Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Turkey Dance

I don't remember not knowing how to cook a turkey. Not that I'm an expert. Goodness, I've probably been through every method in the book--pop-up timers, oven bags, smoker, rotisserie, brining. Wait, I've never fried a turkey. Nor have I grilled one. No tur-duck-en. So, maybe not every method in the book. But I think I can turn out a fairly tasty bird.

My mom is a nurse and used to get either Thanksgiving or Christmas off every year. Never both. On the years she worked Thanksgiving, my dad and sisters and I were on our own for a good portion of the day. I can remember being around eight years old, and alternating my day between watching the Macy's parade on TV, playing outside, and basting the turkey.  I can still remember the sizzling butter sliding over the crisp brown skin. It seemed like I basted a hundred times, and that the turkey took hours upon hours to cook. So much basting and so many hours that I wonder who was clocking the whole process. I am sure the turkey ended up delicious.  My mom may remember that turkey differently than I do.

I know that some years, we had Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt's house nearby. We would bring a side dish or two and then spend hours exploring. Their house was huge, with an enormous two-story great room with a spiral staircase up to a tucked-away loft full of bean bags, huge windows flanking the fireplace that overlooked a golf course, and a basement with a sunken bar, pool table and a exercise-corner with mirrored walls, barre, and a parquet floor. Ah the pool table, with the blue pool cue chalk that made such nice eye shadow...My aunt always cooked in a skirt and high heels, and her kitchen was carpeted. My cousins were a decade or more older than my sisters and I, and I'm sure they dreaded the arrival of our pack of small children as much as I anticipated it.  Our own house would fit in their great room, and my mom frequently cooked in her scrubs from work.

I remember the last one of those we attended, somewhere towards the end of college.  Mom was probably working because I found myself taking charge of the potluck preparations. At home, my sisters and I peeled and cooked an enormous pot full of potatoes and baked an apple pie. I slightly burned the top of the pie, but it had a crumb top like apple crisp, so I was able to pick off the burnt bits. For the potatoes, I followed directions for making them "skinny" with chicken broth instead of butter and milk (I was 20 or 21 and rather concerned about my waistline). When we arrived, my aunt heard about the switch and assumed that I left out the fattening bits by mistake.  She stirred in an entire pound of butter.

She also adds a full pot of coffee to her gravy (a fact that my sisters cringe at, but I actually find intriguing).

I think my first wholly-cooked-by-me Thanksgiving was shortly after college. My now husband and I lived together in a crummy little "town-house" apartment in the city (by "town-house" they meant "has a door directly to the street" and  "stairs to the bedrooms so steep you can't fit a queen-sized box spring up without disassembly"). I don't remember why we didn't go anywhere for turkey day, just that we didn't. We had a couple of friends--I remember one doctor friend who was on call that weekend (and whose wife had decided to visit family out of town), plus possibly my sister-in-law. I'm not sure who else. I think that year was turkey-in-an-oven-bag.  Cooked in an apartment kitchen with a crummy stove (no window on the oven, no timer, no good ventilation). Still, we managed all the trimmings and a reasonably timed dinner.

It was sometime not long after that when my mom began handing a good percent of the cooking preparations over to me even when we were at her house. Not that I mind.

I have hosted some good-sized dinners. Never quite fifty, more like a dozen. I like to use our good china. It's not wedding china. It's Ebay china. 18 place settings of gorgeous fine-boned dinnerware with gold rims and a rich navy and red pattern. Coordinating a full dinner in a basic suburban kitchen is a scheduling problem worthy of MS Project. You have to carefully map out times, temperatures, and pot sizes to ensure that the dinner rolls arrive at the table warm, and the pies can be cut before Black Friday. Hence, the smoker. Smoked turkey is divine although it changes the flavor of your leftovers.

Hubby and I are now on house number two. It does not quite have the grandeur of my aunt-and-uncle's palatial place. But we have two ovens plus a combination microwave-convection oven. The turkey-day dance is far less frenetic than it used to be at our previous homes.

Nowadays, we have two more helpers in the kitchen. My oldest is eight this year. She and her five-year-old brother will each be in charge of a casserole. I am not a nurse, and I don't have to work on Thanksgiving, so they won't be put in charge of the turkey. The five year old did get to help with the brine. They are both old enough to wield a peeler.

I will be ever thankful for learning my way around a Thanksgiving kitchen early. I love to make pie crusts and dinner rolls, stuffing and potatoes. Crisp-skinned turkey. I love watching the Macy's Parade on TV. The smell of cloves and cinnamon and ginger wafting through the house. The anticipation of the feast. The prayers at the dinner table. Stuffing down that last bite of pie. Phone calls home. And even, just a tiny bit, carefully hand-washing my bone china plates and scouring the roasting pan and washing the tablecloths for next year.

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