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.