I’m a vegetarian – have been for almost twenty years. But this Christmas I decided I would make a full traditional turkey dinner for my partner and his family. In my fictionalized writer brain, this played out like a beautiful movie scene in which the gorgeous mocha-skinned chef effortlessly put together a dinner worthy of Kings and at the end, still looked stunning enough to model for “Chef Weekly”(if such a magazine actually exists). I, of course, am the mocha-skinned chef in this ridiculous fantasy, but by the end of it, I looked more like Lucille Ball after she spent the day at the chocolate factory whacked out on half a bottle of Vitameatavegamin.
I’m not the most “seasoned”chef (pun intended) to begin with, but so many people told me that making a turkey was “easy” so I decided to take on the challenge. Well, those fowl friends were wrong. My poultry efforts were far from paltry.
Things started out okay. I reserved my turkey at The Butchery (as far as meat markets go, this one is a standout of service and quality – if you’re into that sort of thing).
This may seem weird to meat eaters and most other people, but I decided to name the turkey Graham after the man I went on my first date with almost twenty-five years ago.
Graham was a regular customer in my family’s business. One summer he came in almost twice a week to buy something, made idle chit-chat with me and then finally, after almost a month, he asked me out on a date. On the date he told me that he was fighting with his father because he had lost the family inheritance to a gambling habit, he said that he didn’t speak with his siblings because none of them could accept the fact that he occasionally liked to wear women’s clothing and towards the end he told me that he thought he was gay. When the bill came he used a coupon and asked me to pay for the balance of my meal. I barely heard my own voice the entire night. No one was more surprised than me, that he said it was one of the best dates he had ever been on. I was even more surprised when he angled in for a kiss that started with his tongue lapping up from my chin around to my cheek and then gliding over my lips. No jokes, my face was dripping from his saliva when he was done. In light of this, you can see why I named the turkey “Graham”.
I read a lot about salmonella poisoning, improperly cooked poultry making people sick and cross contamination so my first order of business was to clean my kitchen more thoroughly than I had ever done before. Thanks to Graham’s impending arrival, my counters were more pristine than the first day I moved into my apartment and four of my kitchen cabinets were overhauled, cleaned and reorganized. I found three frying pans I didn’t remember having, two of my mother’s mixing bowls and a large copper pot from India that I had stored away and forgotten about. It occurred to me that I had just turkey-proofed my kitchen as though I was bringing home a new baby.
We picked up Graham on Saturday (five days before Christmas). He was in a grey plastic bag and heavier than any niece or nephew I had carried in my arms. When I got him home I opened the bag to see “grain-fed young turkey” written in bold red ink on the plastic sheath he was encased in. I wept to my partner, “He was young! He hardly had a chance to live! Poor Graham!”
The prep up to preparing the feast involved me asking a multitude of homemakers how they prepared their turkey. Well this opened up a veritable Pandora’s box of turkey trivia and turkey tips that though well-meaning, only served to confuse me more.
Stuff the bird. Don’t stuff the bird.
Baste the turkey. Don’t baste the turkey – opening the oven door dries it out.
Put bacon on the turkey. Don’t put bacon on the turkey.
Cook it upside down.
Put a beer can in it.
Fry the turkey.
Cover the turkey with oil. Don’t cover the turkey with oil.
Use a cheesecloth to hold in the stuffing. Don’t use the cheesecloth it only “suffocates” the stuffing.
Brine the turkey. Brining is a waste of time. I had to look up brining (soaking the turkey in a salt bath) because I thought it was a slang term for brimming someone who whines during sex.
By the end of my inquiry I wanted to clothe Graham in a red velvet suit, take him out to the woods and set him free in nature hoping that there would be a Christmas miracle and that he would grow his feathers back and run (or waddle) to a new life.
On Christmas morning I woke to multiple texts wishing me “good luck” and “break a turkey leg”. I languished in bed savouring the morning until I realized that even with my faulty math skills, I had miscalculated how much time I needed to prep the bird and get the other fixin’s (mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, cumin corn and baked cauliflower) ready. With my sorry lack of time management I knew there was no chance I would be able to prepare a stuffing and still get Graham into the oven on time. So here’s what I did:
I prepped an herb butter while Graham, wearing the tiara of a young king, lay back and enjoyed a good book…
Once he had finished reading it, I figured that if he was going to roast, at least he would do it with a smile on his face.
I finished thoroughly cleaning him inside and out, patted him completely dry and sprinkled a salt and pepper mix into his open cavities (both front and back). Then I slid my hand between the flesh of his breast and his skin to make room for an herbed butter mixture. That feeling, by the way, was at once slightly upsetting and strangely titillating. It reminded me of a butt massage I got at an Ayurvedic spa that left me feeling very vulnerable but mostly turned on. But I digress…
I took the remainder of the butter and massaged it onto the outer breasts, thighs and tickled little bits of it under the wing tips. My partner, watching all of this, offered to do the same to me with the remainder of the butter, but I sent him off to peel potatoes instead. I cut an onion in half and placed it upright in the cavity along with half a lemon. The other half of the lemon was placed in the neck hole so that even if he was headless, he smelled lemony fresh.
I accidentally left my butter dish on the stove while the oven was heating up which caused its contents (about six tablespoons) to melt. I used this melted butter to saute long sprigs of sage, marjoram, thyme and rosemary in a frying pan and then placed the warmed up herbs over the two onion halves in Graham’s belly. The remaining melted butter went into the bottom of the roasting pan along with cut up carrots, celery, onion slices, lemon slices and a whole bunch of garlic cloves. I threw in about two cups of vegetable stock and Graham was good to go.
Just before popping him into the oven I drizzled olive oil all over his belly and massaged it in with the butter. Again my partner offered to do the same to me, but I used Graham to show him what I would do to him later if he just let me alone with the turkey. He happily complied and Graham got one last moment of buttery bliss before heading into the heat.
A couple of hours later he came out smelling as close to what I would call Christmas Magic as one can imagine. My partner basted him while I sang words of positive praise to him like, “What a handsome turkey you are” and “Who is the prettiest turkey in the land? You are Graham!” We basted him two more times while I scrubbed my kitchen to an almost nunnery-like clean again and busied myself with prepping the rest of the dinner. I ended up making oven baked stuffing with vegetable stock instead of chicken stock so I could eat it and broke my whisk hammering away at what I hoped were the tastiest mashed potatoes ever made. On a side note, one arm can skip weight lifting at the gym for at least a week.
Graham was cooked and ready in just over three hours.
By the time the dinner was 80% ready I realized I hadn’t sat down (or eaten) since 9am in the morning. It was 4pm at this point.
My biggest concern really wasn’t just cooking the turkey, it was transporting it. We had to carry it from my house where it was prepared to my partner’s brother’s house fifteen minutes away. For weeks all I had envisioned was the two of us holding the cooked beast and dropping it into the snow or rolling it down the stairs.
In the end, the turkey was as close to perfection as any first timer could ask. People had seconds and I was repeatedly told that the meat was not ony tasty but moist and aromatic. As the carnivores took their bites of dinner, I sat back with my tofurkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing and relaxed for the first time that day.
Will I ever do it again? Maybe. But next time, I think I will prepare in advance more, delegate side dishes to someone else and have more cider on hand for when the cooking is done.
At least thanks to my disastrous dating life in the past, I won’t have any shortages of names for future turkeys.
My first-timer turkey recipe:
Thoroughly clean and dry turkey (if you are a vegetarian like me, get someone else to do this)
Generously salt and pepper cavities
Half a pound of room temperature butter
Chopped sage, thyme, rosemary and marjoram (fresh)
Two garlic cloves minced
Mash up all ingredients for herbed butter with hands and tenderly (with love) slide under skin of turkey (between breast)
Rub remainder of mixture on outside skin
Place one onion halved inside turkey cavity with half a lemon. Sautee sage, thyme and rosemary until soft and place on top of onions inside cavity. Drizzle warm butter over turkey and coat with olive oil massaging into skin one last time. Sprinkle with salt.
Place turkey (wings tucked under head so it looks like he is relaxing on the beach) in roasting pan over cut pieces of carrot, celery, onion, garlic cloves and lemon wedges. Drop any remaining melted butter in bottom of pan along with two cups of vegetable stock (or chicken stock for those who can’t get enough meat).
Put in oven that has been heated to 450 degrees Farenheit and then drop temperature down to 325 degrees. Cooking time is 20 minutes per pound. Baste after a few hours and allow to sit for at least thirty minutes before covering with tin foil and a moderately heavy cloth. The turkey stayed warm even after transporting it using this method.