Monday, November 25, 2013

My First Thanksgiving Turkey Was Picture-Perfect

~Published in the Charleston Gazette on November 24, 2013~
On Thanksgiving, my memory transports me to my childhood home and the aroma of roasting turkey, sage dressing, candied yams, pumpkin pies and yeast rolls; the busyness of my mother in a warm kitchen; the gathering of family members laughing and enjoying each other's company; and my father's visible delight with the entire event.

My mother was an excellent cook. The eldest of five children, it was normal for her to help her mother with the cooking, cleaning and looking after her younger siblings. By the time she was married, at 18, she was adept at housekeeping and cooking.

But, for some reason, she never taught me to cook. I had chores to do, but when I offered to help with a meal, she said something like, "I'm in a hurry" or "You can help by staying out of the kitchen."

Is it any wonder, then, that when I married, at 18, I could barely boil water? My young husband loved to eat. He must have been terribly disappointed. However, he ate whatever I managed to put together and rarely complained.

His mother blessed me with a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, and I learned to make some decent meals and showed a particular flair for baking. Still, I'd never be a culinary artist.

We'd been married three years when my parents announced they would be in Cincinnati visiting my elderly grandparents on Thanksgiving. My mother-in-law was recuperating from surgery, so there was no chance of getting an invitation to her Thanksgiving table. We'd be on our own for the first time on this major holiday, just the two of us and our young son.

Opening her purse, my mother handed me a wad of papers. "Here are some notes that will help you with your dinner. I've written step-by-step instructions for everything, starting with the turkey and stuffing."

"I'm not sure I can do it!" I said, butterflies already forming in my stomach at the thought of making a turkey and all the trimmings.

"You'll do just fine," she said. "I've even included a list of things to buy at the grocery store."

I baked a pumpkin pie the night before the big day. That wasn't too difficult. After breaking up bread and corn bread for stuffing, and chopping onions and celery, I decided to turn in so I could get up early and get that big bird in the oven.

My husband and I were up before daybreak. We had a lot to do and, although I was a little excited about cooking my first holiday dinner, I was also nervous.

I was thankful to have help handling the 21-pound turkey. We washed it well, greased it with cooking oil, salted it inside and out and placed it in the pan. No fancy roaster, this. It was a dark blue enamel pan with no lifting rack to hoist the turkey out when it was done. But we'd seen our mothers do it many times with two large forks and were sure we could do it too.

Once it was in the oven, temperature set to 325 degrees, as the instructions ordered, it was time to make the stuffing, peel and cook potatoes and prepare other vegetables.

As the aroma of roast turkey began to float through the house, memories of other Thanksgivings flooded my senses. I felt happy and sad at the same time.

Those are the holiday memories of my childhood, I thought. I'm making new memories and traditions with my own family now. There's room in my heart for both.

Checking the turkey gave us a surprise -- it was coming along nicely. It looked moist, a little brown and it smelled heavenly. I basted it carefully and put it back in the oven. It was about halfway there, we surmised.

Finally, the table set, vegetables cooked and fruit salad ladled into individual bowls, we waited for the turkey so we could use its rich broth to moisten the sage dressing.

"It's been over four hours," I said. "According to Mother's notes, it should be done."

I opened the oven door, and my husband lifted the hot pan out of the oven and placed it on the table beside the huge platter that awaited.

As we surveyed the turkey, our eyes widened.

This bird was a masterpiece! Perfect! Golden brown like the ones you see in magazine ads. I smiled. Now to get it out of the pan.

Placing a large serving fork in each end of the turkey, my husband prepared to lift the large bird out of the pan and onto the platter. But in midair, something happened. A wing fell off. Plop! Greasy broth spattered the countertop.

"Oh, no!" I said.

About that time, the other wing went. Then a drumstick. And another. There was no stopping it. It was like a landslide. Every bit of meat on that turkey slid right off the bones into the broth. We had turkey soup!

My smile turned to tears. "I should have known I couldn't do it!"

Ever the optimist, my husband said, "It'll be fine." He picked up a small piece of the displaced poultry and tasted it. "Mmmm," he said. "It's delicious! C'mon, let's put it on the platter. We don't even have to slice it."

We laughed.

Somehow, I finished the dinner, we ate and actually enjoyed it. I was grateful our son was too young to understand.

That night, my mother phoned. "Well, how was your first Thanksgiving dinner?" she asked.

"Wonderful!" I said. "My turkey looked like a magazine ad, and it was so good; not dry at all."
"See? I knew you could do it," she said.