Weeks ago, plans had taken shape for my standard Thanksgiving: morning exercise of some sort, afternoon appetizers at the home of my friends Marvin and Gil, and then a trip down I-95 to Richmond for dinner with my sister Suzi, her family, and their awesome neighbors. My parents were supposed to fly to Atlanta two days ago to celebrate the holiday with my brother and his family, but the back problems Dad starting having weeks ago spiked, making travel of any kind impossible.
My parents were crestfallen, the Atlanta Yanks were disappointed, and all of us were concerned about Dad. In situations like this, my family does not spend a whole lot of time wringing its hands; we leap into action. Texts and emails started flying and pretty soon my sister Lynne had arranged to show up at my parents’ house Monday and Tuesday night, I had volunteered to cook a turkey and a few sides at my parents’ house on Thursday, and Suzi and her crew were going to drive up from Richmond Thanksgiving morning with the rest of our dinner necessities. A heartwarming example of a family coming together to save Thanksgiving, except for one niggling detail: I’ve never cooked a turkey before.
I mentioned this in passing while on the phone with my boss yesterday, and then I uttered the five-word phrase that has preceded every DIY disaster in my home: “How hard can it be?”
My boss, who owns a Sarcastic Magic 8-Ball (because I gave it to him) and is not afraid to use it, chimed in with the corollary: “How could this go wrong?” I decided not to tell him I hadn’t yet procured a turkey. And frankly, that was the least of my worries because the Westover Beer Garden near my house has an organic butcher and sells locally and sustainably-raised, hormone-free turkeys for Thanksgiving. I called and requested a turkey that would feed eight.
“Fifteen pounds is the smallest I can do,” said the meat guy.
“I’ll take it,” I said, never mind that I’ve never roasted a fowl larger than six pounds.
I picked up my turkey yesterday. When I saw the price tag, I concluded that my bird might have been raised locally but had done its undergraduate work at Yale. With my investment-grade bird in hand, it was time to start thinking about how to prepare it. I texted my dear friend Philippa for advice. She cooked Thanksgiving dinner for her tribe last year and was asked to do it again this year, so she couldn’t have screwed it up too badly.
I knew I’d gone to the right person when she sent a text about a recipe involving an entire bottle of champagne. Because preparation is the key to culinary success, my efforts did not stop there. I conducted additional research while Uber-ing to the soft opening of Sehkraft Brewery, the beer garden’s latest venture. My driver happened to mention that she cooks for a group of twenty every year, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.
“Honey, I started cooking days ago,” she said, apparently unconcerned that the fate of her driver rating rested on her answer.
When I got home from Sehkraft I turned my focus, such as it was, to scouring the interwebs for advice. As I read up on the champagne recipe (spoiler alert: most of the bubbly is supposed to wind up in the bird), reviewers suggested brining the bird first. Traditional brining involves giving the turkey a long soak in herbed saltwater for overnight. No big deal when your bird and the soaking tub are small enough to fit in the fridge, but with a 15-pounder, that was going to be a hassle. Then I discovered dry brining, which consists of giving the turkey a salted, spiced rubdown and letting it hang out for a day or two.
I got up at the crack of dawn, mixed the salt and spices, and proceeded to get the bird ready for its rubdown. All I can say is whatever suffering my turkey endured in slaughter pales in comparison to the violence I wrought upon it in my kitchen. I struggled to tuck the wings underneath, with the result that I now own a turkey that is both Ivy-educated and double-jointed. But it’s done. The briny bird is now in the fridge, awaiting tomorrow’s final assault.
While the turkey chills, my family members are undoubtedly sweating it. Being a glass half-full type, I pointed out to my mother that I’ll either whip up a heck of a meal or take my father’s mind off his back pain by giving him a world-class case of salmonella.
But it almost doesn’t matter how the bird turns out, because Thanksgiving, or as I like to call it, “Yanksgiving,” is about the people, not the food. By surrounding myself with some of my very favorite turkeys, I can’t lose.