I have a Turkey Story.
I’ve been telling my Turkey story for a very long time. My story predates both Mr. Bean’s “Turkey on His Head” skit and Stuart McLean’s “Dave Cooks the Turkey”. I’m not claiming to have invented the Turkey Story genre, nor that I served as an example or inspiration to either Mr. Bean or Stuart McLean – neither of whom likely heard my story before creating his own. I am just saying, consistent with my hipster image, that I was telling a Turkey Story before it was “a thing”.
My Turkey Story, unlike the others, is a true story. Fictional stories, their characters and especially their turkeys, are free of the restrictions that bind true stories like mine. Not having to worry about details like factual accuracy, Stuart McLean could focus entirely on making his story interesting and funny. I can only be as entertaining as reality allows. Keep that in mind as you read this, and be gentle with your judgments.
As I mentioned, it was a long time ago. A simpler time – before the internet and blogging and the Vinyl Cafe radio show. My wife and I were relative newlyweds and this was the first Christmas in our first house together. And, we had a baby – Little Boy Number One [not his real name].
I was a young lawyer working hard to establish a career [had I known then what I know now …] and trying to make an impression [a favourable one]. When I started with the Branch, I was a single guy, maybe a bit irresponsible and unreliable. I wanted to show that I’d evolved, matured. What better way to introduce my colleagues to the “adult” version of Ross, than by taking on one of the more substantial tasks of The Office Christmas Party? Other than hosting it. I’m not an idiot.
My father once told me that, in some cultures, their conception of hell is an eternity spent planning an office Christmas Party.
Office Christmas parties are catered. At our office Christmas party planning session, the question ought to have been: “Who will we hire to cater our Christmas party?” Somehow, that relatively sensible question became: “Should we have this catered or do it ourselves?” Even with the question framed so dangerously, surely, sanity would prevail?. It did not. One of my colleagues waxed wistfully about the traditional Christmas dinner – all homemade wholesomeness, warmth, sincerity, roasting chestnuts and figgy pudding. Madness. Sadly, this lone soul yearning for turkey and gravy, in addition to being much-beloved, was The Boss.
What a great idea.
Coincidentally, my wife, who was also a young lawyer at the time – and also working hard to establish a legal career, but with some success – had been given a turkey by a grateful client. It was a big athletic turkey from a Hutterite colony she had done some work for. We didn’t have any plans for this turkey because we were going out of town for Christmas. And, really, I don’t like turkey.
Serendipity – My colleagues needed a turkey; I had a spare one sitting in my freezer.
I volunteered to cook The Turkey. Yes I did. The centerpiece of the Christmas dinner. The focus of the event. The head liner. The most important character in the Christmas pageant, with the possible exception of the Baby Jesus, and the only one who gets eaten.
I had never cooked a turkey.
I’d seen lots of turkeys being cooked. It looked pretty easy. Put it in the oven. Some time later, take it out. Ooohs and aaahs ensue and Christmas is complete.
In case you hadn’t guessed – this is one of those “what could possibly go wrong?” stories. It’s a tired old thing, I know. But it’s Christmas. We celebrate old traditions, even corny ones. Just let yourself go with this.
I knew it couldn’t be as simple as it looked. I asked my wife. She also had never cooked a turkey and, despite her gender, had no innate knowledge of how to do it. She suggested I look in a cook book. I was hoping she would volunteer to take on the task entirely. I knew better than to ask. Again – I’m not an idiot. She didn’t even offer to help, so confident was she in my abilities. Or something.
In retrospect, I ought to have practiced – bought a flock of turkeys and cooked one every day until I’d worked out the bugs. Our mothers and grandmothers perhaps cooked turkeys so well because they’d cooked so many of them? No. Somehow, I figured I would cook this one turkey exactly right the first time. Working without a net.
The Day of the Office Christmas Party came. So soon. The plan was that I would cook the turkey at home and take it over to the party, which my Boss was hosting, conveniently, half a block away.
I used “The Joy of Cooking” – the essential basics cookbook. From what I read, it really wasn’t very hard. The Joy recommended, for a moist and flavourful breast [the turkey’s], that I place a butter-soaked cheese cloth on it. Oh. That sounded great. Who doesn’t love buttery breasts? I pre-heated the oven and melted some butter in a bowl. I set a cheese cloth in it – soaked it well. I put the turkey in the roasting pan [I can’t remember if I made stuffing. That’s something I’d probably remember, so let’s assume I didn’t. Remember – True Story]. When the oven was ready, I folded the buttery cheese cloth carefully and placed it on the top of “The Bird”, as I was now calling it.
The Bird was big. It filled the oven. It had to be big. It was shouldering a huge burden. Not only would it be feeding all of my colleagues and their spouse-like guests, it would be nourishing their spirits.
My wife had gone out for the afternoon with the Baby – the better, one assumes, to avoid any responsibility for this turkey.
About half an hour, forty minutes later, I was washing up a few things. We had what I suppose one might call a “galley kitchen” – a narrow room with the sink and cupboards and counters on one side and the oven, fridge, microwave, smaller counter and some more cupboards on the other side. I was standing at the sink, across from the oven, when I noticed I was casting a dark shadow on the kitchen wall. I heard some crackling. I turned. There was a bright light shining from the oven door window. No, this was not a near-death experience. Not yet. My turkey was on fire. Somehow, the cheese cloth that was so butteringly moisturizing my turkey’s burgeoning breasts had ignited and had become the big fluffy wick to a huge turkey candle. Then, the heat and flame from the cheese cloth spread and the whole turkey was a ball of fire.
I opened the oven door, pulled the fiery rack out. This turkey was going to burn down my new house. But, even as I panicked and reviewed my limited options – the fire extinguisher? baking soda? I paused: I have to save this turkey. It IS the Christmas Party. If I don’t salvage this flaming Hutterite free range and extremely flamable son of a bitch, I will be known forever as “a former colleague who ruined Christmas”.
Meanwhile, things are getting very hot.
I took the first thing I could grab off the counter – which turned out to be a large plastic fork – and I began beating the turkey with it. By now all the skin had burned off and the fire was restricted to the flavour-boosting cheese cloth. The smoke detector screamed in the background. I picked away at the cheese cloth, which had fused to the turkey’s breast by this point. I dunked the flaming bits into the fat at the bottom of the pan, which extinguished them.
I sat on the floor, exhausted, next to a big, black, smoking, skinless bird, its breasts littered with bits of charred cheese cloth. Eventually, the smoke detector went quiet. I looked in my hand and saw, to my horror, that the plastic fork was missing a tine.
The only good news was that, this being the Christmas season, there was plenty of rye in the house.
It had only been in the oven for a few minutes. It was still raw. Yes, it was now skinless. Who eats turkey skin anyway? Yes it was black. So very black. Let’s call it “seared”. I cleaned it off the best I could, got the ashes out of the roasting pan. I gave up trying to find the missing fork tine. I put The Bird back in the oven. I spent the afternoon nursing that bastard back to life. I basted it every few minutes. I basted myself more often. Within a few hours, it was done. And so was I. As I have so many times in my life, I assumed that a bad situation would magically be made better if I drank a lot. And, like always, it worked – as far as I could tell.
I took that beautiful black bird out, put the top on the roaster, put it on our toboggan and staggered to the party.
My coworkers were speechless. Sure, they’d all had burned or overcooked turkey before, but none had ever seen a turkey that had actually been set on fire. Nor one so very very black. I imagine they assumed the worst. I don’t know for sure. I was pissed. I declined the offer to carve my masterpiece. “Let the host do it,” I can imagine I slurred.
The turkey was beautiful. Moist and tender. The juices were sealed in, I guess. And, my aggressive basting paid dividends. I remember enough about the evening to report that my first turkey was a tremendous success. It was a turkey that they’d all be talking about many years hence.
I don’t know who ate the tine.