Preparing a Turkey of a Dinner

Spotting a huge bin full of frozen turkeys at the local market just before Thanksgiving, I got to wondering about the finished dinners they represented. They were obviously intended as the centerpiece for a lot of Thanksgiving feasts.

Who roasts all those birds and how do they go about it? It’s not as if we home cooks have had a lot of practice. The most proficient among us have probably never prepared more than 2 or 3 roasted turkeys in a year. Curious about this, I contacted The BUTTERBALL TURKEY TALK-LINE, a call-in service set up every year well in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday.  They give advice to us average cooks on how to prepare and roast a turkey.

Well, what an education! Even though the BUTTERBALL people are available weeks ahead of time, almost all their calls come in on Thanksgiving morning and the most asked questions are about defrosting the frozen bird. Hmmm … Defrosting usually takes several days in the fridge, what is this last minute thing? Makes you wonder how many of us are still chewing on a drumstick and sopping up gravy long after bed-time? Sounds like a  lot of those dinners being served are real turkeys.

According to the BUTTERBALL folks, one enterprising chef, trying to hurry the thawing process, stuck his frozen turkey in the hot tub. Another put his in a bathtub full of lukewarm water with his twin sons, multitasking baths and thaw time. Let’s hope both those turkeys were still safely sealed in their plastic shrink wrap.

Another frequently asked question, they say, is about the length of roasting time. The BUTTERBALL chefs have precise directions, depending on the weight of the bird. One caller, when asked how much her turkey weighed, replied, “I don’t know. It’s still running around outside.”

Amazingly, a lot of callers have scrubbed their turkeys inside and out with soapy water, then wondered how to get rid of the suds before putting it in the oven. It can be done with patience, if they just keep rinsing the bird repeatedly in clear water, then dry thoroughly. The poor woman who washed her turkey in bleach wasn’t so lucky. The only advice they could give her was “Sorry, you’ll have to throw it out.”

Another woman, cleaning out her father’s freezer, found a turkey dated 1969. She was given the same advice, “Toss it.” Then there are always the dears who’ve never heard of the word “giblet.” Assuming it refers to some exotic herb or flavoring they don’t have, they skip over the instructions telling them what to do with the giblets, then wonder why they can’t carve the breast meat. Much to their shock they eventually fish a half melted wad of mangled plastic full of raw gunk out of the neck cavity, staring at it in confusion.

Some other classics: “How do you defrost a fresh turkey?”, “How do you prepare a turkey for a vegetarian meal?”, and my favorite, “I overslept and have another engagement later on. Can I turn my oven up twice as high and cook my turkey twice as fast?”

Is it any wonder so many dinners being served out there are such turkeys?

I’ve been as guilty as anyone of serving a few Thanksgiving dinners that were real turkeys. My very first attempt was a classic and it didn’t even involve a bird, it was a meat loaf. Being a young Navy bride away from home and very poor, nevertheless I was eager to begin establishing traditions just for my new husband and me.

We were stationed in the California Bay Area when we heard that four young men from our home town, all family acquaintances, were traveling our way. In a moment of weak- mindedness I invited them all for Thanksgiving dinner. A brother-in-law and his wife who lived near by were invited too.

I blew our entire weekly budget on 3 or more pounds of ground beef, turkey being totally beyond our means and my abilities, and I proceeded to make the biggest meat loaf ever. I even splurged on a new platter from the dime store.

Came the big day and I was ready. All my side dishes were on the table and everyone was seated. They were all staring in anticipation toward the kitchen doorway as I put the finishing touches on my masterpiece. I turned it out on the new platter, proudly picked it up and in my usual mad rush, flew around the corner into the dining room. The meat loaf slid off the platter, landed on the floor with a thud and skidded across the linoleum. Dead Silence!!

I was as speechless as everyone else when my dear sister-in-law spoke up. “It’s O.K., Joan, just pick it up, take it back to the kitchen and bring in the other one.” I never loved that woman more than at that moment! I did just what she suggested, blowing off a few crumbs and some stray dust bunnies, and returning to the dining room at a more cautious pace.

It wasn’t until long afterwards that I realized that darned meatloaf never squished, splattered, cracked or broke up when it landed. It must have been as hard as a rock although I don’t recall any complaints. If your guests are young enough and hungry enough, anything goes. At least the thing didn’t bounce.

And so my very first Thanksgiving dinner went down in family lore, a real turkey of a meatloaf dinner.

There were lots of turkey dinners over the years, most of them coming out as planned and a few that turned on me. One especially was memorable. It came to be known as the “You were old enough know better” dinner.

With my family converging, I was eager to use my brand new copper colored wall oven with all the bells and whistles. I tucked my turkey inside, all trussed, buttered and tented, picked up the oven manual, pushed buttons and turned dials, setting up for delayed roasting. With that, we all headed for the beach. You guessed it, we returned hours later to a cold kitchen, a cold oven and a very cold turkey.

And so, another turkey of a Thanksgiving dinner. It was tasty, as I recall, even though we dined in our jammies.


Thanksgiving…in the 1980s

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday!  Think of it, one day set aside just to express gratitude. To me it’s always been a golden day.  November may be the darkest, gloomiest month of the year but memories of Thanksgivings past shine brightly.

And what great Thanksgivings they’ve been!  The busy family years with construction paper decor and Pilgrim hats; the many festive tables surrounded by family and friends;  and always the TURKEY golden and fragrant, the foundation of our feasts.  No ham, roasts or Tofurky on our table, just the savory bird browned and ready for the carving knife.

Retirement brought us a new lifestyle and our travels took us to Mexico one year with the prospect of spending our uniquely American holiday among strangers in the lovely old coastal city of Mazatlan.  Our daughter and son-in-law flew down to join us over their holiday break and we were delighted to come across a beach-side restaurant advertising  “Un  Gran Fiesta Norte-Americano”  planned for our very day of thanks!  Reservations were made, and we wondered what a Mexican Thanksgiving would be like.  Turkeys were a rarity there but we were looking forward to being together and planned to enjoy whatever might come.

The day itself, my favorite golden Thanksgiving Day,  found us trapped inside a damp RV after several days of heavy rain, hubcap deep in muddy water.  Electrical current went out about mid-morning, to add to the general feeling of gloom.  We thought about our reservations at the restaurant for “The Grand North-American Party,” no doubt doomed by now.

Finally, needing to make something happen, we rolled up pants legs, grabbed flip-flops and flashlights and  sloshed up the street.   Daylight was fading fast on a day that had never really gotten bright.

Surprisingly, our restaurant was glowing with candles and lamp-light, ranchero music pounding away.  We waded toward the entrance, passing the open kitchen on our way.

What a sight!  The chefs inside were slicing, stirring and carving as they laughed and chattered.  Were those turkeys?  Yes!!  and each of the cheerful workers had a flashlight tucked between chin and shoulder to help them see as they worked.  Amazed at their clever ingenuity, we watched for several minutes, quite impressed, before going on into the building.

We were drawn into a room full of party goers like moths to a flame and we all joined in.   The food was wonderful, especially the turkey.  The flood waters began to recede and when the feasting ended, employees and guests alike danced the night away.

Holidays are what you make of them; being surrounded by cheerful, welcoming strangers willing to make their North American guests feel at home was a true blessing.  As my favorite golden holiday rolls around again, what am I most thankful for?  Memories of friends, old and new, and loved ones I’ve celebrated with over the years, of course.

…..and Oh Yes,  deep gratitude that someone else now gets up at the crack of dawn to stuff the bird and get the pies in the oven;  not to mention coping with the disaster in the kitchen after the fun has passed.

And I might add a POX on whoever dreamed up  “green bean casserole.”  May they be fated to eat Tofurky for all their Thanksgivings to come.

I say “Pass The Gravy!”