Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving - The Feast and the Beast

Let’s make this clear; Thanksgiving is my least favorite holiday. The main focus of Thanksgiving revolves around food. I know many people are very excited about food – I am not one of them. I don’t really care for turkey all that much; the dark meat is OK but the white meat is usually dry. I don’t care for gravy or stuffing and I prefer the mashed potatoes that you fix from a dry powder out of a box.

As a kid Thanksgiving was usually yet another way for my father to give thanks for the invention of alcohol. Most of our relatives spent only one Thanksgiving with us due to my father’s addiction. He would start out as a jovial drunk but as the evening progressed his mood would evolve to dire, then downright evil. Most holidays concluded with my mother crying. As a result, after a few years, we had cycled through our complete list of aunts and uncles, parents, eventually falling back on “close friends” until pretty much nobody was left who wanted to spend Thanksgiving with my parents, sister and me.

Adding to the horror was that Mom was a horrible cook. She believed any food item could, and should, be prepared in a pressure cooker. Turkey, fortunately, didn’t fit in the pressure cooker, so it was baked in the oven until it was akin to parchment stretched tightly over bird bones. The potatoes, though, were rendered to their basic molecular components in the pressure cooker. Vegetables of any sort came from a can and were merely heated. I won’t even try to describe Mom’s dressing least I become ill before finishing this post.

Fast-forward to my adult years; Nancy is an EXCELLENT cook. She has cooked professionally in Mexican and French restaurants and was a sorority house cook at one time. She quit the sorority because the rich little college girls didn’t want to give her a raise. Within two months they hired her back – with a raise. Even the stuff I don’t particularly like, I like when she makes it. And she loves Thanksgiving – so my gift to her is I turn the entire holiday over to her and I handle the cocktails.

One year Nancy, her friend and I were invited to Thanksgiving at my sister’s a house two hour drive away. Sister advised us to plan to arrive around Noon. We arrived at the appointed time, hungry having not had lunch; fully expecting a hot brown turkey to be removed from the oven after a short visit and cocktails in the living room. However, to our horror, my sister announced as she took our coats: “Well, I had probably better get that turkey into the oven.” Nancy, friend and looked at each other; our jaws agape.

After starting the turkey cooking, my sister brought out a dish of crackers to enjoy with our cocktails… the three of us devoured them by the handful; we tussled over the bowl. I have recollection of one of us possibly upending the bowl directly to our mouth. In any event, in seconds the crackers were gone! Bits of cheese and bread sticks disappeared as quickly as my sister placed them on the coffee table. We managed to hold our hunger at bay for the hours it took for the turkey to be done.

A few years later it was our turn to host family Thanksgiving. It was decided that I would BBQ a turkey. I am quite the master at BBQ, I say humbly. I set up the grill with the charcoal and water pan to exacting specifications, lit the fire. For entertainment while waiting for the turkey to cook, I had set up two computers with “Duke Nukem” and my brother-and-law and I commenced to game against one another on the two machines. For those of you who are not familiar with computer gaming; one of the pitfalls of this activity is a form of “time dilation” – that is: the further one immerses oneself in the game, the slower time passes.

I can clearly state that I was completely ignorant of how much time had passed when I heard Nancy call me from the kitchen asking why there was “so much smoke coming from the BBQ?” Dashing outside I lifted the lid; turkey burst immediately into “backdraft” as flames leapt feet into the November sky. There before me was a blackened hull of a turkey, devoid of little edible meat. Fortunately, my brilliant wife had prepared a “back-up” turkey using the conventional oven method. Thanksgiving was saved.

The next day after returning my daughter back to her college dorm room, she ran ahead of me down the hallway loudly announcing to all her friends that “… dad set the turkey on fire”! (Remember, Kara?)

Today Nancy’s son and our son-in-law are both vegetarians. One year we tried cooking a “Tofu-Turkey”. This is an idea which is good only in concept. After that one experiment, our vegetarian family members seem quite thankful for veggie riblets and garden burgers.

We are hosting Thanksgiving again this year in our new house. I offered to BBQ pork ribs but Nancy soundly rejected the idea. I will stick to the arena of Thanksgiving in which I excel: cocktails.

Happy Thanksgiving.


PeterDeMan said...

I couldn't possibly have enjoyed this post more, Robert. It brought back some memories from places I don't want to visit right now, but this was a fun read. We're taking my wife's excellent Broccoli salad tomorrow to a gathering of others with no family around, and will thoroughly enjoy whatever is served. May you and Nancy and those important to you have a fine day.

billy pilgrim said...

i can certainly live without thanksgiving. watching people overeat when a large portion of the planet is starving puts me off but i would like to see a turkey set on fire.

MartyrMom said...

I was going to write about my family's Thanksgivings compared to the Engineer's family......but, I read your post and thought I'd just keep it to myself.

Holidays are full of tradition but there is always one, two or three obnoxious fools that try to mess it up!

Have a good one anyway!!

Jerry said...

I enjoy getting the extended family together over Thanksgiving meal...with lots of ribbing and joking between bites of food. This year my daughter is hosting her very first Thanksgiving for the family. Already we have received three phone calls that begin with something like, "Okay...after I pull the guts out of the damn bird, what do I do then?"

Robert the Skeptic said...

Peter Thanks, Peter. Hopefully it will be a national day to "chill" and just hang with friends over good food.

Billy It was pretty funny seeing that bird in flames. We actually picked some "blacked" meat off it so it was not a total disaster. But yes, gorging one's self is not a value that I admire.

MartyrMom We'll have grand kids keeping things light, and as I say, Nancy is a great cook. Ok, so it's not my favorite holiday, but it will be a nice time-out. My job will be to restore the house to it's original condition on Friday.

Jerry I'm trying to recall who it was but one of our group didn't take the wrapped up gizzards, neck, out of the bird before they cooked it. Gross, but funny.

Artist and Geek said...

Robert. I'm sorry to hear about your childhood experience.

Since I respect everyone's holidays, may I wish you and your family a happy Thursday?

Gorilla Bananas said...

Is it possible to barbecue a turkey whole? I would have thought the heat would be too uneven unless you cut it up in pieces. It's nice to know that you married a great cook after your childhood experiences. It's like a story with a happy ending.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Artist Thanks, the point is I survived and can enjoy cocktails, unlike my father, without becoming drunk. Happy Thursday accepted, *grins*

Bananas Oh yes, BBQ Turkey is quite simple.

The lower kettle portion of the Weber BBQ is a half-sphere, the lid is a parabola. A pan of water, smaller in diameter than the BBQ, is placed under the grill, then the charcoal is piled around the circumference of the water pan. This creates a convection around the turkey from the "ring" of hot coals within the closed BBQ. The fat from cooking food, which would usually fall into the coals and flare-up, instead falls into the water pan, thus eliminating flair-up and ensuring steady cooking temperature.

The bird must be cooked in the BBQ with the cavity hollow (no stuffing inside the bird) for it to cook evenly.

The result (if one is an attentive cook) is a delicious smokey turkey with a crisp skin. An oven thermometer confirms the thorough cooking of the breast.

DJan said...

I only eat meat a couple of times a year, and if I'm with family it's usually turkey at Thanksgiving. Since we moved to the Pacific Northwest, we shifted to our favorite fish: salmon. Delicata squash cooked to perfection and grown just a few miles away from here, organic spelt rolls from the Great Harvest Bread Company, a nice salad and steamed broccoli and brussels sprouts: our Thanksgiving repast today. Loved your description of the burning turkey!

Nance said...

Happy Thanksgiving, my friend. I loved your holiday stories. I'm a whizz with tofu, which really can be made delectable, but the idea of making it taste like meat gives me the nauseous shudders--the very name, Tofurkey, gets stuck in my throat.

You know, I've cooked about a gazillion good traditional Thanksgiving meals over the years and I find that nothing compares to those little wonders I just whip up some random Thursday night with ingredients I happen to have on hand. Sometimes, I hit on something truly fabulous. Now, there's thankfulness and gratitude for you.

Kind thoughts to your gathered family and friends today!

MartyrMom said...

I lied, I did write about our Thanksgiving!

The Mother said...

This year Thanksgiving is at the nearly Orthodox in-laws. With my militant atheist children and a set of Bible thumping Christian neighbors.

More wine, anyone???

Kay Dennison said...

I like the concept of Thanksgiving but the pigging out part gets to me.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Entre Nous said...

Hey You,

Happy Thanksgiving :}

Robert the Skeptic said...

DJan Nancy LOVES Salmon and we have it often. And Great Harvest is close by as well. MMMMM

Nance The Lady is up and cooking as I write, it will be an all-day project for her. I need to keep out of the kitchen and out of her way. There will be all kinds of turkey-based treats through the weekend.

MartyrMom You did!

Dr. Mom The fanatically religious among family have estranged themselves from us, leaving the "moderates". We don't discuss it and the only contentious moment will be when we DON'T say grace.

Kay Yes, the pigging-out aspect I do find distasteful. [no pun intended]

Marylinn Kelly said...

Perspective on this day...I could bear the local news this morning for it was all tales of reaching out, sharing, and examples of our better natures. Our very small and far-flung family remains small and far-flung. We have found a low-key formula that works and includes movies and a wider-than-normal variety of foods, harbingers of happy leftovers. Wishing all of you happy times together.

Infidel753 said...

Hilarious, though it couldn't have seemed so at the time (except for the turkey firebomb -- maybe the TSA will start screening for turkeys).

Thanksgiving must mean something to people that other holidays don't, since it's one of the very few that haven't been shunted to the nearest Friday or Monday in order to create an excuse for a long weekend. Also, whereas most holidays have become just a pretext for sales at the mall, with their original meaning almost forgotten, Thanksgiving seems to conjure a Sargasso of piety across the blogosphere. Thanks for providing a diversion from it.

Orhan Kahn said...

Awww! You do truly have an ideal American family, Robert. Something you should be absolutely thankful for and proud of! Enjoy the day, my friend :)

kara said...

DAD! You forgot the most important part! You remember - the part where I stood taking pictures of the flaming beast instead of trying to help you put the fire out.

You're welcome.

Murr Brewster said...

We always have a turkey. We all hate turkey. We say every year we should have prime rib instead, but we don't, because it wouldn't be right. We suffer through the turkey.

Next year we're putting as much stuffing as we can into the turkey, hauling it back out, and throwing out the turkey. We'll save the wishbone and when it's dry we'll wish for prime rib.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Marylinn Thus is Thanksgiving in the 21st century. The presence of family all together under the pretext of food is the salient point. Hoping you had good food and loving family to share it with.

Infidel Well Thanksgiving didn't entirely escape the grasp of nefarious commercial interests - Tomorrow is "Black Friday": In a stroke of marketing genius, mindless shoppers will fall for the ploy of stores opening at 4:00 AM on the pretext they will be offering goods at bargain prices. In reality cases, if you instead wait for the day AFTER Christmas, you can buy the same garbage for far cheaper. The "consumer lemmings" won't be dissuaded, though and the day after Turkey Day is when the big bell rings to get them salivating.

Orhan Yeah, it all panned out pretty well. Someone brought an Apple pie hearing it was one of my favorites. That mellowed me out this holiday for sure.

Kara I do have a recollection of your taking a picture of that flaming turkey. You find the pic, I'll post it! It's called "evidence".

Murr I'm doing pork ribs next year regardless. Prime rib is delicious but expensive. Stores like Fred Meyer were practically giving turkeys away free this year. Hard to beat that price. How come all the good stuff costs so much?

Sharon Longworth said...

My first visit to your blog - and a totally enjoyable one. Hope your Thanksgiving meal this year was a memorable one - but given the previous experiences, perhaps not too memorable.

Mary Witzl said...

I loved this post too, Robert, though that first paragraph made my eyes tear up.

My mother, a great human being, was a reluctant cook and determined to find the quickest way to prepare everything. We were also vegetarians, so Thanksgiving sometimes meant Vege-turkey right out of a can, which was hardly a treat. Our relatives invariably came over and although we didn't have alcohol to make us nasty, they had religion. It was almost never pleasant.

I LOVE turkey and making all the fixings by scratch, but as I tend to get stuck with the preparation, dishes AND clean up, I'm holding a moratorium on Thanksgiving this year.

Now I'm beginning to see why my mother liked the idea of vege-turkey. Sigh...

TechnoBabe said...

Your dad sounds like mine. Holidays were never a good experience for me but hubby and I make them what we want for us and there is peace and kindness and a healthy amount of food. I fried chicken and made mashed potatoes and some sweet potato and hubby made his mom's green bean casserole and stove top stuffing only in the oven to get it crunchy the way he likes it. It was fun.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Sharon Welcome. I tend to deal with memories by focusing on the good ones and keeping the less-than-good in some sort of perspective.

Mary Our Thanksgiving was scaled back a bit, still, other family members brought food so all of the work was not placed on Nancy's back. I usually clean up the kitchen afterward but Nancy has taken that on as well. This morning the kitchen looks like it never happened. The long table is still set up in the living room, though. Guests will be enlisted to help us finish the leftovers.

TechnoBabe That generation had no clue how to deal alcoholism, not like all the resources which are available to day. We all were left to flap in the wind with alcoholics in the household.

I like stuffing if it's "crunchy" as well.

Culture Served Raw said...

This is a funny and open post, it's such a delight to read about the traditions of a person's life, and well written I should add! Nancy sounds wonderful, I hope you enjoy your Thanksgiving

All the best

secret agent woman said...

We always have good food. but that seems the least of the holiday to me. For me it's about family and counting blessings.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Val I am very fortunate indeed.

Yes, it is fun to connect with the relatives. Though I agree somewhat with Mark Twain when he noted that "fish and relatives begin to smell after three days".