Sunday, November 07, 2004

The ghost of poultry past.

I am the Queen of Thanksgiving. Let's just get that out there first thing. This is one holiday that is truly suited to me. That's because I like to bake things, boil things, stuff things, and suspend things in gelatin. Thanksgiving allows me to do all that and drink eggnog at the same time. What more could you ask for?

As talented as I am at festive meal preparaton, in the interest of honesty I must tell you that I have not always been the Queen that I am today. I do have a few Thanksgiving uh-oh's in my resume.

Many of those uh-oh's occurred during my very first Thanksgiving with my very first husband. In my defense, I was young and innocent and at just nineteen, not legally old enough to drink myself stupid while preparing the meal. I never had a chance.

It wasn't that I didn't know how to cook. Having grown up in the south meant that I knew my way around the stove. I had been baking with my Grandma since I was old enough to hold a wooden spoon. Therefore, I had some degree of confidence that I could easily whip up a wonderful holiday bounty for myself, husband Number One and any and all of his drunken Army friends he might drag home.

There was just one hitch. For whatever reason, my family NEVER had turkey on Thanksgiving. Never. We'd have a ham, fried chicken, and casseroles that included every food ingredient known to man, but turkey was not on the menu. That lack of turkey cooking experience left me somewhat ill-prepared to provide Number One with the traditional roast gobbler on our Thanksgiving table.

Not to worry though. I figured a turkey was nothing more than a regular chicken on steroids, so how hard could it be?

The day before the big holiday I straightened my shoulder pads, put one final coating of spray on my giant hair wings, grabbed the keys to my Chevette and headed out to the Piggly Wiggly to pick up a bird. I felt like such a grown up as I pushed my squeaking cart to the frozen carcass aisle.

Hmmm. There certainly were a lot of turkeys in that big old holding cell. How in the world was I supposed to determine which one to purchase? Guessing that maybe you should check the freshness of a dead bird the same way you check a watermelon, I began systematically thumping each one. I soon realized from the odd looks the other seasoned Thanksgiving meal professionals were giving me that this was perhaps not the correct way to choose a turkey.

"I'm from Bangladesh," I said to the snotty, small-haired woman looking at me from across the freezer. "The thumping of the Thanksgiving turkeys is an ancient ritual we perform to cast out any lingering evil turkey spirits. Personally, I'd never dream of feeding evil spirit infested white meat to my family, but to each his own."

So, because my thumping was drawing stares and smirks and because my fingers hurt from thumping frozen turkey icebergs, I surmised I should probably come up with another method of poultry selection. Looking around at the other ladies checking the little white tags attached to the bird nets, I quickly determined the deciding factor.

When turkey picking, the biggest one wins.

I searched and searched until at long last, I found the biggest frozen bird in the entire free world. Turkey-zilla. I was the envy of the entire lot of Piggly-Wiggly turkey hunters.

While holding tightly to the white gift tag attached to Turkey-zilla, so as to prevent poachers from snagging him for themselves, with my free hand I summoned a stockman. He took one look at my big guy and ran to get one of those wheelie things often used to carry big screen televisions. He and a couple of his stockman buddies hoisted Turkey-zilla into the trunk of my car and I left the parking lot for home with sparks flying behind me as my Chevette's rear end drug the pavement.

Back in my cracker-box apartment, after having lugged Turkey-zilla into my kitchen with the help of some burly construction workers, it dawned on me for the first time that my future main course was in need of a good defrost. With Thanksgiving now only hours away, I knew time was of the essence.

I tried absolutely everything to thaw that bird. I grabbed my high-powered hair dryer and stood blowing over the enormous turkey-cicle for no less than three hours. Nothing happened.

I held a lighter to it until my thumb was nearly destroyed from the repeated flicking of the Bic. Nothing happened.

Having recently read a book about some survivors of a crashed airplane in a desolate frozen land who had huddled together naked to produce maximum body heat, I finally resorted to taking off all my clothes and cuddling up with it under a blanket. Nothing happened.

Well, that's not entirely true. I did develop frost bite in an area that was going to be tough to explain to my gynecologist.

At about midnight on Turkey Eating Eve, I realized that the only way this bird was ever going to thaw was in my oven. I would just cook this booger over night. No dead bird was going to outsmart me.

"You just make sure you stuff the bird before you cook it," said the man for whom I was going to all this trouble. "It wouldn't be Thanksgiving if you didn't stuff the turkey."

Oh I'll stuff the turkey, all right. You just bend over, grab your ankles and....

Well, that's what I was thinking. But because I was a young wife and did not yet possess a fully formed adult female backbone, I grabbed four containers of Box Full O' Stuffing and mixed it all up with my hands. I was met with some difficulty when the time came to insert the mixture into Turkey-zilla. If you've ever tried to stuff an ice cube, you'll appreciate my dilemma.

But, I was tougher than this giant bird cadaver and by sheer force of will, I managed to get some of the mixture into crevices I found in the bird. I turned the oven to a comfortable 275 degrees, shoved the monster in and went to bed fully confident that I would wake up to a lovely roasted turkey.

By now, it was about 5:30 in the morning. Dinner was to be served at 1:00 that afternoon.

I woke up at ten or so, took a shower, put a couple coats of shellac on my hair and slipped into my best Leave It To Beaver mom dress and heels before toddling to the kitchen in my lacey apron to prepare everything else that was needed to make Thanksgiving a culinary success.

I chopped, I diced and I mixed, all the while humming The Old Rugged Cross and stopping only periodically to deliver celery stuffed with goo to Number One and our guests. At nineteen, I was more of a grown-up than I had ever been and in just a few short hours my husband was going to see what a deal he got when he married me.

12:30. Time to whip out Turkey-zilla and dazzle all that were present. When I opened the oven door, I noticed that my Thanksgiving centerpiece wasn't nearly as golden brown as the ones I'd seen in magazines and on television. Must be the bad lighting in my kitchen, I reasoned. Besides, I was sure they probably doctored those famous turkeys up just like they do super models with Max Factor and blush.

"Oh Huuuunnneeeeey!," I called proudly to my husband. "Would you like to do the honors and carve the bird? He's too big to carry to the table, so I thought we'd slice him up in the kitchen first."

Number one proudly took hold of his man-sized cutting utensils and commenced to doing the only productive thing a man does on Thanksgiving.

"That's odd," he said. "I seem to have found something in the turkey."

"Of course you did, silly. I stuffed the bird just the way you asked me." Just to be certain though, I checked to make sure I still had on my wedding rings and my watch.

"No. This is not stuffing. You did remove the little bags inside the turkey before you cooked it, didn't you?"

My mind was racing. Bags? What bags? I didn't know nothing about no bags! Thinking quickly I answered, "I'm from Bangladesh and it is our ancient custom to leave bags inside our Thanksgiving turkeys. In fact if you are the lucky one to find a bag, you will prosper greatly all year long."

"You're from North Carolina." said One.

Damn his brilliance.

It seems that for some bizarre reason, manufacturers of dead turkeys remove their inner most parts and shove them into paper bags which should evidently be removed before baking. Who knew?

Later that afternoon, sitting with my husband and all his friends around our tiny dining room table on this my first holiday away from home, I felt a sense of real grown-up pride. I had prepared my first Thanksgiving dinner all by myself and everyone seemed to be truly enjoying it. Once I picked all the paper out of it, that is.

"This is wonderful, Sherri. I appreciate your having me over," said one of my guests. "But, I have to admit I've never had rare turkey before. It's very different."

"Well, I'm from Bangladesh and undercooked Thanksgiving poultry is a delicacy there."

And as we would soon discover, so is a trip to the emergency room for food poisoning after a holiday meal.

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Copyright © 2004, Sherri Bailey
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