The toxic turkey that threatened our family

Editor & Publisher

Happy families are all alike — they believe in the warm fuzzy myth of family and the nostalgic visage of Indians and pilgrims breaking bread together. But every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way: they turn holidays into gatherings that are little more than an assemblage of ancient and unrelenting dramas.

Fortunately my family is generally happy. We are only unhappy in the kitchen.

There is no great chef in my gene pool. No Emeril-like blood wherein each offspring can throw spices into the air and command them to land harmoniously on a perfectly braised veal fillet. And this kitchen clumsiness has inevitably made for challenging holidays. Getting a turkey from the grocery store to our dinner table is as smooth as a roadmap to peace in the Middle East.

After all, turkeys are inherently greasy. Last year I learned you can’t wrestle one out of a baking pan onto a platter using two dinner forks. I lost the 20-pounder and it slid across our travertine marble floor and bounced off the dishwasher. My father’s voice in me said, “Wipe it off and serve it with lots of gravy.”

My mom’s voice rattled in my head, “You have cats on the floor. You can’t serve that to guests – much less family!”

But I still smile upon looking back to when I was 10 years old at how hard my father strove to keep things normal after my parents divorced. I recall him trying to reconstruct the Polish traditions my mother upheld during our previously very Catholic holidays.


Cooking up defiance

But the first Thanksgiving without mom in the house was tricky. It should have been easy. After all, Thanksgiving is one holiday Catholic tradition doesn’t reach. It was the year my father was going to cook his first turkey. A recipe rebel, my father grows defiant when faced with rules and edicts. Take that very first turkey he made.

When the bag on the turkey clearly stated: “Do not thaw at room temperature or in water,” my dad propped the bird in a washbasin in the sun. It was as if he was developing a primitive biological weapon. After thawing the bird and spiking its bacteria count, he patiently stuffed the bird and stuck it in the oven.

Throughout the afternoon we smelled the turkey browning. My dad repeatedly looked through the oven window waiting for the pop-up thermometer. But the more he waited, the more the home filled with an acrid and nauseating odor. I asked my father why it was so smoky. He looked like Robert Duvall walking around a bombed out landscape in Vietnam relishing the smell of turkey in the morning.


A smell worse than New Jersey

Smoke crawled across the living room and a toxic Cajun meltdown kept wafting from the oven. “Dad,” I suggested, “It’s not supposed to smoke so much.”

“That’s normal,” He said. “I’ve got the turkey; you just worry about setting the table.”

Being from New York, our family was innately dysfunctional. Holidays always brought my Father’s two sisters from New York City to our home in Sag Harbor. My dad would turn into John Cleese running around comically as the sisters drank too much wine and talked in abstractions about imagist poetry, unrequited love and how they couldn’t get published. When they weren’t talking, they would set off on long walks. After all, everyone from New York City takes walks.

But they usually got lost. “We’re going to walk into the village,” my aunt Joan would declare in the morning and later that evening she would return with a broken shoe and a piece of driftwood brought back from her journey.

Fortunately, during holidays, or really anytime it was near a cocktail hour, they drank wine or scotch. That would ready them for my father’s acrid and menacing bird.

By four p.m. the popper still had not risen from the blackening belly. By now all the windows and doors were open. Fans whirred and our two Labradors were panting in the corner. The entire house smelled like Secaucus, New Jersey. Through the haze my father let out a triumphant yell: “Stephen it’s done! The popper’s up!”

After airing the house and gathering the aunts and my brother, we said grace, then passed the rolls and stuffing and mashed potatoes and bread. My father quickly noticed everyone’s plate was full but nobody had taken any turkey. It lay on the serving platter like a cancerous turkey football with legs.

Honor and loyalty and love. Those are the sentiments I have toward my father. So I asked for a big slab of Turkey Melanoma. My brother and aunts asked for a small portion. “We can always have more,” they said as if in rehearsal.

As I ate I wondered why the turkey tasted so different. Usually turkey has a clean flavor – after all, they run around, gobble corn and get injected with a few shots of growth hormone – nothing that would impart a drastic flavor. But this turkey was off.

“Dad, are you sure the turkey didn’t go bad in the sun when you defrosted it?”

“Why? What’s wrong? It’s delicious!”


An autopsy does not lie…

I kept eating. But that’s when I saw the problem. I started to cut into the bird and snagged something with the serrated knife. It was a plastic bag. I examined the bird like an autopsy and realized my father had left the giblet bag in the bird and pushed stuffing all around it. The plastic had melted like a toxic fondue throughout the bottom of the bird, then bubbled and burnt to a crisp on the bottom of the pan.

I instantly stopped eating and looked at my father. But instead of speaking up and ending the meal, I decided to not say a word. The bird crinkled like plastic wrap when my dad later went to carve and refrigerate the leftovers. I didn’t have the heart to tell him after all his effort that the bird was inedible.

After my father finished the dishes, the two of us stood outside in the crisp night looking at the stars that punctuated the blackness like so many iridescent poppies. He put his arm around me. I watched the moon glowing like a swollen grapefruit as he asked if I enjoyed my first Thanksgiving without mom in the house. I mumbled something affirmative.

“You know Stephen,” He said quietly, “Next year we’re going to eat Thanksgiving out at a restaurant. It’s just too much trouble. And somehow that turkey just didn’t come out right. But don’t tell your mother that. I want her to think everything came out perfect.”

I thanked my father. Not for feeding us plastic. Not for trying to carry on traditions that would make our home feel more like home. I thanked him because in my ten-year-old eyes he was a hero. He tried so hard to make our holiday memorable despite attempting what he didn’t have a clue how to accomplish.

Nor did he have any inner drive other than to keep us together and create that nostalgic, often irrational love we feel for our families and the brief time we have together. And most importantly, he didn’t poison us with his own dilemmas and emotions – only inadvertently with a melted giblet bag.

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