*Squeemish about Turkey
Oz and I don’t really do Thanksgivings. He’s from Europe and I don’t enjoy social situations of the obligatory kind.
When we were young and childless, we evolved a funny sort of tradition that got us through the holiday without feeling like losers:
1) Take all of the accumulated money from our change jar (approx. $83);
2) Cash it in at the local casino; gamble;
3) Spend the excess/winnings on our favorite foods (dolmas, artichoke hearts and Greek olives for me; fresh white bread and sauerkraut for Oz);
4) Eat pumpkin pie and spray each other with whipped cream.
Now this might seem rather subversive or soulless, but we were exceedingly grateful to be together and having fun. We kept the parts of the holiday we enjoyed—thankfulness, celebration, gluttony, and chucked those we didn’t—relatives, wrangling, residue of Christianity.
But once we had babies, a casino just didn’t seem like the right thing to do.
And so, as our children have gotten older, we’ve had to succumb to a few interminable Thanksgivings. Oz’s friend, a doctor, has a beautiful house up in the foothills, and is always inviting stragglers like us to come and be a part of the crowd. The food is superb, but the transaction involves a poor rate of exchange: awkward conversations with stiff types and their perky wives. You know you’re in trouble when conversation immediately turns to Black Friday versus Cyber Monday.
Another time we went to the neighbors’. After a couple of glasses of wine, the wife started in on her favorite topic: sex with an old Professor/ex-lover. Her husband excused himself to vomit in the upstairs toilet, then returned and drank another glass of wine.
Sorry, but I’ve given up—long ago— on drunks and their hostile titillations.
So last year we ran away—just our family—and went camping at our favorite spot in the mountains just north of here. It was a gorgeous fall day; cottonwood leaves shining brilliantly on the trees, kids playing in the red dirt like little pilgrims, dogs chasing wildlife along the banks of a creek. The campground was wonderfully deserted. We ate dinner—overly-salinated turkey and mashed potatoes from a chain deli—on the picnic table, then sprayed each other with whipped cream. It would have been perfect if one of the dogs hadn’t thrown up on our bedding at nightfall.
I thought we’d do that again this year (minus the last part), but we’d an early snow, and it looked bitterly cold outside. We’d skillfully fended off several invitations, but still didn’t have “a plan” the day before Thanksgiving. Then, somehow—by default—or a convoluted cell phone call while I stood in front of the grocery store meat case—we ended up with a “Young Turkey” for which neither of us would admit responsibility. (Believe me, I didn’t like the “Young” part, but it was the smallest I could find.)
“I don’t think it’s complicated to cook a turkey,” I remember telling Oz, “Just time-intensive.” Between the two of us, I was sure we could figure it out.
I knew that the first part of the formula involved defrosting, so I stowed the bird in the cold oven, wrapped in its plastic store bag. My son had a playdate, and I didn’t want his friend (whose mother had invited us to T day) to know that we had acquired a turkey of our very own.
Three hours later, I managed to get online and read about how to properly defrost a turkey, discovering that it would take approximately two days in the refrigerator. Eek! I opted for method number two: filling up the sink with cool water and changing it every hour for six hours straight. (Time intensive!) The turkey—still bound tightly in its plastic jacket—kept popping up like a floater in a lake. I finally weighed it down with a mallet and a heavy lid.
After it had mostly defrosted, I considered “brining” it, but was too exhausted, so I just threw it into the fridge overnight.
In the morning I asked Oz: “How are we supposed to cook it? Have you checked?”
He shook his head.
“You’re not going to help me at all, are you?”
“Bastard! I thought we were in this together!”
But I couldn’t really blame him. Oz was a vegetarian for eight years before I met him, and I feel some residual guilt about getting him to take that first bite of steak.
I said I was willing to take the lead in the preparation, as long he provided research and assistance. He reluctantly went online and suggested brining it.
“We missed the deadline on that one. Next?”
He said that we should wash it, dry it, salt it, bring it to room temperature, and then rub a stick of butter over it. That sounded simple enough.
But all morning long, I kept putting it off. It was like I was going to the morgue to identify a body. Not someone I knew closely, mind you, but still, a body.
The fact that I hadn’t taken it out of its plastic wrapping was a sure sign of denial.
In case you haven’t guessed, yet, I’m extremely conflicted about meat: Philosophically I am opposed to killing animals, but physiologically, I do better with a little animal protein in my system. And at certain times of the month, I get dark, atavistic cravings for a big, juicy steak.
I know that to eat meat—and not acknowledge from where it comes– is a terrible form of hypocrisy. So yes, I am a really, really big hypocrite. For years, we called every kind of meat in our house “chicken,” to protect my son’s fragile sensibility. He adores animals—especially mammals—and I didn’t know how he would feel about ingesting them. This charade went on for far too long—until he was nearly six. When we finally, carefully, gently, lifted the veil of ignorance, he was completely fine with it. In fact, he openly calls himself “a carnivore.”
My four-year-old daughter has always known the origins of meat. The other day she cackled gleefully, “Mommy, don’t forget to kill the turkey so we can eat it for dinner!”
And so, late yesterday morning, with Oz at my elbow for support, I began to remove the plastic wrapping. It felt like an intimate act, taking someone’s clothes off for the first time and wondering: What will it look like?
It looked like plucked turkey. I’ve seen them before, in the markets in Mexico.
Then Oz pointed out a little plastic red circle on the outside of the chest area.
“A dart,” he said. “Where they shot it.”
“No!” I gasped.
We read the packaging, relieved to find out that it was just a temperature gauge. Fine; our digital thermometers probably weren’t going to work well under the wings.
The legs were bound together with a plastic hook, which seemed sort callous and unnecessary. I opened them up and gazed inside the cavity.
“What is that?” I murmured, peering closer. It looked like a severed penis.
Oz made a loud, unidentifiable noise, I shrieked.
After consulting the packaging, we discovered that it was a neck. A neck that would have to be removed, along with the giblets. I looked at Oz, but he was already backing out of the room.
“Do you have any plastic gloves? I begged, tears in my eyes. He shook his head.
I took the plastic wrap and plucked it out with my face averted , deposited it in the trash. Oz disappeared to drink a beer.
I knew that the plastic bag of giblets were supposed to be floating around somewhere, but I had thrown the directions away with the neck.
“Please, please turkey,” I crooned. “I’m sorry, but please, cough them up….” Finally I discovered them in the neck area.
I was trembling when I put the turkey back into the refrigerator. I had to go and take a warm bath, just to calm my nerves.
“Did you salt it?” Oz asked from the living room.
“No,” I said, shuddering. “That’s your job.”
A few hours later, he suggested that we let the turkey out; it needed to come to room temperature. I massaged the cold corpse with butter. Yuck. The cooking part seemed easier: We opted for “the simplest, easiest” method un-stuffed, with legs un-trussed, at 350 degrees. We put our bird in at 3 p.m. At 4 p.m., the pan barely felt warm. We turned up the oven up to 400 and dutifully basted. An hour later, the skin was tightening up a bit, getting tan. By five o’clock, our horrible idea was starting to look and smell more like dinner, and by six, it was done.
I smoothed a white tablecloth on the table, got out the fancy old china and Czech glassware, donned a red corduroy jumper dress from the 70s, a frilly apron from the 50s, and my red ruby slippers. Oz dressed up like a Hassidic Jew. The kids wore yarmulkes. Then we put on (Israeli Choreographer’s) Ohad Naharin’s amazing piece, Minus 16, and danced around with forks and knives as we set the table. (Oz has some Jewish ancestry, and it was the only time the first day of Hanukah would coincide with Thanksgiving for something like 70,000 years.) We made a menorah out of votive/luminara candles, and let the kids light the first one.
When we finally sat down at the table to give thanks—for our home, our dogs and each other, I made sure to give a special thanks to the turkey for its most-generous contribution. And then we thanked the asparagus, cranberries, potatoes, and salad, so that they wouldn’t feel left out.