Our annual retelling of how to avoid the Thanksgiving turkey trap
The Curse of the Turkey:
A Thanksgiving Horror Story
(or Tell Ben Franklin to Stuff It!)
By Aunt Dottie
As if there weren’t enough to worry about these days, now many of the cooks in the family have another reason to lie awake at night this November – Thanksgiving dinner! For most of us, it’s the one time of year we are asked to roast something the size of a small Volkswagen (except for those crazy enough to make a second attempt at Christmas) and have it be cooked to crowd-pleasing perfection.
I first fell into the turkey trap the year after I was married, during my giddy honeymoon/nesting phase, when I naively volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner. (Tip #1 for newlyweds – leave Thanksgiving dinner to the pros.) My grandmother could kill, pluck, clean, dress, and cook a turkey in her sleep, and my mother once roasted a turkey that my grandfather got from a restaurant poulterer, that at the time, was bigger than my three-year-old sister. As always, it came out of the oven glistening brown and juicy. So I figured it must be genetic.
I happily hummed along as I cleaned, prepped, seasoned, and buttered the bird before popping it into the oven. As the family arrived, the house began to fill with that special holiday aroma of roasting turkey, although there was also the feint hint of a strange odor that I can only describe by saying that I thought my dog had an accident of the liquid variety somewhere near the stove (which he actually did once, in the middle of the dining room during Christmas dinner, only it wasn’t of the liquid variety and I know he did it on purpose – but that’s another story). When the turkey was brought to the table, still accompanied by the lingering odor, and my father in-law began to carve, the reason for the smell was soon discovered. I had forgotten about the giblets – you know, the stuff that they wrap in butcher’s paper and stuff deep into the cavity of the turkey. Everyone was a good sport and ate the tainted turkey anyway, but needless to say, I was disheartened.
It took me a few years before I was foolish enough to take another stab at Thanksgiving dinner. This time I made certain that every inch of that bird was giblet-free, even going so far as to peer inside with a flashlight just to be sure. Everyone arrived, and once again the smell of roasting turkey was wafting through the house, but strangely, the more time that went by the fainter the aroma got and that darned pop-up timer refused to pop. You could hear the stomachs growling as we waited and waited and waited for dinner to be done. Finally, my mother, who had been trying her hardest not to interfere, went to investigate. It seems that an hour or so after the turkey had started roasting, my sister, who was a college student at the time and could barely handle cooking a bag of microwave popcorn, had meant to shut off a burner on the stove and had mistakenly shut off the oven. Things turned out fine in the end, but it is still remembered as the latest Thanksgiving dinner in family history.
I find when it comes to turkeys, there are two types of cooks; those that dive fearlessly into the abyss and those who stand frozen with fear at the edge. Although, probably not as frozen as the turkey my mother in-law served one year, when she failed to notice that it came pre-stuffed and didn’t allow enough time for thawing. She admits now that she sat up all Thanksgiving night waiting to hear who would be the first family member to be rushed to the hospital with food-poisoning. But at least she managed to get her turkey into the oven.
Last year, after a long day at work, I spent a harried afternoon before Thanksgiving waiting in the long line at the meat market, rushing through the wine store, and fighting other customers at the grocery store for the last can of cranberry sauce (which I actually forgot one Thanksgiving and have never been allowed to live down) and jarring my way for a place at the check-out. When I returned home exhausted, I dusted, vacuumed, mopped, cleaned the bathrooms, and even went so far as to use the oven’s self-cleaner – that turned out to be the fatal error. It seems that the oven that I owned, like most things these days, is run by computer chips, and that my particular brand and model was prone to massive malfunction. By turning on the self-cleaner, I had burned out the entire digital panel. My stove top still worked, but the oven was as cold as my feelings for the manufacturer and salesman who sold me that stove.
My initial reaction was to crumple into a fetal position on the floor and weep, but I pulled myself together and called every emergency appliance repairman in the yellow pages. Each one was all too familiar with the flaws of that model and were willing to help, but they all said the same thing “It will take me at least a week to get the part.” Fortunately my father and mother in-law live right down the street, so I was able to cook the turkey, dressing, biscuits, and pies in their oven and shuttle them back to my house in the afternoon, while my better half manned the stove top at home. I came away from the experience convinced that no amount of preparations or precautions can save you from the poultry pitfalls of Thanksgiving and that when it comes to the beguiling turkey, “Murphy” was right, “anything that can go wrong will, and at the worst possible moment.” (My former boss used to say that “Murphy was an optimist”.)
After 30 years of marriage, I can finally find my way around the kitchen. The culinary arts have become a hobby and I now consider myself a pretty fair cook. But come the week before Thanksgiving,, the stomach still starts to churn and I sweat sleeplessly into my pillow each night. I don’t know why we put so much pressure on ourselves when it comes to Thanksgiving and why there are such great expectations. The only thing I can think of, is that it must have started with that corny Norman Rockwell painting. You know, the one where the all-American family is sitting at the table, clean cut, primped, polished, and smiling in polite anticipation as grandma proudly brings a ridiculously over-sized, perfectly golden brown turkey to the table. I am ashamed to admit, that in my bitterest holiday moments, I imagine that when they delve into that bird it is so dry that they all choke on it.
At this point, many Thanksgiving articles would offer expert advice and sure-fire tips to tame the wily turkey, but I dare not. While I’d love to share the glory if your turkey is a triumph, I don’t want to be the fall guy if it turns out to be a historic family “fowl-up.” Instead, I’ll leave you with this bit of reassuring wisdom. If your turkey is a disaster don’t blame yourself, blame “the curse.” As we all know from American lore, founding father, Benjamin Franklin, thought that the turkey was a “respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native…” and believed that it should be the symbol of America. Of course, we chose the bald eagle as our symbol and the noble turkey, instead of gracing the dollar or the presidential seal, became the most popular entrée at holiday time and has taken its revenge on cooks ever since. But maybe it’s not too late to lift the curse of the turkey, maybe now is the right time to get him off the dinner table and into the halls of our nation’s capitol, maybe as Franklin surmised, he is the more appropriate national symbol – after all, there is no shortage of “turkeys” in Washington these days.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving and remember to eat well and be happy!