Top | Grow. Cook. Eat. Repeat.


(post, Su T Fitterman)

This past Christmas Eve, my mother was determined to make the perfect turkey. For anyone who knows my mom, that last sentence will give them pause; first, we’re Jewish, so what’s with the Christmas Eve thing, and second, my mother is usually the best cook anyone knows—hasn’t she already cooked a perfect turkey? 

Let’s deal with the Christian thing first. Although my mom considers herself a Jew through and through, she put our Hanukkah gifts in Christmas stockings when we were kids. And since she moved to Palm Springs for the winter eight years ago, we have always had a big dinner, usually on Christmas Eve, because that’s what all the Christians are doing, and my mother, at the very least, likes to keep up with the Christians. So no going to restaurants to advertise our Jewishness, no, no, no. To this dinner she invites her nearest and dearest relatives still alive, and we feast away. Last year, my mother ordered the turkey, cooked, from Jensen’s, but she thought that they overcooked it, and this year she was determined to get it perfect. 

Perfect. You cannot imagine the dread that follows after we hear my mother utter these words. She really believes that if you follow directions, everything will come out perfect. (You would think that she might have a revisionist theory already, what with her devotion to Dr. Spock and the ultimate results regarding my sister, brother and me, but that’s another story.) Perfect is such an ambiguous word; with my mother, it’s important to figure out which perfect she is referring to on such occasions, because it makes a difference how we respond to it. The turkey in the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving picture? Nah. That grandma is fat (if you knew my mother, you’d make the connection). Normally, it would mean anything in Cook’s Illustrated, but Cook’s brines the turkey, a messy procedure and one I talked my mother out of after listening to Harold McGee on NPR, who said that brining a turkey makes it too salty. Heaven forbid. My mom bought into this suggestion because honestly, there is no easy way to brine a 22-lb turkey. However, Mother was just too attached to Cook’s to reject its methods altogether (more on this later).

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Not Su's mom's bird."] Onwards with the other consultants. The anti-briner, Harold McGee, posited putting ice packs on the breasts before the bird went in the oven so that they would start colder than the dark meat and thus not overcook. He also recommended cooking the turkey breast down. Then there was Barbara Kafka, who in her book Roasting recommends cooking the turkey at 450º. Hot. But way too much mess in the oven to even contemplate cleaning for a woman who stresses out at the sight of a glass in the sink. Pam Anderson (not she of boob fame, but the author of Cook Smart) gave very clear directions for a 14-16-lb bird, but kind of left us 22-pounders with no clear answers. There was also a Gourmet magazine turkey redux issue. My mom was reading up on everything turkey. She was obsessing over methodology. Do we cook it at 400º? Maybe 300º? Pam says 250º for anything larger than 16 pounds, but Harold says the lowest we can go is 350º. But will that dry out the breast? And why have we got a 22-pounder anyway? 

This is a sidebar all on its own. My mom ordered the turkey from Jensen’s, and my dad double-checked that it was there, but when my dad and I went to pick it up, there was no turkey. Believe me, I looked. I went behind the counter and started scanning names. I was in a bit of a dilemma. Do I ruin someone else’s turkey Christmas and lie about my name (Oh, there it is, Schmickelberg—my mom must have put it under my name because she knew that I was picking it up)? I knew that under no circumstances could we return home without a bird. Not after all this planning. My father did what he usually does under these circumstances and retreated to the wine aisle. The meat manager was not helpful. No name, no turkey. I decided it was easier to face his wrath than my mother’s stress. I called for the store manager. And was rewarded with a 22-pounder. 

The day before turkey lift-off, Mother was pacing, books and magazines in hand. She kept asking my opinion, but she didn’t really want it; she needed a solid object to which her questions could reverberate back into her head to roil around some more. She was veering towards a higher cooking temperature except that the oven cleaning involved was going to be too daunting (all that fat splattering everywhere—how dare it?). Then she read that larger turkeys didn’t even cook that well at higher temperatures. But what if she cooked the turkey at 325º and it dried out too quickly? You would think that my mother had never cooked a turkey in her life, but believe me, she had cooked, I don’t know, at least 100, and they all turned out just fine. 

The night before, I hashed it out with my mom. We’ll cook it at 375º. No brining. No stuffing. Just shove that sucker in the oven, use a digital thermometer and remove the bird when its internal temperature is 160º (it would cook a further 5º while at rest).

T-Day. We’re never sure whether my mother wants us in a kitchen or not. Theoretically, she wants all hands on deck. The reality is that she only wants those hands if they’ll take full-out direction from her. So really, if you have any sort of control issues, it’s better to mumble some sort of excuse and remain out of the vicinity. It turns out that my mom just couldn’t resist Cook’s and had dried the turkey out in the fridge, uncovered, all night long. Somehow she had failed to remember that you only do this when you’re BRINING the turkey. Our poor baby was red and shivering. Great. My mother had, in the name of perfection, managed to dry out the turkey breast before we even began to roast it. Is that a first somewhere? Can we win a prize? Could this turkey be saved by ice packs on breasts? Why the heck not? In lieu of formal packs, my mom took ice, shoved it in plastic bags and placed one bag on each breast. They held up their booty just fine, until they started to melt, which was pretty much instantly. My mother spent the next hour in the kitchen propping up the melting bags. (I had retreated to the living room by then.)

So far, so so. Then another challenge. Old oven. New turkey roasting pan. Together—a bad fit. But Mother was undaunted. Into the cupboard went the new roaster, and out came a jellyroll pan, to which the turkey was placed in a rack, on top. I could see immediately that this was going to make extracting the roasted juices a challenge, but hey, I was up to it. Picture this: a red, shivering turkey, turned breast-side down in a rack on a jellyroll pan. This was so not my mother. What would Cook’s say? What would Pam do? Would Babs just say to hell with it and order takeout? But in it went, to its doom. 

Let me just say that there’s a reason flops are referred to as turkeys.

reference-image, l