A Turkey Story

A Turkey Story
Originally published: Wed, 23 Nov 2011


I’m making Thanksgiving dinner this year. All by myself. It’s times like these that I feel like a real grown-up, like I’ve earned my spot side-by-side with the matriarchs in my family, the women who always smelled like dish soap and had standing weekly appointments with their hair dressers. I’m a big girl now.

Most years we travel to either my family in Tennessee or my husband’s in Virginia for Thanksgiving dinner, but this year I volunteered to host and my perfectionism is beginning to do me in. I started putting together the menu more than month ago, collecting recipes and debating on what to include. Fortunately, I decided to scrap my plans to make my now deceased ex-step-grandmother’s famous homemade sour dough bread. Doing so would have meant starting the starter weeks ago and feeding it every day, so … I’ll be serving store-bought, frozen yeast rolls instead. But everything else will be 100 percent homemade. My menu includes an 18-pound turkey (brined overnight), gravy, sausage-apple stuffing, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, green beans, kale, cranberry sauce, cranberry relish, orange salad, pumpkin pie, pecan pie and coconut cake. And yet it still seems like I’m forgetting something.

This will be third time in my life that I’ve tackled the big meal alone. The second was a few years ago when my husband was deployed and I didn’t feel like traveling, and the first time I’ll tell you about right now…

It was 2002 and my husband and I had just gotten engaged. He already lived in Fayetteville and I was still living the sunny, single girl beach life in south Florida, so we didn’t get to see each other much. Worse, he had been on a short deployment and was scheduled to fly back on Thanksgiving day on a commercial airplane. A buddy of his was responsible for booking his flight and he managed to find him a flight that landed in Miami in the wee hours of the morning, with a connection that wouldn’t leave until the evening. We’d get about eight hours together on Thanksgiving Day and I was determined to impress him.

Thanksgiving for me, as for most Americans, is all about the home-cooked meal, so having the mother of all dinners in a restaurant was not an option. I was going to have to cook. Besides, I am a good cook. I love to cook. I have a blast in the kitchen, I really do. But I had never before made Thanksgiving dinner. At most I’d made one side dish or a dessert to take to someone else’s Thanksgiving dinner. I’d always thought of Thanksgiving dinner as the Super Bowl of cooking, a task best left to the pros – the old ladies, the women who own roasting pans, the sorts of women who don’t use measuring spoons and who actually plan meals. My cooking adventures usually turned out well, if eclectic. If I was in a sweet mood, I might make four pies and a cake. If I was in a vegetable mood there would likely be no meat served. If I was in a meat mood, you can forget side dishes. So you can imagine my anxiety over flying solo and having to make the biggest meal of the year for my new fiance.

A week before the big day I called his mother and asked her what foods he likes on Thanksgiving. At least I had enough sense to know that not every family does Thanksgiving the same. Fortunately she didn’t name anything that sounded too difficult to make – and she seemed pretty pleased that I planned to cook for him. She’s told me since then that I scored major points with her that day. I bought a whole turkey and all the other ingredients and I started cooking four days in advance. I figured that by starting early I could make everything in my tiny apartment kitchen and serve the meal on time without cutting into the precious few hours that he and I would have to spend together. Everything was going swimmingly until I got to the turkey itself.

I had never roasted any kind of bird and didn’t even know where to begin, so I did the most sensible thing I could think of – the night before Thanksgiving I called my grandmother.
“First you need to put your hand into the cavity and remove the organs,” she said, not even bothering to hide her laughter.
“The cavity, the hole. Oh, Hell,  just stick your hand up the damn turkey’s butt!” she said.
I looked at the headless bird and tried to picture it with a head so that I could figure out which end was the butt. It is not as obvious as you might think.
“The organs?” I asked.
“There’s a little bag in there that has the neck and gizzards and stuff in it,” she said.
And sure enough, there was.
“Pull out all the organs and throw them away, unless you want to make giblet gravy.”
“Umm, no. I bought gravy. I’ll just throw this, umm, stuff away,” I said, pinching the bag between two fingers and eyeing it distastefully.
“Now you just want to rub the bird down with butter real good,” she said, adding, “Make sure you soften the butter first.”
I was glad that she’d mentioned that.
“Then slice an orange in half and shove half of it up the turkey’s butt.”
A lot of butt shoving was going on with this turkey. Who knew Thanksgiving dinner started so intimately? My grandmother went on to help me figure out how long to cook the turkey for and then she asked if I needed help with any of the side dishes. She gave me a few tips on the stuffing and the sweet potatoes and wished me luck, telling me to call her when it was all said and done and tell her how it turned out.
I cherish that conversation. She was diagnosed the following year with an inoperable brain tumor. The memory of her laughing as she explained how to cook the turkey is one of my favorites.

His flight arrived at 5 a.m. I got dressed in a really sexy outfit, heels and all, full make-up, the whole shebang, and planned to meet him at baggage claim. But when I got there the stupid Miami airport wasn’t even open. I think that airport has been under construction since like 1975 and Thanksgiving day was no exception. At that hour on a holiday even the parking lot was closed. I had to just keep circling the airport until he called to tell me that he was standing on the curb. I tried to get out of the car so that he could at least see how cute I was, but he was tired and just wanted to leave. I’m not sure he ever actually noticed my sexy outfit, come to think of it. Seems like a total waste of discomfort to me now.

Thanksgiving was wonderful, though there so many leftovers that I was eating turkey and the trimmings for weeks. When it was time for him to go back to the airport I put the pies – pumpkin and pecan – a couple of forks and a can of whipped cream in the car so that we could eat them on the way.

Come to think of it, our whole married life has been kind of like that: Best of intentions always altered by a mad dash out the door.

Happy Holidays, Military-Style


When I was growing up, my family’s holiday traditions rarely varied.  Sure, every now and then my mom would mix up the Thanksgiving menu by making a seven-layered salad instead of a green bean casserole or my grandparents would visit for Christmas.  But typically our holiday rituals remained unchanged.  It wasn’t Thanksgiving without a turkey.  It wasn’t Christmas Eve without hors d’oeuvres and stocking stuffers.  And it wasn’t Christmas Day without a plate of cookies and wrapping paper that was color coded for each family member, both of which were gone before the sun had a chance to rise.

But holidays are different when you’re married to the military.  As hard as we may try to maintain traditions, the military tends to test our resolve by deploying our husbands and moving us to remote locations.  We celebrate holidays where and when we can, sometimes ignoring the calendar so we can collect the special days and celebrate them all when our family is intact.  Yes, we military families have to make do, convincing our kids that Santa can find us wherever we are and convincing ourselves that one day we’ll look back on this and laugh.

I’ve definitely had some interesting military holidays.  I spent my first military Christmas in a hotel in a strange new city where Christmas dinner consisted of beer and nachos at a local bar.  I spent my third military Christmas repeatedly telling myself that it’s not a big deal that my husband was missing our 9-month-old son’s first Christmas because the baby wouldn’t remember that his daddy was in Iraq.  And I spent my fourth military Christmas in Japan, this time with my husband, but without anything else that felt familiar.

That first Christmas in the hotel made me resent military life.  The third Christmas without my husband made me feel powerless.  But that fourth Christmas overseas introduced me to an aspect of military life I had never experienced before: the military family.  And although the specific members may come and go, that military family has become just as important to me as my real family.

I expected my first holiday in a foreign country to feel, well, foreign.  Most of our Christmas decorations were in storage back in the States, and our family was an ocean away.  It was just me, my husband, our 22-month-old son, and our dog.  Or so I thought.

There were so many holiday events throughout the month of December in that small Japanese town that by the time Christmas came, I was all Christmas-ed out!  We watched Santa drive into our favorite park in a fire truck.  We gazed at Christmas lights downtown and learned how the Japanese celebrate the holidays.  We attended multiple Christmas parties for kids and adults.  We even got our dog involved when the base offered Santa pictures with pets.  It was the most festive holiday season I had ever experienced.  And I had my military family to thank for that.

We were all in the same boat.  We were all missing our families in the States, many of us missing our husbands as well.  We had no other choice but to join together and make the best of it.  And boy did we ever make the best of it!  That Christmas in a foreign country was the farthest thing from foreign.  I felt like I was home.  I felt like I was surrounded by family.

Throughout the three years we lived overseas, I learned to embrace my military family and adopt as many family members as possible, especially during the holidays.  In fact, the last Thanksgiving we spent in Japan was probably my most memorable military holiday.  I bought the biggest turkey the commissary had.  My husband and I invited acquaintances who had nowhere else to go or whose spouses were deployed.  I cooked for four days, preparing a feast for a gathering that included both close friends and people I had never met before.  Some have remained friends, some I’ll never hear from again.  But that day, as two dozen or so people came in and out of our house at varying intervals, we welcomed them as family.  From the geo bachelor missing his wife’s Thanksgiving spread to the Korean wife who had never had a Thanksgiving spread, we welcomed them all.  Our military family.

Since leaving Japan, our holidays have been surprisingly unaffected by military life.  And while I appreciate the luxuries of living stateside, having my husband home, and establishing our own traditions, I sometimes miss those holidays made so memorable by military life.  But I’m sure that one day the military will test our holiday resolve again, and when it does, I’ll be ready.  I just need to remember the recipe for the perfect military holiday: A main course of adventure, served with a side of adaptability, a bottle of vintage flexibility, and a hefty helping of humor for dessert, all prepared with a dash of love.  And a little help from my military family.

Happy Holidays Everyone!

(Be sure to check out the Riding the Roller Coaster blog to read more great posts like this one. And you can find me today over on Witty Little Secret, a hilarious milspouse blog that I’m sure you’ll want to bookmark –  Rebekah)