I had just landed in Chicago for Thanksgiving and was strolling through the O'Hare concourse towards baggage claim when my phone rang. It was my sister Karen's fiance Kevin.
"You know how Karen was going to pick you up from the airport?" he asked. "She can't. She's been in a car accident."
He sounded calm which reassured me, especially since he'd already spoken to her. But then he told me their Prius was in bad shape. My gait quickened even though I had nowhere to go. She might be fine physically, but mentally an accident of that severity had to be a shock.
I called my other sister Joannie to fill her in on the situation, and after an hour or so of phone tag, one car was dispatched to get Karen from the place where they'd towed her car, another to get me from the airport.
When we finally all gathered back at Joannie's, the story had been reported and rereported multiple times, the truth coming together like pieces of a puzzle. Two guys in a sedan had the right rear corner of her Prius, sending her into a spin that ended at the center median of the highway. The sedan, meanwhile, somehow ended up flipped on its side on the other side of highway, on the shoulder.
As Karen got out of the car to gather herself and as various people stopped to help, the two guys somehow made it out of their vehicle. One of the two stumbled a few steps and vomited all over himself. The two of them were drunk.
The police took the two men to the hospital to draw blood, but they'd already failed the onsite sobriety test. The legal system will, I assume, deal with them. But in the meantime, I felt firsthand the anger of those hurt by the stupidity of those who get behind the wheel of three to four thousand pound machines under the influence of alcohol. There is nothing courageous or admirable about someone who manages to drive from point A to point B drunk; it's merely dumb luck.
It's also luck that helped Karen get out of the accident unharmed, save for a stiff neck and bruised knee. My flight arrived late, and so traffic on the 90/94 was light, so no cars were close behind that might have run into her during or immediately after her spinout.
The story has a happier ending as most of our family spent the rest of the week together celebrating Thanksgiving. We didn't dwell on the subject of her accident, especially the hypotheticals. To do so would seem morbid, and I sensed a need for us all to move on lest we cede the happiness of the entire holiday weekend to those two drunken idiots.
This was my first time in charge of preparing a Thanksgiving meal. I did a lot of research on how to prepare a turkey having had many a dry and unappetizing bird in Novembers past. My first big decision was to go with a heritage turkey over the breed commonly found at the grocery store, the Broad-Breasted White. Though they cost more, up to $10 a pound, heritage turkeys are known for their higher proportion of dark meat and a more guilt-free narrative: they tend to be raised on organic feed, on small farms where they're allowed to roam freely. If it lived up to the taste, then paying around $160 for a turkey that would feed the entire group on this once-a-year holiday would be worth it.
The next question was how to prepare the turkey. I consulted most every foodie I knew about their past experiences, and the number one technique mentioned was brining. I thought I could stop there, but it turns out there are different brining techniques. The one I'd heard of most often involved soaking the turkey in salt water. But then, while I waited for my take-out lunch one day, I saw a front page story in a section of the LA Times on the bar counter about dry brining.
It sounded too good to be true; just salt the turkey a few days in advance. Not only was it less messy than a wet brine, it supposedly produced meat of a superior texture.
The best laid plans were nearly derailed by a FedEx delivery person who couldn't distinguish a one from a zero. I spent all of Tuesday checking FedEx online, and mid-afternoon, I got the note that the turkey had been delivered to the front porch. I wandered outside, around the side of the house, poked in some bushes, looked out on the back deck, behind the garage...no turkey. I called FedEx, they tried to call the driver, but he was gone for the day.
Just as I was ready to call FedEx back to tell them they'd ruined Christmas for a group of orphans, a guy in a grey station wagon pulled up out front and walked out with a box. I was standing out on the front porch with such a look of consternation on my face that he must have put it together all at once.
"Are you Eugene? I found this on my porch when I got home just now."
Whoever you are, guy in grey station wagon, I salute you.
After letting the turkey thaw for a couple hours in a cold water bath (it was still vacuum sealed), I brined it inside and out with a mixture of kosher salt and minced parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, a the Simon Garfunkel of seasonings. I put it in a baking bag and we put it in Joannie's basement fridge, breast-side up. The next day I massaged it and flipped it over, the salt having sucked some of the liquid out of the turkey as I had read it would.
Wednesday we spent the afternoon prepping a few dishes in advance, a batch of creamed corn pudding, garlic mashed potatoes, and the turkey stock. Spices at the grocery store are not sold loose but in plastic containers that always contain too much for any one dish, I used the excess thyme, rosemary, sage, and parsley to make a compound butter and stashed it in the fridge to use as a rub on the turkey the next day. Compound butters are handy to have around in the kitchen and a great way to not waste all that spice.
Making stock, like ironing shirts, alternates between soothing ritual and exasperating burden from one minute to the next. I love the meditative pace of the process, the way the scent sneaks up on you as the liquid absorbs some of the character of all that's in it, the turkey giblet, heart, and neck bones, the mirepoix of onions, carrots, and celery, the sprigs of rosemary and thyme, the parsley and stray chicken parts. But with seven other dishes to worry about, I was tempted, at moments, to reach for canned stock, like a monk tempted by the sins of the material world.
Thankfully I had Karen as my faithful partner chef in crime, and we had enough time to get enough prepared that we could let the stock just simmer while we dined on some Chicago deep dish pizza.
On Thanksgiving Day, I thought about using a turkey bag for roasting, but some articles I'd read suggested that the steaming it would encourage would deprive us of trying a more traditional roasted texture and flavor. My decision was made when we couldn't find the turkey bag we'd set aside.
I contemplated two other methods of adding flavor, one being injection and the other being a rub. Since we didn't have a turkey syringe and I'd made the compound butter the night before, we went with the rub.
Heritage turkeys don't require as high a finishing temperature as regular turkeys as they're free of antibiotics. That brings with it another benefit: a shorter stay in the oven. I gave it about a half hour at 450 degrees to brown the skin, then lowered the temperature to 350 and covered the breast with aluminum foil. One of the chief problems with in preparing turkeys is the fact that the white breast meat tastes best at a lower temperature than the darker leg and thigh meat, thus the selective application of foil. Ultimately, I had to remove the legs and thighs and give them an extra ten to fifteen minutes alone after the rest of the turkey was finished, about two and a half hours later.
Fast forward to the taste test: dear readers, it was good. Damn good. The best turkey I've ever had. Was it the dry brining, or the rub, or the heritage of the turkey? I don't know, but the white meat was moist like a roast chicken, and the dark meat tasted almost like duck. But it was still undeniably a turkey.
A few years back I ordered a turducken for Thanksgiving, and while it was fine, there didn't seem to be any real synergy among the three meats. Stuffing one inside another inside another seemed to offer simply an advantage in carving efficiency, but the flavors simply added up to the sum of the parts, nothing more.
The heritage turkey, with its mix of different meat textures and flavors, seemed to fulfill the vision of what a turducken was trying to be. But whereas the turducken resorts to the culinary equivalent of plastic surgery, the heritage turkey is au naturel, a product of good genes and healthy living.
Thanksgiving day, one soon-to-be-convicted drunk driver was probably pondering a grim future at the hands of the law. Meanwhile, my little sister may have been without her new Prius, but that day she was celebrating Thanksgiving with loved ones over a great turkey she helped prepare. Sometimes the lessons of Thanksgiving come as simple as that.