My First Turkey

Most years, I am a carefree attendee of a large family gathering on Thanksgiving, yucking it up with other guests, occasionally offering to pass an appetizer, get someone a drink (while I am getting one for myself), or bring an extra chair to the table. Not this year.

After weighing the potential risks of spending the holiday with my parents, I decided it was important to see them and made plans to spend a quiet Thanksgiving at their home in New York. My son and I got COVID tests, packed a bunch of masks, and drove up from Virginia on Thanksgiving morning.

My sister had lined up an entire cooked meal for my parents, my son, and me and brought it over in the early afternoon. After a brief outdoor visit, she and her family returned to their pod across the county. 

I’ve been known to be unhelpful at all of my previous Thanksgivings. My brother once accused me of getting bedsores on my rear end while others scurried around getting the meal together. This year, I felt it was time to reverse the trend.  

Since I’m 52, some might find it a little surprising that I’ve never prepared a Thanksgiving meal. A few years ago I made three side dishes to bring up to my parents’ house (the standard-issue ones from the 70s that all require Cream of Mushroom soup), but the turkey and several other aspects of the meal were taken care of by others, so I can’t take credit.

This time I insisted that I would handle everything. My dad offered to help, but because I wanted to be the hero, I told him to just relax, eat the appetizers (that my sister had brought), and watch football. Plus, how hard could this be?

Here’s what was on the docket of — and this is key — already-prepared foods:

  • Turkey
  • Stuffing
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Gravy
  • Sweet potatoes
  • String beans
  • Turnips
  • Brussels sprouts

The first order of business was figuring out how to reheat all these dishes. The food was hot when my sister dropped it off at 1 p.m., and my parents wanted to wait until 5 p.m. to eat, so refrigeration and reheating were the challenges before me. I successfully use 350° to cook all of my batches of Duncan Hines brownies and concluded that what worked for boxed brownies should also work well for reheating an oven full of vegetables, starches, and meat.

The 10-pound turkey was whole and would need to be carved. I resisted the urge to ask my dad for help, even though he has successfully carved turkeys for 50+ years. I figured my good friends at YouTube would provide adequate instructions for my maiden turkey-carving voyage.

After scrolling through videos with titles like “Your First Turkey!” I landed on a Buzzfeed video called “How to Carve a Turkey.” I liked that it would only cost me 2 minutes and 53 seconds because I was already feeling behind schedule.

I started to become alarmed at their “you will need” list:

  • Two cutting boards (why two?)
  • A very sharp knife (shudder)
  • Tongs or a meat fork (I think there’s one of those around here somewhere)
  • Kitchen towels (to mop up the blood?)
  • Turkey platter (buried deep in a cabinet, I think)

The video helpfully breaks the carving process into steps. Here’s how they went.

I started the whole operation at 4:40 p.m. after promising the meal would be ready by 5 p.m., so there was no time to “rest.”

Use a kitchen towel to prevent wobbling? Wobbling was the least of my worries. 

This is where I completely lost confidence. Surgically extracting the wishbone seemed VERY COMPLICATED. And gross. 

Seriously?

Also, turkeys have wishbones? I thought that was just chickens.

(Side note: the wishbone had already been professionally removed. I just didn’t realize that, so in hindsight, I could have waited until Step 4 to lose confidence.)

Forcefully? That sounded aggressive. 

If there was any forceful sawing, it involved trying to get this plastic contraption off the two legs. The turkey was already dead, so I wondered why there was a need to work so hard to prevent it from running away.

More advice involving joints and cutting with a very sharp knife. Have I mentioned my disgust for anything medical?

More importantly, this seemed like a tremendous amount of work just to get one drumstick. 

I can’t be sure, but I believe this is where I abandoned ship and decided to just go it on my own. I have manhandled many a rotisserie chicken, and the turkey just seemed like a bigger version.

And thus I began the real work, starting with an effort to get the giant drumsticks off the turkey. Turns out Buzzfeed was right – this did involve quite a bit of force and hacking on both sides. I deposited the newly-separated drumsticks in the tinfoil tray and then set out to get the breast meat.

Using the sharp knife, I was able to get breast off on the right side but not cleanly. I made one cut on the left side and concluded that it would just be easier to yank the rest off than to continue using the knife.

Around this time, my son paid me a visit. He surveyed the situation and looked troubled.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I had one hand clamped on the bird and the other hand wrenching the meat off.

“Carving the turkey!”

It felt a little like a Julia Child moment, if Julia Child were wearing a hoodie and speaking in a much lower octave.

I plopped the breast on the cutting board and started to cut. The meat shredded into small pieces.

I remembered what Mr. Mayer had taught me in 7th grade woodshop: always cut along the grain. I kept turning the meat in hopes of finding a smooth grain, but never found one. That’s when I decided to just pull the meat off in big chunks and put it in its receptacle.

Speaking of receptacles, somewhere along the line in this sweaty 30 minutes in the kitchen I realized I needed a container for all of the turkey meat. I went to the cabinet and spotted the platter that has been used for the turkey at all family holiday gatherings since the beginning of time. However, I had already had an unpleasant experience looking for a bowl for an appetizer and decided the turkey platter was under too many other heavy bowls and dishes. I chose one of the ones on the top, which was essentially a small salad bowl.

As I turned my attention away from the turkey, I discovered that things were not going that well with the other dishes. They were cooking in a stubbornly uneven way; some were lukewarm and others were less lukewarm. 

It was now 5:30 p.m. and I felt that it was time to just get this show on the road. I realized that in true 2020 fashion, this year’s meal was not going to be perfect. Attractively sliced slabs of turkey? Not this year! Multiple dishes all piping hot at the same time? Not quite.

I called everyone into the kitchen and informed them that they *might* want to heat their plates in the microwave. I realize microwaving meat is sacrilege to some people, but it was the best and only option as far as I was concerned.

In the end, here’s how the meal looked.

Tongs usually used for hotdogs can also be handy with turkey

Everyone was polite about the quality of the heating job and the less-than-glamorous presentation of the food, and overall it was a very enjoyable event.

The moral of the tale?

I gained a new appreciation for everyone who has ever served me a Thanksgiving meal. I struggled mightily to put out multiple dishes at once, and all I had to do was reheat them.

So to my mom, my sister, my Aunt Adriana, and my former in-laws, I want to say thank you. I’m amazed at how effortless you made a very complicated meal look year after year.

Consider me impressed.

A Steady Hand on the Wheel

A portrait of the young man
My mom and dad on their honeymoon
Ten years later, with three kids in questionable bathing suits

To get a sense of who my dad is, take a look at the pictures of him with his grandkids over the years.  They tell the story.  Here he is playing a game of Horsie, here he is teaching kids how to fish, here he is in the ocean, playing a game, reading a book, tying a tie.

Though there are many fewer pictures of my dad interacting with my brother and sister and me when we were children, the story was the same. (The only group photo I have is above – perhaps a function of being part of a generation that was much less documented than the current one.)   

He came to our games, our Back to School Nights, our recitals, our concerts.  He wanted to hear from each of us about how the day went every night at dinner.  He had catches with us in the backyard.  He went in the ocean with us in New Jersey every summer and taught us how to play Chicken, where you have to float with your feet facing the oncoming waves. 

I will admit to wishing he were less involved on the days when I got in trouble at school.  My parents were a one-two punch.  My mom would lecture me in the afternoon, and then my dad would come home in the evening and take the Lord’s name in vain when he heard what I had done.  He had a habit of roughly smoothing out the strands of hair on the top of his head during those conversations, which I fear contributed to his early hair loss. 

In retrospect, he was strict, but not unnecessarily so.  I shudder to think how much brattier I would have been if I had not feared the words “wait til your father gets home!”

As I transitioned from my teen years into adulthood, and especially into my 30s and 40s when I was grappling with issues around coming out, my relationship with my dad transitioned also.  He was less of an authority figure and more of a confidante.  You might not expect a middle-aged lesbian to be turning to a former investment banker in his 80s for emotional advice, but that is just what has happened.  He really listens — with  a calm, clear-eyed way of sizing things up that has helped me find my center time and time again.

The other day I came across a card he sent a number of years ago when I was working through a tough situation.  Age provides some perspective, he wrote, and though he did not want to sound at all Pollyanna, he said he knew that I would have better days.

The man is not just a supportive father.  He’s actually great company.

He loves to talk about politics, sports, business, and many other topics.  He’s an avid reader and is knowledgeable and current on a wide variety of subjects.  And he is genuinely interested in other people, striking up conversations not to make small talk, but because he enjoys learning about the  experiences of others. 

He’s also very funny.  His demeanor is reserved, but when you listen to what he is saying, you realize he makes lots of quick-witted observations and remarks.  He’s a great storyteller and has taken a number of writing classes in retirement.  My favorite story was one he wrote about having to learn how to type at age 60 when everyone got their own desktop computers at work.  He took an online keyboarding class developed for children called “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing!”  His account of doing poorly on the words-per-minute tests, which included alligators chomping at letters as you typed, was hilarious.

All of this is not to say that everything was perfect or that there was never an angry word or an unpleasant day.  But my dad showed up.  There was never a time when I worried that he would not be there or questioned whether or not he loved us.   The pictures remind me that he has been a constant support for my mom and for each new member of his family as they have arrived. I know his steady presence has been especially important for my son through two divorces and a lot of upheaval.

My dad was talking recently about his own father, who passed away before my siblings and I were born, and said he was a special guy.  That’s how I feel about my dad.  He’s special.  I didn’t appreciate him when I was young — I just took it all for granted.  I don’t now.  I just hope this smart, funny, loyal guy who has quietly done so many good things for other people understands how adored and admired he is.

Obliging one of my son’s many requests to play Horsie
Pitching to a young recruit
Teaching my nephews Jack and Will how to fish
Serving as holder of Jack’s first fish
Pretending to be surprised by my niece Jessica
Getting ready to jump some waves
Practicing reading with Kaley
Meeting Maggie, the youngest grandchild
Having a snowball fight
Helping with homework
Raking in the dough with Rachel
Giving some assistance with a tie
Being a good sport about wearing a birthday hat at his 85th birthday party
With my mom at their 50th wedding anniversary party
Yucking it up with kids and their spouses
With all the grown up grandkids