This is my 22nd year hosting our family’s Thanksgiving. Like most folks in the south, we’ll enjoy a traditional meal of turkey and ham, stuffing, sweet potatoe casserole, cranberry salad, green bean casserole, devilled eggs and pumpkin pie. Unlike the early years, I no longer feel compelled to make everything from scratch. Costco sells a terrific ham and if you don’t mind paying extra, the Honeybaked Ham Store’s smoked turkeys are hard to beat. yet I can still recall the excitement I felt nearly thirty years ago as I prepared to cook my first turkey. Although I’d never cooked one before, it never occurred to me that it could be all that difficult. Armed with my 1980 edition of The Joy of Cooking, I encountered the first of many misadventures in turkeydom. This is what I learned…
1. If a grocery store is advertising its Thanksgiving turkeys for a ridulously low cost, the turkey will be so large, it will not defrost until Christmas.
If you are like me, you love a bargain and you will have visions of a Martha Stewart feast dancing in your head. You will not immediately realize that this is a really, really large bird. You will probably think “Wow! This is great deal!”
After purchasing a 25-30 lb. frozen turkey many years ago, I discovered it takes approximately six weeks to thaw a twenty seven pound turkey in the refrigerator which they define as the “preferred method”. Of course, your refrigerator is well-stocked with all the other ingredients you need for your holiday meal; the turkey instructions do not say that unless you own a commercial size refrigerator, there will not be enough room in your refrigerator for the giant turkey. It also does not say you will need to buy a new larger roasting pan to hold the giant bird and perhaps a new commercial oven, as well.
Fresh turkeys are best but they cost ten times more than a frozen turkey. You will know you have finally “made it” when you skip the sales on the frozen turkeys and buy a fresh turkey.
Old people always insist on buying a turkey breast. In their thin patronizing old people’s voices, they they talk about how tender their turkey breast is and insinuate they wouldn’t want a whole turkey anyway. Personally, I do not think turkey breasts look anything like a turkey. A turkey breast could literally be any kind of meat: pork, ostrich, buzzard or an overweight chicken. Early on, I decided that when I served my Thanksgiving turkey, by golly it would look like a turkey.
Note to self: This year I am serving a turkey breast. I guess I never “made it” and now I am old. (You cannot hear me but my voice has become thin and patronizing…)
2: Most turkey recipes assume the chef knows a little about Turkey Biology.
When I began to prepare my first turkey, no where in the cookbook or the fine print on the package thought to clarify this very important question: how many holes are actually in the damn bird? That year, I discovered two of the three holes that I was searching for; unfortunately, I missed the third cavity that contained the little plastic bag of giblets. Now I know there are at least three cavities in a turkey although based on my previous experience, I live in fear that there is another one hidden out there like Pluto, just waiting to be discovered.
I discovered there is a neck hole which bears a resemblance to a hole at the opposite end. I believe the second hole is the poopy hole but honestly, it could be a little turkey vagina for all I know. Flip the turkey over and this will expose the largest hole, the “body cavity” which I know sounds very NCIS. The view from here is more than a little titillating. In fact, the shiny round butterball shape sits atop neatly tucked legs and thighs looking almost identical to the recently posted photographs of a naked Kim Kardashian.
3. Plump it up!
No, I am not still talking about Kim Kardashian! In recent years, it has become fashionable to treat your turkey to various treatments to enhance tenderness and flavor. In addition to the age old technique of basting, some people soak their turkeys in brine. I noticed my guests seemed uncomfortable when I mentioned the only container in my house large enough to soak my giant turkey was the bath tub. (At a recent neighborhood gathering, I learned that forty-some years ago a man named Mannie Boren made hot sauce in my old porcelain tub and marketed it from the Greensboro Country Club. Honestly, could I make this stuff up???)
I have now begun injecting my turkeys with various solutions to plump up its skin. I am not sure if this makes it taste any better but it does minimize the fine lines and helps my turkey retain its youthful appearance.
4. A word on cooking thermometers…
The final challenge to preparing a wonderful and edible Thanksgiving turkey is to know when it is done. This sounds deceptively simple. The Butterball Turkey Hotline says the best way to determine this is to jab a cooking thermometer deep into the turkey skin until it reaches a temperature of 165-180 degrees, depending on exactly where you have inserted the thermometer. The variance of these mere fifteen degrees could be the difference in samonella and cardboard, or life and death. It occurs to me that novice cooks, like the novice sexual partner, may not have an inkling where they are sticking things. This one takes practice and that’s all I’m saying about it.
Oh, and another important word about thermometers. All thermometers are NOT created equal. Not all are meant for baking. In an oven. There are lesser quality thermometers out there whose thin Chinese metals will not survive being scorched in the oven for the half day or more required to roast a giant turkey. These thermometers are meant for use on top the stove for making candy, fudge and the like.
If it is Thanksgiving morning and you cannot find your meat thermometer…
If it is Thanksgiving morning and your neighbor is not awake for you to borrow his or her meat thermometer…
If it is Thanksgiving morning and your meat thermometer was broken in the drawer of 1000 unused utensils…
If any of these circumstances cause you to head to your local Food Lion to buy a new thermometer, do not buy the cheap thermometer like you bought the cheap turkey. This is not, I repeat, NOT a meat thermometer and it will melt, right there on top of your turkey for all of the world to see.
Ask me how I know this.
Happy Thanksgiving ya’ll!