Turkey Terror

The tale of how this once-petrified writer overcame her fear of Thanksgiving poultry


















   We all have personal milestones that signify we’ve crossed the road from child to adult. There’s the entry-level ones like getting off your parents’ cell phone bill plan and using those 20 percent off Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons because saving money has suddenly become a priority.  Then there are the really big watershed moments like getting married and having children. For me, one of my “hey, you’re a grown woman” milestones was cooking a turkey for the very first time.

   I’m not going to lie: Turkeys scare me in all forms: fresh, frozen and free range. Have you ever seen a turkey up close and personal? I have, and they’re jerks.

   When I was growing up in Texas, wild turkeys roamed around my neighborhood like they owned the place. They were the poultry version of mean girls. They would strut around with their cranberry-colored snood and wattle and give you what can only be termed as a very assertive and hateful gobble as if they were demanding your allegiance to their reign as poultry royalty.

   I spent the better part of my childhood screaming and making sure I didn’t run afoul of fowl. I still believe to this day that the whole weirdo snood and wattle thing is a sign that aliens, somehow in this space-time continuum, hooked up with turkeys. (Alien/poultry crossbreeding – it could’ve happened, just saying.)

   It didn’t help my gobble, gobble phobia when one Thanksgiving morning I witnessed my mother doing, what seemed to me at a very impressionable age, unspeakable things to a 20-pound Butterball. As I turned the corner into the kitchen, I saw my mom scalding the turkey with hot water, then she started giving the bird a real beatdown, going all Ali/Frazier circa 1975 on it.

   As if that weren’t enough, after she stopped the brutality and took a few puffs on her Winston 100s, she stuck her hand — like her whole entire hand and wrist — into the turkey and begin ripping stuff out.

   I don’t remember anything else after that. I either passed out or have repressed the traumatic memory. All I know is after that, I was on team “I never want to touch a turkey.”

   I was able to stay on that team for years until I had a family with children and a husband who wanted a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving. Oh sure, I could have bought a ready-made turkey from a grocery store or even had my husband do the honors, but I had made the momentous decision that I was going to conquer my turkey fear and give in to the bird.

   I started out by doing extensive research and discovered just why my mother, all those decades ago, was going WWF on a turkey. She had not sufficiently defrosted the Butterball, and due to wanting her family to eat before midnight, my mom had to resort to extreme thawing measures up to and including turkey water boarding with boiling water and poultry pugilistics.

   Armed with this knowledge and wanting to stop my family’s cycle of culinary violence, the first momentous decision I made was to go the fresh, not frozen turkey route. The second and much more troubling choice was deciding where to get the fresh turkey. All my earth mama friends, and by that I mean women who would rather die than pack a Smucker’s Uncrustables in their kid’s lunch, were all about the farm-to-table scene, which is not as cozy and mason jar-ish as it sounds.

   Oh no, in regards to Thanksgiving dinner, the term farm-to-table was very literal — as in you went to a farm and selected which turkey you wanted slaughtered for your holiday meal. I have a strict, never wavering rule that I don’t ever want to know my protein before I eat it. No introductions or eye contact should ever be made with anything that will someday be making a trip down my digestive tract.

   This is why, after much soul searching, I went to Whole Foods and opted for one of their fresh turkeys. When I walked out of the store carrying my just-purchased reusable grocery bag (because I felt like otherwise I would be judged “So Not Whole Foods-worthy”) laden with an organic 15-pound turkey, from a farm that thankfully I never had to visit, I felt grown-up. I was an adult who was going to cook a turkey like a boss.

   Once I got that bad boy home, I was still energized, and the next day I was ready to embark on part two of my adventure: roasting the bird. Armed with Playtex kitchen gloves that went up to my elbow, I began the most perilous part: skin-to-skin or, in my case, plastic glove-to-skin contact with the turkey. Yuck! 

    It was bad enough that I had to basically give the turkey a spa treatment in the sink, but when it came time to remove the giblets or whatever it’s called from the “body cavity” of the bird, I had to take a break and let the waves of nausea pass. Finally, with the aid of kitchen forceps (aka salad tongs) I successfully delivered a packet of gunk from my turkey.

Next up was seasoning, and while I could vigorously massage in pepper and thyme like a nail technician giving a salt scrub pedicure, the one thing I couldn’t do, no matter how many pep talks I gave myself, was the whole Hannibal Lecter procedure of burrowing under the turkey skin to add “flavor.”

   According to the recipe, I was to use surgical precision to separate layers of bird epidermis all in an effort to place pats of mustard chive butter and twigs of rosemary to “create a flavor profile” that was “bar none.” Was I cooking or honing serial killer skills?

   I was this close to calling it quits, but instead decided to throw out Plan A — which was the fancy cookbook I was following on how to cook a turkey — and go to Plan B: redneck. Oh yeah, I was going to stick the bird in a vat of oil and deep-fry that sucker.

   This was my kind of recipe. It had three sentences. Put oil in a stockpot. Place turkey in oil. Fry. Never mind that also included with the instructions was a skull and crossbones symbol and dire warnings about the possibility of grease splatter catching you or your house on fire.

   I got my biggest pot, poured what looked to be a gallon of cooking oil in it, turned the burner up and plunged the turkey into a hot tub of flammable liquid. Yes, there was splash back, and I have a scar on my inner forearm from the kick back of poultry meeting Wesson oil causing what I’m sure was, at least, a second-degree burn, but it was so worth it. 

   That Thanksgiving my turkey wasn’t close to perfect. (Parts of it were even charred, but I got around that by referring to it as “Cajun-style,” which I thought might amp up my kitchen cred.) But it didn’t matter because I felt wonderful. Not even the sight of my family burying the meat under their mashed potatoes or discreetly draping some squash casserole over a wing damped my glow.

   I had conquered my fear, and I had never felt more grown-up. Or quite possibly that could have been the wine and painkiller I had taken to deal with the agony from the burn. Whatever. The important thing is I did it, and I never had to do it again.

   That’s right, 10 years and counting and I’ve never cooked another turkey. One and done! That’s the upside to being an adult — sometimes you can do exactly what you want, and this grown-up said no to cooking any more turkeys.


Categories: Food