.
The test is when the Polaroid is framed in a mock-up of a Gourmet cover. Food editor and stylist Maggie Ruggiero wrangled the turkey at another shoot that took place at a country home about fifty miles outside New York City. She chose one of eight contestants.
"You'd be surprised. They're like snowflakes and whereas every snowflake is beautiful, not every turkey is. You'll open the bag and there's somebody, you know, that's missing a wing," she said.
The turkey she selected was artfully arranged on an old-fashioned stove and ended up on the cover. The crew fussed over it for hours.
With Gourmet, what you see in the magazine is exactly what came out of the oven. There's no trickery. But when the turkey has been sitting around getting its picture taken and starts to shrivel up, the crew takes a blowtorch to it and sends the wrinkles away.
In the end, it's about star quality. And this year, Gourmet was going for a homey/modern look.
"It is very beautiful," Reichl said.