Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tales of a Thanksgiving Turkey

As I was growing up, our world would center around a turkey for a whole week before Thanksgiving. Mom was a very particular cook, and most especially particular about her turkeys. From the choosing, thawing, cleaning and finally cooking, all her processes had to 'go by the rules'. When we were small, it was only a grocery store turkey Mom could afford. But it would be the biggest Tom in the bin. Later, she heard hens were juicier, so from that point on we had only smaller, juicier hens. As her food budget grew, Mom graduated to getting her turkeys from a local meat market, selected by herself and the butcher. And the final stage was when she decided that only fresh birds would do. No more frozen, rock-hard hens for her!
On the eve of Thanksgiving, I would stand at the sink and watch as she would unwrap the carcass, remove the giblets, then carefully wash every part. She looked carefully for pinfeathers, and even squeezed out imaginary ones until her very high standards were met. The turkey then went back into the refrigerator until the big day, while the giblets were boiled for the turkey stuffing she would make in the morning.
On Thanksgiving morning, she would put on her 'turkey apron', a red and white affair trimmed with red rickrack, and get to work. The dressing was made first, then stuffed warm into the waiting turkey cavities. They would be stuffed until the skin pooched out with overfull pockets of goodness. Next the trussing tradition was started. Mom had a whole bundle of skewers, clips and miniature spears. She would spear and clip every movable part, then wind thick string around them, circling and wrapping until the turkey was trussed in a perfect coil. A coating of melted butter followed, brushed over every part of the cold, pale skin, followed lastly by a thorough salting. Mom would then load the stuffed, trussed turkey, breast down into the handed-down, very special turkey roaster, which had seen years of duty in producing holiday feasts.
Many stoves were used over the years to roast Mom's turkeys, including the old gas range of her Aunt Minnie, and ending with a modern 'in-the-wall' variety. She would set the oven to 400 degrees, and roast the covered turkey for exactly one hour. My Dad would then be summoned into the inner sanctum to help with the messy ritual of turning the turkey. Mom had learned from Aunt Minnie, that starting the bird breast down would make the juices flow to that part of the meat. But in order to get a perfectly browned, beautiful end product, the turkey would later have to be turned breast up. After that was accomplished, along with a good bit of grumbling, and grease flying, another thick basting of butter was applied and the turkey returned to the oven to finish cooking at the perfect lower temperature.
My job was to set the table with the good china, silver and napkins while Mom completed her cooking of the rest of dinner. I loved this job, and took great pains to see that the table looked as beautiful as Mom's turkey would. The smells wafting from the oven and kitchen, along with the sounds of the football game on TV, made the whole job wonderful.
Mom's turkey never had a pop-up timer to tell when it was finished, as she had her own methods. When it was deemed the perfect moment, it was removed to a special platter, and the trussing un-done, so Dad could spoon out the wonderful dressing. Mom's apron would come off, and the turkey would be carried proudly to the table, for the oohs and aahs that were Mom's reward. As it was carved with the knife, specially sharpened for the occasion, the endless discussions would begin on whether or not this years' turkey was the best, the juiciest ever, which of course was the objective.
For us kids however, we were most thankful for the gravy that came from the turkey, that flowed around our mashed potatoes and stuffing. We would let the adults figure out which turkey was best one, while we cleaned our plates and asked for more.

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