"This Thanksgiving will go down in history!" I informed my husband as I planned the seating arrangements. We had four stools and a high chair, and five grown-up sized diners.
“I don’t mind eating in the living room.” My husband offered.
“Oh, no you don’t. If I have to watch my mother eat yams, so do you.” I checked the decor. The last time we had actually decorated the place was around the time of Lent, three years ago. "We need new place mats," I said, eyeing the plastic Easter Bunny mats that still graced our table.
"We just got those!" My husband gripped his wallet. "Here’s a marker. Color in some feathers and a waddle and no one will ever know.” His eyes darted towards the oven, pausing. "You do realize you’ve never cooked a turkey before?”
"How difficult can it be? It's just a big chicken, right?"
“And you’ve never cooked a chicken either.” He walked away. I caught him on the Internet that night when he thought I was asleep. Researching. There are apparently nine restaurants in our neighborhood that are open on Thanksgiving Day. Two deliver. One even sells something resembling a turkey, plus or minus a few key parts.
That a boy, husband. Way to sap my holiday enthusiasm.
Still, as crazy as it sounded, he could be right. I had never cooked a chicken, a hen, or any other member of the fowl family. The closest I had come was reheating a bucket of chicken from the KFC, and even that turned out disastrous. They should put warning labels on those paper buckets: highly flammable.
Reluctantly, I sought out the wisdom of my mother.
"I had hoped you would have changed your mind and let me handle dinner, April.” My mother had always ‘done’ dinner and had a hard time letting go. “How were you thinking of preparing the bird?"
"I’m brining it."
"Brining?" My mother’s voice wavered. She had the same tone the year in Junior High when my softball coach asked if he could take me camping. "Do you even know what brining is?"
Honestly, I hadn’t a clue. I had read about it in a magazine while I was in the Supercuts. Unfortunately, I had only read the part that said Want to start a new Thanksgiving tradition? Try brining your turkey this year, before the stylist called me to the chair.
"It’s our new Thanksgiving tradition," I explained.
There was a long pause over the phone, followed by my mother uttering a Catholic prayer. My mother isn’t Catholic.
"Please, honey. Find a recipe. There are a million of them out there."
As always, she was right. I googled Turkey recipes and almost instantly, found the perfect one. I called my mother and gave her the news.
"Guess what? I’ve got a recipe!"
"I'm so glad.” My mother sighed into the phone. “What spices does it call for? Rosemary? Sage? Thyme?"
I blinked as I tried to recall where I had heard those words before. Weren't they the gifts from the three wise men? That seemed almost heretical. I shook my head, glancing at my six-gallon bottle of Season All purchased from a recent Costco expedition. “Don’t worry mom. I’ve got it all under control.”
My mother hedged. "Would you like me to at least make the stuffing? I can have it ready in the morning before you stuff the bird."
"Stuffing the bird is not on the recipe.” I checked my meticulously written note card hanging on the refrigerator door: Defrost turkey for two hours...bake for four.
Any variation and I risked disaster.
“Okay,” she said, but I could tell she wasn’t done yet. “Can I at least bring the pies?”
“Sure mom. I couldn’t find any pie recipes that didn’t require hours of dough rolling and ingredient mixing. Pie duty is all yours.”
Thanksgiving Day I woke up at the crack of ten to begin my long reign as culinary queen. Of course, a good cook is a happy cook so I spent the first few hours of my morning watching reruns of Real Housewives of Atlanta. They were airing a holiday episode and I wanted to get properly ‘in the spirit’. At noon my mother called to ask how dinner was progressing.
"Fine”, I told her absently. Someone was pulling out someone else’s hair extensions on TV. Shit was getting real. “I’ve got it all under control.”
“You sure. I can come by. I don’t mind.”
My mother is from a different generation. In her day you got up at four in the morning, baked, chopped, basted, broiled, and basically worked your patooty off for a meal that was consumed in under seven minutes. I however, am a modern woman with gadgets and gizmos my poor misguided mother had never seen. Such as a DVR. So I finished Real Housewives and watched three episodes of The Big Bang Theory. All was going according to plan.
At 2 PM I removed the turkey from the freezer and let it sit on the counter to thaw and poured myself a glass of wine.
"Mom, turkey's still frozen." My son reported. It was 4:30 and I had put him on Turkey watch duty. I went into the kitchen and knocked on it. Solid as a rock.
"Put it in the microwave for an hour," I said. Lucky for us I had made the executive decision last year to buy an industrial sized microwave. My foresight was paying off and I intended to brag to my husband about it the second he emerged from his man cave.
Sixty minutes later I heard the microwave ding and I plodded into the kitchen. It was time to bake that bird. But the microwave had done more than defrost the turkey. It had aged it. The skin was yellowed and cracked, bunched up and broken. It looked about half the size coming out of the microwave as it did going in.
"This thing okay to eat?" My husband asked sticking a fork in it. “I think it’s burned on the outside and still frozen on the inside.”
"That's how all turkeys look before you bake them. If you helped out more around the house, you'd know that little piece of trivia, wouldn't you?"
“All I know is that is not the way the turkeys my mom cooked looked.”
He was lucky I didn’t beat him with a drumstick.
I handed him a turkey bag, a large plastic sack that guaranteed our turkey would come out moist and delicious. He opened it and I dumped in the bird.
That is the sound a turkey makes when it falls through a turkey bag and onto the floor. Additionally, fliffttthhhh is the sound it makes when it slides across that same floor, knocking over unsuspecting family members along the way.
"Catch it!" I cried. My dogs had entered the room and were circling like bandits around a wagon train. The only thing that kept them at bay was their inability to reconcile the smell of turkey with the shriveled thing slithering across the floor. My husband hurdled the chairs and seized the bird just as three canine jaws snapped shut behind it.
“I knew I should have played sports in high school,” he said, handing me over the turkey and rubbing his shoulders.
Before anything else could go wrong I shoved the turkey in the oven - sans bag - and turned the dial to 450 degrees. The temperature was a little higher than what the recipe called for, but my parents would be here soon and we didn’t have time to wait. I suppose I should have preheated the oven, but I had already strayed dangerously away from the recipe. I was close to going rogue.
“I did all the hard work,” I said to my husband and son as I opened a can of Cranberry sauce. “You gentlemen can take it from here.”
With that, I went to pick up my vehicularly-impaired parents. The roads were dark and still. The fog swallowed up the flickering Christmas lights from the lights on neighboring houses. The only sound came from my father, who yelled at me to slow down as we approached dizzying speeds of seven-miles-per hour.
When we finally arrived, it hit me: I was a bad, bad daughter.
Holidays had always been important to my family, especially my mother. No matter how many recessions, lost jobs, or tragic family events that occurred, she had always made sure that holidays were special. She had cooked, baked, sliced, diced, and cried in order for us to celebrate together, something I never fully appreciated until now. I had taken this day from from her- demanded it actually – and thought I could replicate what she did with a few modern conveniences and some prepackaged stuffing.
As my parents climbed the stairs to my front door I wanted to warn them, apologize for what would come: Franken-turkey, canned yams, and lumpy gravy from a jar. But they seemed so happy there, holding their pies, buzzing about Black Friday sales and what Santa might bring their grand kids. So I said nothing. I wouldn’t take this moment from them. It would be like the Grinch announcing to Cindy-Loo Who that he was stealing Christmas. Better to just let the Who’s sleep for now. They would find out soon enough.
We walked through the front door and I was greeted by something I hadn’t expected: the sights and sounds of the holidays. My husband had lit pine-scented candles and decorated the tree and my son was dancing to Christmas music from an old Bing Crosby CD. Store bought cookies sat on a silver tray on the coffee table and my dad reached for one, and then another. My dogs greeted my parents with loving licks, almost knocking the pies out of mother’s hands. The house wasn’t filled with the traditional Thanksgiving sights and sounds and smells, but it didn’t matter. It was the holidays and there was a certain magic that couldn’t be undone by a shriveled turkey and a lazy cook.
I still remember that Thanksgiving fondly, even though the food was so bad we spent most of the evening joking about it, threatening to send it to our enemies during times of war to weaken their morale. We made up for it by playing games, making wishes, and sharing jibes the way that only families do. That fourth Thursday in November the world was filled with potential and unlimited possibilities. And innocence.
It was the last Thanksgiving I had with my dad; He passed the following spring. Poor guy. His last Thanksgiving and I nearly poisoned him. I’d eat that horrible, wretched turkey every evening for the rest of my life to have that night back. I’m sure my mother would too.
I’ve given my mother back her cooking torch. It makes her happy and keeps her busy. As for me, I’ve learned a valuable lesson: everyone has a talent and a passion and we should all focus on what we love to do. I stay out of the kitchen now, unless I’m asked to help (rarely) and do what I do best: live life, observe the world, attempt to find some meaning in it, and record it.