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November 2001

TURKEY TALES AND OTHER KITCHEN CALAMITIES

by Donald Downes

 

Would it be Thanksgiving without a turkey? I don’t think so. While the world continually changes, we Americans connect with custom, like a traditional Thanksgiving Day feast — roasted turkey and all the trimmings.

In college, now nearly three decades ago, Thanksgiving Day dinners often ended up being Swanson turkey TV dinners. We were snowed-in; the roads were closed. Still we had turkey, some form of it. During my professional careers, I gathered with friends, mostly, for traditional turkey day feasts where the guest of honor was, indeed, Tom Turkey. We usually managed to assemble a collection of the customary side dishes, too — stuffing, potatoes, green beans, etc. 

Several years ago, however, the traditional feast took a different course. Several days before the event, the host had to abandon original plans. The new plan was to have all gather at the home of the host’s neighbor. While there was still time to thaw (quickly) and cook a turkey — I inquired and even offered my professional turkey-cooking skills, complete with the turkey — I was told everything was being handled. But on that particular Turkey Day, the turkey was missing. No aroma of a cooking turkey filled the house; no bird was present to carve. No juices were available for gravy; no cavity contained steaming stuffing. It was a Thanksgiving Day dinner of side dishes and a few pieces of overcooked barbecued chicken, procured from a local eatery. While we did give thanks for being together, it just wasn’t Thanksgiving.

Growing up, many of us experienced the “Norman Rockwell” Thanksgiving dinner spread — family and friends sitting around a large dining table laden with a colossal golden turkey, dressing, potatoes and side dishes galore. Sometimes, though, reality steps (or stomps) in: The hoped-for, picture-perfect celebration turns out to be a “turkey,” a Thanksgiving dinner disaster. Tales of turkey day traumas, however, do make for a good giggle — a few years later.

Butterball, the turkey company, has been collecting tales from its Turkey Talk-Line for years. Among the best is the one about the trucker who phoned in and said he planned on cooking his turkey on the engine of his truck. He wanted to know if it would cook faster if he drove faster. Though outrageous, Butterball insists the tales are true.

          While ruffled home cooks have been the focus of many turkey trauma stories, professional chefs, too, have tales of kitchen woes.  

 

The aroma of turkey

Chrysa Kaufman, chef and co-proprietor of Scottsdale’s Rancho Pinot Grill and the new Nonni’s in Phoenix, relates this turkey tale.  

“I was up in Wyoming and my brother and brother-in-law shot a turkey,” begins Kaufman. “We weren’t going to be able to get together for the holidays, but we were all together in Wyoming at the same time. So we thought we’ll cook it and have our turkey dinner.

“Well, it was the end of August, and they put it in the basement to hang, thinking that it was cool enough. I didn’t know it was still down there and they opened the door to the cellar. It stunk so bad. But my brother was bound and determined [to cook it] and said [the smell] was just age. He put it in the oven and actually baked it. No one would go near this thing. We ended up throwing it out. I think the porcupines ate it.”

          According to Kaufman, the family takes its Thanksgiving turkeys “damn seriously.” Whoever in the family that does the dinner evidently gets up at five in the morning to put the turkey in the oven, then keeps watch until it’s done. Once cooked, Fred, Sam, Pete or whoever is ready to meet the family. 

“That’s another thing we do,” she adds. “We always name our turkeys. My sister was a vegetarian at one time when she was younger. And she would say I’m not going to eat that thing; it was alive once. So we said let’s give it a name and say thank you, Fred for giving yourself to us, or something like that. We were mocking her severely. So we’ve always named our turkeys. We put him on the table and everybody applauds. We say thank you Fred or whatever and dive in.”

The wild, aromatic turkey was dubbed Stench.

 

Frozen in time

Deborah Knight, chef and proprietor of Mosaic, a new restaurant in north Scottsdale, tells the tale of the first Thanksgiving, her first Thanksgiving dinner as cook. Seems she and her four college friends did not go home for Thanksgiving and decided to have their own celebration. It was a spur of the moment thing. The group picked up a turkey and fixin’s for the fixin’s on the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day.

“I had had no experience doing Thanksgiving; my parents had always done it,” says Knight. “I pulled the turkey out at 4 o’clock, called my mother and asked how long will it cook.”

Knight says the turkey was still frozen and her mother laughed when she inquired about the cooking time. 

“Needless to say, we didn’t have dinner until about 2 o’clock in the morning.”

The 10-pound block of solid turkey was thawed using the microwave and water. The dinner also included stuffing, potatoes, peas and, of course, gravy. Says Knight: “We had plenty of time to prepare the side dishes.”

Knight’s sous chef at the restaurant related a story to her about turkey a la “flambé.” Seems the doomed cook had tried to bake a turkey in a butter-saturated paper bag. The theory being the enclosed environment would make for a really moist turkey. The bag, however, caught fire. Result: No turkey; no oven.

 

Know your turkey

RoxSand Scocos, owner and proprietor of RoxSand restaurant and bar in Phoenix’s Biltmore Fashion Park, tells of a tale about an aunt and her turkey day trauma.

“There’s an aunt that’s not especially liked by the other sister-in-laws,” Scocos says. “She’s a sister-in-law who is real prim and fancy and not very capable in the eyes of the other women in the family. This particular aunt was going to be doing Thanksgiving dinner for the family that year. Everyone was all excited to have her meal. When they carved open the turkey, all of the stuff that’s inside the turkey [before cooking] — like the wrapper of the gizzard, the paper — all of that stuff was inside of it still. I don’t think she’ll ever live it down. Everyone got a chuckle out of that.”

Forgetting to remove the packages that contain the innards and neck is a common calamity. Remember: turkeys have two ends; each contains a parcel of giblets. For additional cooking tips and general turkey-cooking information log-on to www.butterball.com.

This year’s Turkey Day is nearing. Should things in your kitchen go slightly awry on that day, don’t fret. You are in good company. Even the pros have woes.

 

 

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