How to cook a perfect turkey. Or maybe not.

How to cook a perfect turkey.  Or maybe not.

Aahh, Thanksgiving.  I love this holiday.  Family, friends, gratitude.  And that wonderful, picture perfect turkey.  Beautiful and delicious.  A memory for the gathered loved ones to cherish always.

This is not about that turkey.

I took them for granted growing up, golden, crispy skinned, juicy turkeys. A collaboration between my parents produced an annually perfect bird. It was anticipated, and enjoyed, but other than that I didn’t think about it too much, in the same way you never think, when you’re little, about where clean laundry comes from, or that it is a good and right thing that there are always Ding Dongs in the cupboard after school. Perfect turkeys just were.

They were, that is, until I tried making them on my own once I was away from home on the holidays--or rather, once that home was away from me, in a complete and decisive way.  I did manage to cook a few decent turkeys after I moved to Chicago.  I remember one especially fine turkey grilled on a Weber kettle.

But all that changed after my mother died.

My father and I simply couldn’t figure out why things now went so wrong: after all, he’d been the chief engineer of the turkey; my mother handled the finishing details like total cooking time, and gravy, little things. It had all seemed effortless, really.

But when she was gone, gone for good, no more dialing the Mom Turkey Hotline gone, things fell apart, turkeywise. I had faced the prospect with the rationality and grim will of one trained in research: read about it exhaustively, and undertake it efficiently and with attention to detail. And so I did. I learned just about every process you can put a turkey through. I’ve koshered, marinated, dry rubbed; I’ve bagged, grilled, and flipped while roasting (whoever recommends this, you can be sure, obviously has never done it). I’ve used a thermometer and forsaken a thermometer. I’ve stuffed, or not, basted always, and always created something basically inedible. Always. By now I’ve come to loathe the whole process. I don’t even like turkey very much. It’s just so dry. I would rather catch, kill, and pluck a chicken with my bare hands than fail at yet another turkey.

To know how to make one’s own turkey well, however, provides a certain security, a certain festal anchor in the cosmos. It says you can take care of things, you can feed your loved ones, you can handle an important part of ritual preparations which harbor your whole family somewhere safe and warm. And so it becomes a goal greatly to be desired, and diligently pursued. And because it is an annually repeating event, sometimes twice annually, there is an entire lifetime of hope and optimism which fuels the pursuit.

In my pursuit of that goal in a world without my mom, initial indications were not good. There was the first Thanksgiving after my mother died, when my father came to join us at the peculiar job my new husband and I held as resident heads in an undergraduate dormitory. We’d invited all the students with nowhere else to go, plus several friends. Everything was in readiness; guests all waited jovially. But in our tiny narrow kitchen a small culinary disaster was unfolding. The turkey was done, golden and lovely, “resting” as they say, but gravy was elusive. I frantically stirred at the separated, oily contents of the saucepan, pouring in milk, handfuls of flour, gravy mix (gravy mix!), anything, trying high heat, low heat, and more frantic stirring. My father was in full bellow, admonishing me militarily to step aside, he’d handle it. We were close to tears, close to blows, and invoking my mother’s aid from above in too-loud voices for such a gathering when a vegan student who had spent the previous year in India quietly stepped into the kitchen. She wedged herself in front of the stove and worked some magic which I did not see and within minutes had coaxed the mess into actual gravy. It was a lovely and necessary accompaniment to a beautiful, dry turkey.

The next year, not to be foiled again, I decided the problem lay in the bird itself. No more processed frozen turkeys for me, no sir. I and my father and my new baby son drove out of the city to pick up what guaranteed to be a turkey without precedent. I had read about some “local” (that is to say, “a really long drive away”) free-range fresh turkeys in the newspaper, and had called the little farm to reserve one. A charming afternoon at a farm. What a wonderful way to spend a day with my father and son. Off we went, headed west on a blustery autumn afternoon straight into a ferocious storm. Hail, rain, snow all mixed, jack-knifed semis and cars at odd angles off the shoulder of the road, the drive was endless. My father fed his grandson an entire box of crackers, one at a time. I drove about ten miles an hour. When we reached our destination, we waited in a damp pack of addled-nerve turkey idealists in a tin-roofed machine shed on a muddy lot in the middle of nowhere. We made it back home in 7 hours, all white knuckles, frazzled nerves, and exhaustion, but I was so happy to have a real, honest, natural, farm turkey. I koshered that one and it was not only dry but tough.

My brothers all have their own approaches to turkeys. “Mine are perfect,” admits my little brother, not boastfully and in all honesty. “I just get a 12-pounder from the grocery store, do nothing to it, and put it in a bag. I don’t know why you think this is so hard.” My oldest brother revels in complexity. “We made 25 side dishes,” he and his wife, he tells me, and describes each one in detail. In recent years he has won ribbons at the Arizona State Fair for home canning, and if you knew him you’d be as astonished about that as I am. I don’t even bother asking if his turkey is good because I know it could probably win a prize.

My middle brother seems, like me, to be having a harder time finding that balance, that angle of repose, that cosmic resting place for his motherless turkeys. He is a seeker and an idealist, so he has been known to pursue radical turkey options—smoking, deep frying, the slight thrill of danger adding to the final enjoyment of the turkey. My husband will never forget his first Thanksgiving with these people. “Would you like to help out in the kitchen?” asked my sweet sister-in-law, wanting to involve and get to know her likely future brother-in-law. “Here, oil this turkey and wrap it in foil.”

My then-boyfriend stared at the 20-plus pound bird. “Oil it?” “Yes, here’s the olive oil.” “And wrap it in foil?” “Yes, here, Walter wants to cook it under coals. He’s dug a pit and the coals are ready.” I remained separate from the proceedings, aloof. I’m not sure why. Was I peeling potatoes? Trimming green beans? Wanting to keep as far away as possible from what sounded like a sisyphean task, or at least a disgusting one? Was I subconsciously putting my boyfriend through some terrible but necessary trial?

I kept one eye on things while I was otherwise busy and saw that he had recruited my niece. That eye saw the operation set up on the living room floor. It watched in some horror something that looked like a cross between bowling and curling as the slippery turkey shot this way and that across the wood floor, pursued by various aids and implements to usher it onto its aluminum foil runway and be rolled therein. Finally they succeeded, and I pretended not to notice, certainly not to disclose my secret relief. The turkey was buried. Guaranteed to be moist and delicious, the recipe said. The recipe did not say that it would arrive at the table as white as a ghost, collapsed, meat falling off the bones. None of us have ever used this method again, but my husband survived his trial.

I’m still in search of that decent turkey (you see I no longer even aim for a perfect one). I try to be nonchalant. I don’t want the turkey to know what’s at stake. But I do hope one day to be able to produce something ritually predictable, the predictability of which is not its badness. I dread making turkeys, and yet am drawn to it, almost against my will, much like my toddlers used to be drawn to climbing bookcases. We know it isn’t a good investment of our resources, and that it is likely to end badly, but we are ever hopeful that this time, this time, we’ll get it right, we’ll get to the top, and the view will be memorable, enjoyable, unforgettable. This time. It really will work, this time.


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  • What I can't figure out is why most PBS cooking shows (ATK, Katie Brown) say to salt it first, especially if one has high blood pressure. And then ATK puts salt pork all over the top, but then says to take it off because it keeps the skin from browning.

    Other than that, the 3 pound Jenny-O boneless roast seems to work o.k. for me. I still remember Birdzilla from Cheers.

  • Jack, I'm feeling the pull of the Weber coming on. But I think you might be right about the 3 pound roast.

  • The 3 pound roast is practical, and probably quite tasty, but possibly lacking in festiveness.

  • Here is a turkey story from a year ago. Seems the struggle is all around us.

  • Kelly, I was thinking it was the smallest world in the world and then I remembered that you might actually be a link between the two stories. What a great post of Henry's! Loved that story. It's a little like going behind the wall and finding the real Oz, a tiny confused man banking on luck and chance.

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    i have read and re-read this post and i love it more every time. :-) and i will be reading it again after Thanksgiving, because after we get back from NY, we'll be attempting to throw ourselves a festive Holiday feast, complete with many creative sides and THE PERFECT TURKEY. :-)

  • Kate, send me photos of that turkey. Better yet, invite me over. :)

  • My mama was and always will be the turkey queen of the family. But, when it's my turn to host the clan, I put my bird in a bag and then put that bag in my stand roaster. Never a problem.

    I have to say that reading the account of the errant bird on on the living room floor made me laugh out loud ... bet that wood didn't need waxing for awhile!

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    so delicious, i just gobbled this up, sans mayo. a delectable day-after-thanksgiving feast for the word-hungry. you are the finest. a beautiful. unforgettable. sumptuous. tale. thanks, darlin. you serve up the best that there is.....

  • so walter is the middle child? that sure explains a lot.... :)

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