Who’s the turkey now?
Well, I blew it.
I spent the first half of my life in the middle of Thanksgiving dinners hosted by some of the best home-cooking chefs I’ve ever known. My maternal grandmother and mom are two top-notch home-cookers and would put a lot of the television chefs to shame. My mom has always been, without question, just a good marketing rep away from a show on Food TV and a companion program on the Home and Garden network. My wife has long said that Mother Otis could kick Martha Stewart’s ass. I do not disagree.
Much of what I know about the basics of cooking comes from the time spent under my mom’s tutelage. From mother sauces (absolutely no pun intended) to dry rubs to the perfect seasoning for fried chicken, my cooking skills rest firmly on a foundation of learning at the original Mt. Otis.
Over the years, I’ve cooked many Thanksgiving dinners with my wife and many of our recipes have come straight out of my mom’s kitchen. It’s safe to say our Thanksgiving meals have always been good because of my mom. My wife, who admits she is still learning some of the finer culinary skills, routinely uses my mom’s methods and is getting better in the kitchen every day (I won’t mention how good she is at the risotto because that’s an inside joke that’s not appropriate for all audiences). Regardless, this is all a long way of saying that I know how cook a damned turkey. I’m good at it. In fact, I’d venture to say I’ve never cooked a bad bird.
Until this Thanskgiving.
I have a problem. I can’t be around a cooking project without getting involved. Hubris and vanity are a big part of the problem. More often than not, I know I’m a better cook than anybody in the room. I’d venture to say I cook better than 95% of the people I know. Only my mom, grandmother, and a few friends are better around the kitchen than me. That kind of arrogance often leads me to either offering to help with prep work and stirring or, in the case of this weekend, completely taking over the kitchen. At the in-laws, taking over the kitchen is not a hard task. My mother in-law doesn’t do a lot of cooking and my father-in-law, despite cooking well, would eat dinner on the floor in the garage if he thought it would make everybody else happy.
An so it was with a cocksure attitude and an old wooden spoon that I commandeered the In-Law Kitchen on Thanksgiving and went to work. On the bill was traditional Thanksgiving fare: Turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, yams, and rolls. I surveyed the battlefield and realized that there was little chance I was going to whip up a masterpiece. The shopping list had been bastardized. Overlooking the pantry, I decided the only hope for a successful mission would be to kick the turkey’s ever-loving ass. Everything else might be marginal, but the turkey, I assured myself, would be perfect.
My method is nothing unique. I learned it from my mother, who I’m sure learned it from somewhere else. Regardless, it works like a sonofabitch, and I use it every time I cook a bird. It goes like this:
How to Cook a Turkey
Clean and prepare the bird. By prepare, I mean stroke it lovingly and tell it how sorry you are for the loss of its head and the cavity search. Take a medium-sized apple, a medium-sized onion, a few stalks of celery, and a stick of butter and shove them where the sun don’t shine (on the bird, not yourself). Rub a small amount of oil on the bird’s skin and make a dirty joke to whoever is standing nearby. My favorite is, “Did you know that salmonella isn’t a sexually transmitted disease?” Then, take some rubbed sage and rub it all over the outside of the bird. Slice another onion and sprinkle the slices on top of the turkey. Slice another stick of butter into half-tablespoon slices and place them all over the outside of the bird. Wrap the entire thing in tin foil and put it in a roasting pan. Put it in a 325-degree oven and leave it the holy hell alone. Don’t poke at the bird, don’t open the foil, don’t open the oven for the first hour and half. You’ll be cooking the bird for three to three and a half hours (assuming the turkey is between 8-12 pounds). After an hour and a half, take the turkey out and quickly baste it with the butter and juices. Put it back in the oven as quickly as you can and don’t touch it again for another hour and a half. After that time, pull back the tin foil, baste, and then let the turkey get roasty brown for 20-30 minutes. Pull out the turkey, carve it up, then pour some of the juices over the carved meat, and serve.
Sounds pretty damned easy, because it is. The result is usually a very moist turkey that has flavor but isn’t overpowering or too outspoken (nothing fucking worse than an outspoken turkey at Thanksgiving — and, yeah, I’m talking to you Uncle Tommy). Now, let me list a few ways this easy turkey (yeah, I mean, I don’t think you can catch genital salmonella) can be messed up:
* Too much time out of the oven for basting
* Too many people poking their head in the oven to “see how it’s doing” or “get that Thanksgiving smell going”
* Too much time spent getting roasty brown at the end of the cook
* Too many cuts into the breast to determine if the bird is properly cooked (even if it can’t be transmitted by genital-to-bird contact, salmonella by ingestion and digestion of undercooked turkey can make for a bad shopping day on Friday).
Every one of the above happened on Thanksgiving.
With all the love I have for my wife’s family, I have a beef with them and it is this: they need to take a portion of the money they spend on cars in a given decade and put it toward updating their kitchen. While I’m fully aware it is a poor musician who blames his instrument, cooking in a too-small oven that may or may not heat at the proper levels is no way to run a railroad (and yeah, I’m fully fucking aware I’m now mixing metaphors). Trying to cook 13 things in an oven that barely fits a nine-pound turkey means something is going to get screwed up. The result was a bird that took way too long to cook, a bird that had to be probed for doneness one too many times, and, verily, a bird that (after not being done after more than four hours) ended up being carved and…oh, jesus help me…microwaved to insure doneness.
The result was, as you might expect, failure across the board. In the end, I was the guy who screamed for the ball and then dropped it in the end zone. I was the guy who worked all night to pick up the hot chick and then passed out before we got to the good stuff. I was, in short, no better than the people who cooked their turkey with a blowtorch and a can of sterno.
The family was accomodating and didn’t protest. Some of them even ate the damned thing. That is a credit to their character.
As for me, I’m now considering buying a turkey and cooking it this weekend. If there was ever a time I needed to get back on the horse, this is it. Plus, I’m feeling pretty randy and I have a new bottle of oil in the cabinet.