It should go without saying that I, like most other human beings on the planet, have bad habits. My lovely wife and daughters would be happy to enumerate them all, of course, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just focus on the one today.
I am a turkey perfectionist.
Having learned how to cook over the years, I have picked up a thing or two in the kitchen. I can make one darn fine French omelette, and have improvised my way to a pretty good corn chowder. But when it comes to making turkeys, specifically Thanksgiving turkeys, I can never seem to be satisfied. No one has yet to complain about my turkeys in holidays past, but for some reason I am always constantly searching for the One True Way to make the roast Thanksgiving beast.
(Let’s stop right here and pause a bit for the vegetarians among you. For the sake of your beliefs and preferences, I politely encourage you to get out now. There’s no part of this story that will end well for you and the birds in question.)
Some of this goes back to a very long tradition of running the bird show, when my friends and I had the somewhat-bright idea to cook a full Thanksgiving meal in the tiny dorm kitchen at college. Given the age of the equipment, it’s a miracle we did not burn the place down, but we managed to pull if off… and I learned at the young age of 20 how to get turkey on the table.
Though not, as my family loves to tell the story, without incident. In 1990, Cindy and I were newlyweds living in a small home in Attica, Indiana. She was finishing her Master’s at Purdue, and I was the Managing Editor of the Attica Star Tribune. In those days, we still hosted the old dorm gang and our families for the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, so we were running big meals with a big bird. Having not learned the first secret of good turkeys–buy fresh, not frozen–I underestimated the thawing time for the 20-lb bird that was set for early lunch that day. When I woke up at 7 a.m. to get the cooking going, I discovered the little bag of turkey stuff (neck, giblets, etc) was still frozen inside the cavity and no amount of prying would get the plastic bag loose.
I did know that pouring hot water in the bird was a sure-fire way to invite Staphylococcus or e. Coli to the holiday celebration, so after tiring of near-frostbitten fingers, I grabbed a pair of pliers to yank out the bag. This was successful, but not before my Mom wandered into the kitchen and saw what I was doing. Since then, the Legend of the Turkey Tool has grown to encompass vice grips, the Jaws of Life, and a construction crane as my family regales newcomers to our table with the tale.
Yeah, maybe I have something to prove now.
Over the years, I have tried baking and grilling the bird, with all manner of variations of brining, basting, and stuffing. The only thing I have not done is deep frying. This is not because of taste; I have sampled deep-fried turkey and it is Very Good. No, it’s mostly because I think putting me in proximity with a vat of super-heated oil ranks right up there with toddlers in a glass shop.
The last couple of years has been with brining and then a straight-up roast, stuffing the bird with a mirepoix of carrots, celery, and onions. Stuffing is off to the side, in deference to my youngest, who is a vegetarian.
But, this year, I am restless, and a new method is calling to me.
The idea here is to butterfly the turkey and lay it flat on a cooking sheet, in order to even out the cooking times for the bird and obtain a much crispier outside. That’s the theory, anyway. Time will tell how this is going to work out.
Life’s not without risks, I keep telling myself.