I’ve never cooked a turkey. Not only have I never cooked a turkey, I’ve never made stuffing, nor whipped sweet potatoes, nor cranberry sauce nor any number of other delights that take a place of prominence in an American Thanksgiving feast. When I lived at home, Dad was in charge of the turkey. Every place I’ve lived since then has been too small to host dinner; we’ve always gone to one branch of the family or the other for the holiday.
Last year was a bit of a blur. It was only a month since Dad had died; Mom wasn’t up to visiting, and she didn’t want any sort of fuss. My sister brought her dinner that evening. Don and I went to his oldest sister’s house for a lovely gathering of his side of the family: all the siblings, their mom and aunt, the kids. We pulled food up to the second story dining room via the dumbwaiter. We laughed and ate too much and drank excellent wine. Having long since found that grief will leave you at peace for a while, then sneak up and tear at your heart when you least expect, I was relieved to make it through the day without tears. The company helped, I think. And the kids. And the novelty of the dumbwaiter.
This year was less painful, less fogged. Mom was up for company, and so Don and I decided to spend the day in Connecticut. Alas, my sister had to work, but she’s kicking some serious nursing butt, so I’m just going to be happy on her patients’ behalf that they had her looking after them for the holiday. Mom told me I could cook whatever I wanted. I considered doing salmon, or a simple stew with some fresh bread.
Wait a minute, I thought. I could make turkey!
I became set on a traditional turkey dinner. I opted for cooking a bone-in breast (it was just the three of us, after all), and despite a mad desire to make every side dish I’d ever had at any Thanksgiving gathering in the entire span of my life, I settled on four: mashed potatoes, steamed green beans, my sister-in-law’s horseradish carrots and stuffing. I’ve made all of those before, save for the stuffing. I knew I didn’t want to go fancy my first go ‘round, but every recipe I looked at called for oysters or sausage or minced pinwheels or grated octarine. In the end, I figured I would just wing it. How bad could it be?
On Wednesday, I was a chopping, prepping, list-making dervish. I mixed the garlic and herb paste for the turkey breasts (I bought two; I figured if I were making one, it was just as easy to make a second and have plenty of leftovers. I blame having a new chest freezer.), applied it to the poultry and placed the breasts in enormous ziploc bags. Minced celery and onion went into one container, sliced carrots in another and fresh herbs in a small plastic jar. I toasted my bread (a mix of regular italian bread and multi-grain) and popped the cooled cubes into bags. I made a list of all the kitchen implements that I knew Mom wouldn’t have (my roasting pan, huge-ass sautee pan, tongs, heavyweight knife (I was proud - maybe even smug - that I remembered to sharpen it, mid-size whisk) as well as the ingredients for each dish I was making. The next morning, I checked off each item as it was packed into the cooler or shopping bag.
I’m not normally this organized, nor this uptight. I have to say, though, it paid off: I wasn’t missing anything when we got to Connecticut.
My sister’s new beau was supposed to come pay a visit (I’d been told not to make dessert, as that would be his offering), but at the last minute he bailed. Kerry was cranky, but I completely understand: meeting your sweetie’s relatives for the first time - on a major holiday - without your sweetie there, because she has to work - that’s daunting. I feel for the guy. But that left us without dessert; I’m sad I didn’t just go ahead and make my marble cheesecake. Or an apple crisp. Or pecan pie bars.
Oh dear Gods. I want sweets so, so badly right now.
That was but a small snag, though. I had bigger things to worry about, like why on EARTH had I chosen to cook turkey breasts? Isn’t that traditionally the driest part of the bird? And what made me think I could make up a recipe for stuffing? I’m a decent cook, but I’m no genius. That was it: everything was going to be dry and overdone. Or underdone. Perhaps both.
“If anything is dry,” I announced, mid-way through the turkey’s cooking time, “use more gravy!”
The breasts finished in just under two hours, and I set them to rest as I finished the rest of the meal: into the oven went the carrots and the stuffing, into the microwave the green beans. Gravy on the stovetop next to the potatoes gently drying before I smashed them to bits with butter and sour cream and salt and pepper. I
At last we sat down to eat, just the three of us, in the kitchen of the house in which I’d grown from horribly lanky, shy and awkward teenager to somewhat less lanky and shy but no less awkward adult. And it was lovely. The turkey was gorgeously juicy and flavorful. My franken-stuffing, basic though it was, was yummy and neither too mushy nor too dry. The other sides I’d not fretted over, nor did I need to. They were just fine.
So there it is: at my advanced and creaky age, I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner. And it was delicious.
Of course my brain is already geared up for the next go ‘round (I want to do the mashed potatoes with chives and caramelized shallots, and I do want to make fresh cranberry sauce. And I may have to talk Peg into giving me her pecan pie recipe, but I’ve got other dessert ideas a’brewing). I’m just delighted this year’s dinner was a success.
The one pill in the jam: when we arrived back at our wee NY cottage, Don took care of the kitties while I unpacked the cooler. I’d layered the food with kitchen towels and ice packs. After I put the blue ice back into the freezer and the perishables into the fridge, I reached in to scoop out the towels... only I forgot that I’d put my good, heavy Wüsthof knife - you know, the one I’d taken great care to sharpen the day before - into the cooler out of fear that it would poke through the canvas bag I was using for everything else. My left middle finger slid along the blade for a good inch and a half or more before I realized what I’d done. “Well, that’s freaking genius!” I gasped, and then rushed into the bathroom to tend to my alarmingly and increasingly bloody finger. Don asked if I needed help. “NO.” I growled. Poor Don. “Sorry, hon - let me just clean up the blood.” :::if you’re very squeamish, don’t read on:::
:::really. it’s mildly icky, what happens next:::
:::!you’ve been warned!:::
There was a triangular-shaped flap of skin (the blade cut up into the meat of my fingertip) at the top of the wound. “Well,” said I, daughter (and now sister) of a nurse, “that’s going to be a problem.” A pair of nail scissors, a quick snip, and that was that. I cleaned the cut, put antibiotic ointment on it, and wrapped three band-aids snug about the finger. Ten minutes later, I’d bled through. “Okay, Don!” I called. “You can help now!” So it was I ended up with a gauze and IV-tape wrapped digit the half again the size of my thumb. Lovely end to my triumphal Thanksgiving debut. Though there was a fire in the wood-stove, and a one-eyed kitty purring on my lap, and a glass of wine and my sweetie beside me.
*I was terrified that I’d slide the knife in and have the meat just crumble into a puff of dust, but don’t tell him that. I told him it was because he’s really good at it, even though I’m always the one to carve the roast chicken at home. But then, Don’s maddeningly good at everything, so I think my panic-induced fib can be excused.
**My nod to Dad, here: even though we had a decent sized kitchen at our house in CT, he always cleaned up as he went. I’m not sure whether to lay that meticulousness at the feet of his scientific (through his dad) or his military (oh, yes: my dad was a flyboy!) background. Anyway, it's something that's stayed with me all of my life. Having such a wee kitchen now (and having had when I was living in Manhattan), I'm glad of it. And it's a connection to him. I think he's nodding in approval whenever he happens to look in on me. He's probably also thinking, "You need to add more butter. And marjoram. Don't you have poultry seasoning?" And then he shrugs his shoulders, smiles one of his pre-stroke beaming smiles, and cracks a PBR.