It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times
The moment you utter the words, “This will be the best [insert your favorite high pressure goal] ever,” you can start weeping and gnashing your teeth because what you’ve done in your momentary glee is implored all forces in the Universe to conspire against you to bring about your complete and utter humiliation. But thank God for provision.
All That Glitters
Over the last twenty years, Thanksgiving has supplanted Christmas as my favorite holiday. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy Christmas with its abounding good cheer, wintry decorations, Christmas carols, pop and standard Christmas songs, shopping, parties, the annual slate of Hallmark Channel movies, Williams-Sonoma Peppermint Bark (don’t waste your time with any other brand), and Advent.
But we all know Christmas ain’t jingle all the way everyday. And some of us have scars to prove it.
Who of us hasn’t made a guest appearance in the reality show, When Gifts Go Awry? Anyone ever given what they genuinely thought was the perfect gift to a loved one only to be met with crushing indifference, or worse yet a thinly veiled rebuke of their best effort at gift selection? Go ahead, you can sheepishly raise your hand in the air, no one’s looking. It’ll be our secret.
And who’s not fallen victim to the inequity of gift exchanges. Don’t even think about judging me for that last statement. You’ve been there. We’ve all been there. There’s always the one Secret Santa participant who puts more thought into wiping their … “nose” than choosing a proper gift for Secret Santas.
Basically, there’s only three proper approaches to Secret Santas. (No need to write this down, just bookmark this essay. You can thank me later.)
Secret Santa Strategy №1: Style. If you’re working with a tight budget, invest more time than money for gifts that deliver maximum impact. Rely on the cleverness of ransom note poems that build excitement and ingenuity in creating activities like treasure hunts and public performance requirements that must be fulfilled in order to receive gifts. The amount of time spent plotting and planning creative exploits get more mileage than dollars spent. (Trust me. I know Secret Santas. More on that in a December post.)
Strategy №2: Substance. If you can’t be bothered with creativity or are short on time, blow past the agreed upon spending limit and dazzle with grandeur. I’m not talking Tiffany & Co. level gifts, but Christmas Day Scrooge-like spending is guaranteed to set tongues a waggin’ and make the Secret Santa experience all about you. Just make sure it’s stuff your recipient likes, or your name will be falling off everyone’s lips for all the wrong reasons.
Strategy №3: The Double Whammy. This brainy approach requires equal parts thoughtfulness and quality. This route is a lead-pipe cinch for ensuring that your name will become part of your company’s Secret Santa lore for years to come. This game plan comes with an added bonus: when pulled off successfully, by the time the big reveal rolls, your reputation as a thoughtful and caring human being will be buffed to a glossy sheen. I’ve know people who started dating and eventually married one another after one of them used this tactic. Don’t laugh, I’ve seen it happen. More than once. (I’m looking at you, Fossi and Memi.)
But despite the fact that Black Friday sales now begin hours before the Macy’s parade steps off and the continuance of glaring injustices perpetrated against Native Americans since before the arrival of the Mayflower at the behest of our government—which reminds me, America, the time for remedying that situation is overdue— Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday. It’s not only the spiritual implications of pausing to not only reflect upon blessings large and small, but the expression of gratitude for all that I have: family, friends, and friends to be; experiences good and those seemingly bad; things animal, vegetable, and mineral; and life, health, and strength, that I wholly embrace. You can’t beat appreciation with a stick.
Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past
Because of a career in entertainment, I’ve spent nearly half of my Thanksgivings away from family. Whether I checked my holiday at the door to the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom, The Disney Studios Theme Park, or the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, I’ve always been blessed to have been in the company of friends.
In 2012, I hung up my elf shoes and retired from professional elfdom (yes, that’s a word now), and my holidays have become my own to spend Thanksgiving with my family and close local friends. And no two have ever been the same.
Thanksgiving 2013 was a tough one. That was my first year away from twelve years with the Christmas Spectacular. You want to talk about withdrawals? I liken the sharp pangs I felt longing for the three months of Christmas camp to what I imagine addicts must go through when they give up their drug of choice and long for a hit. The glut of social media posts about rehearsals, performances, backstage adventures, and post-show exploits only heightened their absence of my friends.
Thanksgiving 2014 marked the first time I cooked the turkey for my family. After much research (thank you, FoodNetwork.com), I chose to brine the bird overnight to reduce the chances of botching the entrée, then stuffed it with herbs, fruit and aromatics, and roasted it. It. Was. Perfection. The meat was so tender and juicy that it literally fell off the bones. I lay no claim to any cooking prowess for the success, I simply read the directions to the letter, because I didn’t know what the heck I was doing.
Thanksgiving 2015 took an entirely different direction. My mom likes to have two kinds of meat for the holiday. That year she wanted a roast as an option for folks who weren’t too keen on turkey. The weekend before Turkey Day, I gathered the necessary provisions for a roast turkey and an herb-crusted hunk of roast beef. My mom’s sisters came over the day before Thanksgiving and made comic note of my mise en place and how I meticulously minced the garlic and plucked the individual leaves from the thyme and rosemary sprigs for the roast’s rub. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Top Chef wanna-be. My knife skills are nonexistent, but I make it a point to keep my fingers out of the knife’s path. Once the rub was prepared, I put everything in the fridge, with the intention of applying it to the roast later that evening. I stepped out for a bit for a cocktail with friends.
I returned, full of holiday cheer, ready to finish prepping the roast and bird, but found my aunts gone and the kitchen spick and span. I pulled the roast out of the fridge and went back for the herby goodness, but it was nowhere to be found.
I checked the countertops. Nothing.
Perhaps in rush to get out of the house, I inadvertently stuck it in the pantry? Not so.
I called to my mom in her bedroom, “Mother, have you seen the rub I made for the roast?”
“The rub?” she asked, as she peered around the corner into the kitchen.
“You know. The stuff I made with the herbs, garlic, and olive oil?” I said, slightly annoyed.
An interminably long beat passed.
“We put it on the inside the turkey.”
“You did what?!”
I didn’t say another word. I couldn’t say another word. I could have fried eggs in my bare hands. What were my mom and her sisters thinking? They thought they were helping me out. They helped me alright; from a state of zen to abject fury. The grocery stores were all closed. There was no way on earth I was going out on Thanksgiving morning to fight last minute stragglers and in search of herbs for a roast. And miss the Thanksgiving Day parade? Not a chance.
The way my mother tells the story, I gave her a look that could’ve bored holes in the wall. She scurried back to her bedroom, hurriedly called her sisters, and told them, “Ooh, girl. We messed up.”
I didn’t see my mom until the next morning. The aunts came over. The tension in the room was thicker than canned cranberry sauce until I gave an intentionally comic account of the events of Thanksgiving Eve 2015.
All in all, the turkey turned out fine, and but two days later I had to say good-bye to a very dear friend. I had to put down my beloved, fiften-year-old Bichon Frise, Samuel Jackson Pollack, a.k.a. Jack. That little dog was with me from the time he was eight weeks old and stuck with me through some of my darkest times, and loved me despite my foibles. All he asked of me was belly rubs, cuddles on the couch when he was in the mood, and a spot at the foot of my bed in the fall and winter. I was devastated.
A few months later, my mom adopted Jasmine, a Dachshund-Yorkie mix. If Jack was laid back and cool, Jasmine is all energy, all the time. Half an hour away from her is like half a year.
The Best Laid Plans
In September 2016, I published my first book for a paying client, The Food Safety Book: What You Don’t Know Could Kill You. The consumer food safety, food quality, and food storage book was a hit. Both the client and I were thrilled with the final product. I was on a roll. Once again, I was appointed head turkey-meister for the Rivers family and armed with my amassed knowledge about how to handle meat, Thanksgiving 2016 would be the best Thanksgiving ever and nothing would stand in my way.
Cue: universe revving up to issue a beatdown with my name on it.
Days before Thanksgiving, I headed to Publix. With a couple of successful turkeys under my belt, I opted to step up my game and get a twenty-pounder, but I couldn’t find one in the case. The butcher offered to check in the back to see if they had more on hand.
A few minutes later, the butcher strolled out showcasing a titanic turkey. He told me they were out of the brand and size I wanted, but he’d cut me a huge deal on a twenty-found pound Butterball turkey. My mouth fell open as he extolled all its virtues. Images of a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving, but with a black family, filled my head. A well-put-together woman who looked like she knew her way around a kitchen, leaned over my shoulder and whispered, “You have to get the Butterball. It’s the turkey. You can’t go wrong. And for that price, if you don’t take it, I sure will.”
Not one to pass up good advice and a good deal, I thanked her, and blurted out to the butcher, “Thanks! I’ll take it!”
Score — a massive Butterball turkey for a song! I engaged in serious endzone celebrating all the way home.
Having spent the past year working on The Food Safety Book, I learned the correct way to thaw a frozen turkey: put in the fridge to thaw over a number of days and never let perishable food stay in the Danger Zone (between 40° and 140°F, the birthplace of all bacteria) for more than two hours. My mom is old school and her solution to the problem was to let him thaw on the counter, then just put him in the freezer.
My thoughts: bad idea.
She’s got this freezer in the garage that keeps things cold, but not frozen. The turkey was already frozen solid and denser than Thor Bjornsson’s biceps and there was no way I was going to risk giving everyone some type of foodborne illness. Nope, not on my watch. I got the mom-stare, and despite my gut reactions, I demurred and set the Butterball in the non-freezing freezer to thaw.
Three days later and it’s the day before Thanksgiving. A friend from church called and asked if knew anyone who needed a turkey as a friend of his had an extra one. Of course, I said “yes.” My family was all set, so we figured we could surely find someone in need of a turkey.
We met the friend to pick up the turkey, but she ended up giving us not one, but two sixteen-pound turkeys. We made some calls, found someone in need, and gave one turkey a forever home. Despite a number of calls, we couldn’t find a home for the second turkey, so into the non-freezing freezer that one went.
At this point, the time was about 6:00 oclock in the evening. My plan was to cook the turkey the night before, so I could lounge around the house in my Christmas plaid fat pants and work on my cherubic figure by grazing all day long.
I brought the turkey into the kitchen, climbed up my trust step ladder, and flung it on the counter. The thing landed with the thud of a concrete block. I pressed my thumb against the turkey and it didn’t give an inch. The damn thing was frozen solid. Apparently, the non-freezing freezer upped its chill game — or lowered, depending on how you look at it — and left me with a frozen bird.
I was awash in panic. Images of my black Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving were marred by a gaping hole where the guest of honor should be displayed and quizzical looks on everyone’s faces. Who does that? Who hosts Thanksgiving dinner and doesn’t have a turkey? Okay, maybe vegetarians and vegans; but no self-respecting carnivore would allow himself to become an otherwise avoidable Thanksgiving cautionary tale. I couldn’t allow that to happen, especially being linked to the misused herb rub story. Never!
Perhaps drowning the bird in the sink was the way to go?
Not really. The kitchen had been remodeled three months ago and the possibility of a twenty-plus-pound turkey ripping out an under-mount sink terrified me. I called the carpenter to find out if he thought the sink would hold. His response: I think so.
Wrong answer! Frozen bird rips out sink? No freaking way on Earth.
Next option: soaking it in a roasting pan! Yes!
Keep in mind, I’m doing this all atop my trusty step ladder. I remove the shrink wrap from the bird, wrestle it into a roasting pan, and begin to fill it with water. And it just as the pan fills, it dawns on me that only half the damn thing would thaw — the bottom half — and the breast would never thaw.
Onto the next option: whatever that was.
So I’m wrestling the massive turkey inside the flimsy roasting pan to the edge of the sink so I dump the water out, the pan folds and chilly turkey water spills down the front of my clothes and onto the floor. If I had been watching all of that transpire I would’ve been double over laughing. But I wasn’t.
“I would’ve just left him on the counter,” my mom said from a safe distance.
“I’m not giving people food poisoning! The Food Safety Book says — ”
“I’ve been thawing turkeys for a hundred years and no one’s ever got food poisoning.”
“Fine. You do it.” I climbed off the step ladder into a pool of turkey water and began cleaning up the mess.
I retired to another part of the house, slipped into something less fowl, and nodded off. In my somewhat semi-conscious state, I thought I heard my mother and brother talking about her dog, Jasmine, slipped outside and get wet.
A few hours later…
I returned to the kitchen and asked my mom, “So how’s the turkey coming?”
“It’s on the patio,” she said muttered.
“How does it look?” It was dark outside, except for a few exterior lights, and I couldn’t see through the window as I’m not tall enough to just look and see the scene outside.
“Mother, is it thawing okay?”
“I don’t want another turkey,” she said tentatively. Now mind you, my mother is a very intelligent woman with a masters in education, so she’s got great command of the English language.
“What are you talking about?” My words were met with silence and I’m starting to wonder what in the world has happened. “Use your words and tell me what’s going on?”
“Well, I’m going out there to check on the turkey.”
I walked through the garage and onto the patio. Illuminated by exterior lights, at the edge of the patio, sat the once glorious Butterball turkey in the roasting pan on the patio. With a garden hose tucked into the pan. I didn’t know which infuriated me more, the fact that the turkey was on the ground or that a garden hose was being used to thaw it out.
I turned around to find my mother standing behind me.
“You put the turkey on the ground???”
“It’s not ‘on the ground.’ It’s in the pan.”
“But the pan is on the ground.” Broaching the use of the garden hose would be futile. In abject frustration, I moved on. “So what’s wrong with the turkey?”
A painfully long beat passed. I braced myself for whatever.
“It’s not all there.”
I gazed at the turkey. Aside from the resting on the ground with a garden hose inches away, the thing looked okay. “What do you mean ‘it’s not all there’?”
“It’s not all there. Look at the other side.”
I indulged my mom and walked around the turkey for a look at the other side. And gasped and muffled my laughter.
The twenty-four-pound Butterball turkey that only hours before held such promise lay there with a gaping hole where a drumstick should have been. The turkey looked as if a gator — or something — took a huge-ass bite of it.
My mom lay the blame on Jasmine, who indeed slipped out of the house and onto the patio while she and my brother “set up” the turkey for its demise. The Dachshund-Yorkie mix dog weighs only nine pounds, so I don’t think she was able to affect such damage. But there are feral cats in the neighborhood. I think one or two of them may have slipped into the patio and absconded with the drumstick.
I left the amputated carcass right where it sat for my mom and brother to deal with. Thank God for the stunt turkey He provided which sat chilling in the non-freezing freezer. I prepped and cooked that one instead. (See below.)
By the way, we never found the missing drumstick.
Be thankful. And love one another.