About this time of year, the specter of the perfect Thanksgiving turkey looms over my stove, determined to make me feel inadequate and guilty.
No other main course comes with so many warnings. Don’t defrost it outside the refrigerator. Don’t stuff it with hot dressing. Cook it immediately after stuffing. Immediately return it to the refrigerator after dinner.
I remember listening to the car radio on the way to an out-of-town wedding the weekend before Thanksgiving. A discussion carried such dire warnings about the way I planned to defrost the turkey (put it out on the counter the day before) that I pulled over, called a friend, and asked her to take my turkey out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator. As it turned out, it didn’t defrost in time, so I put it out on the counter anyway.
After Thanksgiving, if you do not use every bit of the turkey for some practical purpose, you are lacking basic housekeeping skills. No other meat comes with this prerequisite. Does pork come with a little bag of organs and part of the neck that you must find a use for because somewhere in the world someone is starving? Is it necessary to use all the bones and every scrap of meat from a standing rib roast? Do people say the whole neighborhood could be fed on what you throw away from a lamb chop?
And then there is the soup. My friends rave about how good their turkey soup is and how much everyone likes it. Mine always comes out gray, and I usually throw it away. What do you expect from boiled bones that have already roasted for four or five hours?
I have fond memories of the Thanksgivings of my childhood. We had a wonderful cook named Otile who came on the day before Thanksgiving to help my mother prepare the dinner. She was a tiny lady who wore a white, starched uniform. Her snow-white hair was finger-waved and covered with a delicate hair net. I was fascinated by her right hand, which was missing the third finger as the result of an accident in the pea-canning factory in town where she worked as a young girl. I stared at the shiny, tight skin covering the stub as she kneaded dough for cloverleaf rolls, pumpkin and minced pies, and coffee cake for the morning. She made carrot curls and radish roses and used ridged wooden paddles to roll butter into fancy balls, all of which were placed in a bowl of ice water. She made creamed parsnips and crushed peanut brittle to sprinkle over the whipped cream on the pumpkin pie. The aroma of baking pies, rolls, and a potpourri of other good smells filled the house. Finally she folded stiff, white paper and cut the edges to make frilly “boots” for the turkey. All the prepared food, including the turkey, that wouldn’t fit in the refrigerator was placed in the unheated vestibule next to the back door.
The next morning when we woke up, the turkey was already in the oven. I once asked my sister if she suspected, as I did, that Otile stuffed the turkey the day before and Mother put it in the oven the next morning?” She replied, “I’m sure she did, and I am also sure she put the stuffing in while it was still hot.” The only pain we felt was from overeating.
I will heed the warnings of the Poultry Council and other experts, but I plan to take them with a grain of salt.