COLUMN: The Art of War, Thanksgiving dinner edition

Know the enemy and know yourself, and you need not fear the result of a hundred turkey dinners

I had come prepared for war.

Hair tied back in a bun, plaid shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbow, I stood surveying the kitchen. On the stove, pork, celery and carrots were simmering. A bag of white bread sat on the counter — soon to join the pork mixture as stuffing. And in the sink, my nemesis: the Thanksgiving turkey.

Chosen several days before from the Superstore freezer, it had thawed quietly in the fridge. Now, it was subdued in a bath of cold water, taking away the last touches of frost. It looked meek, unassuming, wrapped in its plastic cover. But I knew better.

I had dealt with turkeys before. Evil birds, I knew — not only because I had been traumatized by my grandparents’ rafter of Broad Breasted White Turkeys. (I still recall their red eyes and quiet gobble with a shiver.) They were also evil for the battles they sent to the kitchen-weary.

The first time I attempted to cook a turkey, four years ago, it remained a frosty beast for hours, refusing to thaw even under running water and fervent prayers. Dinner was late that year.

The following year, I was demoted to Assistant Turkey Stuffer for my inability to properly handle the bird the year before. My roommate, a feisty redhead, took over the battle of cooking the poultry. That year, Thanksgiving dinner was several hours early and the turkey turned to dust in our mouths.

I had moved out on my own by the time the third turkey came around. I approached this one with caution. Somehow, I managed to beat this bird into something so tender it disintegrated before it even came out of the pan. Dinner was on time, but we had to pick small vertebrae out of the gravy.

So this year, standing in the kitchen with the morning sun filtering through a layer of cloud, I knew it was my time to win. To battle the bird and serve the perfect turkey.

Stuffing was easy, rubbing down the skin with a mixture of butter, paprika, sage, thyme, salt and pepper a breeze. The drumsticks didn’t tuck under the flap of skin the way they were supposed to — a trick, I thought — but they didn’t move around as I put it into the pan.

At noon, it went into a 350 degree oven.

I waited.

At 4:15 p.m., it was ready to come out. I grabbed the faded pink oven mitts, pulled the pan from its fiery cave and looked at the turkey I had cooked.

The scent wafting from the newly opened oven, it smelled as a reasonably cooked turkey should. Crispy on the bottom — because I had placed the turkey in the pan breast down for maximum juiciness — it looked as a reasonably cooked turkey should. Flipping it over and carving the breast, it cut as a reasonably cooked turkey should.

It was, in a word, underwhelming.

Like an anticlimactic finish to a minor skirmish, the turkey was carved, plated and ready to eat when the first guest arrived. I had won, subdued the turkey. But the story wasn’t nearly as good.

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