The Write Life

A Tale of Two Turkeys

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

NEVER utter the words, “This will be the best [insert any holiday or event] ever.” The second the sentence leaves your lips, you have implored all malevolent forces in the Universe to conspire against you and bring about your complete and utter humiliation. Your recourse? Abject weeping and gnashing your teeth. But thank God for provision.

Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past

Thanks to a career in entertainment, I’ve spent nearly half my Thanksgiving holidays away from family. Whether I checked my holiday at the door of 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 with my family and close local friends.

Thanksgiving 2013 was a tough one. That was my first one outside the bubble of twelve consecutive years with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Want to talk about withdrawals? I liken the sharp longings I felt for three months of Christmas camp to what I imagine crack addicts must go through when they give up their drug of choice. The glut of social media posts about rehearsals, performances, backstage shenanigans, and post-show exploits only heightened the absence of my friends.

Thanksgiving 2014 marked the first time I cooked the turkey for my family. After much research (thank you,, I brined 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 cooking prowess as the reason for the success, I simply followed the directions to the letter since 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 holiday dinners. 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 Thanksgiving Eve and comically mocked my mise en place prep and how I meticulously minced the garlic and removed the rosemary and thyme leaves from their stems for the roast’s rub. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Top Chef wanna-be. My knife skills are nonexistent, but I’ve managed to keep my fingers intact. Once the rub was prepared, I put everything in the fridge. You know, with plans of applying it to the roast later that evening. Then, I stepped out 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. 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, “Have you seen the rub I made for the roast?”

“The rub?” she asked, peering 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 inside the turkey.”

“You did what?!”

I didn’t say another word. I couldn’t say another word. But I could have fried eggs in my bare hands. What were they thinking? They thought they were helping me out. They helped me alright. They helped move my mood from a state of zen to one of fury. All the grocery stores were closed. There was no way on earth I was going out on Thanksgiving morning to fight last-minute stragglers in search of herbs and miss the Thanksgiving Day parade? Not a chance.

The way my mother tells the story, she says that I gave her a look that could’ve bored holes in the wall. She scurried back to her bedroom and called her sisters. “Ooh, girl. We messed up.”

I didn’t see my mom until the next morning. The aunts came over for Thanksgiving dinner. The tension in the room was thicker than Ma Cratchet’s fig pudding until I gave an intentionally comic account of the “helpfulness” the night before.

All in all, the turkey turned out fine, the roast—meh. But two days later, I had to say goodbye to a very dear friend. I had to put down my fifteen-year-old Bichon Frise, Samuel Jackson Pollack, a.k.a. Jack. That little guy 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. In her mind, half an hour away from us is like half a year.

Be thankful.

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 newly-amassed knowledge about meat handling, Thanksgiving 2016 would be the best Thanksgiving ever and nothing would stand in my way.

Cue: Universe revving up to issue another beatdown with my name on it.

Days before Thanksgiving, I headed to Publix. With a couple of successful turkeys under my belt, I stepped up my game and searched for a twenty-pound bird, but couldn’t find one in the case. The butcher checked in the back to see if they had more on hand.

A few minutes later, he presented a titanic turkey, much the way Vanna White showcases a gaggle of “Wheel of Fortune” prizes. He told me they were out of the brand and size I wanted, but he’d cut me a huge deal on a twenty-four-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, “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: thaw it 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. There was no way I was going to risk giving everyone a 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, it’s the day before Thanksgiving. A friend from church called and asked if I knew anyone who needed a turkey as he knew someone who had an extra one. Of course, I said “yes.” My family was all set with a behemoth bird, so we figured we could surely find someone in need.

We met the friend of a 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 secured one turkey a home for the holidays. 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 o’clock 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. 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 Norman Rockwell Black 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 a Thanksgiving cautionary tale. I couldn’t allow that to happen, especially being linked to the misused herb rub story. Never!

Maybe 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 the sink would hold. His response? A tentative, I think so.

Frozen bird rips out sink? Not on my watch.

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 wouldn’t thaw before Monday.

On to the next option: whatever that was.

So. As forty-eight-inch tall me stands on my step-ladder wrestling a massive turkey inside the flimsy roasting pan to the edge of the sink. The plan was to could dump the water out, but the pan folded and chilly turkey water spilled down the front of my clothes and onto the floor. If I had been watching the scene unfold, I would’ve been doubled 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 ever got food poisoning.”

“Fine. You do it.” I stepped off the step ladder into a pool of turkey water.

I retired to another part of the house, slipped into something less fowl and wet, and nodded off. In my somewhat semi-conscious state, I thought I heard my mother and brother talking about her dog, Jasmine. They said something about her slipping outside and getting 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 muttered.

“How does it look?” It was dark outside, except for a few exterior lights, and I couldn’t see through the window as . . . you know . . . forty-eight inches doesn’t afford me a full view out the window.

No response.

“Is it thawing okay?”

“I don’t want another turkey,” she said. Now mind you, my mother is a very intelligent woman with a master’s 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 started to wonder what in the world had happened. “Use your words and tell me what’s going on?”

More silence.

“Well, I’m going out there to check on the turkey.”

I walked through the garage and onto the patio. Illuminated by exterior lights, sat the once glorious Butterball turkey in the crumbled 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.” Asking how the garden hose got involved would be futile. 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 resting on the ground with a garden hose, 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.

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 doubt she was able to wreak such carnage. 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.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Be thankful. And love one another.