Outsourcing the Bird

Seasonal reflections on the challenge – the near impossibility – of satisfactorily cooking a turkey, at least in my kitchen.


 

Before we are overtaken by the brutal onset of our annual season of ritualized and participation-obligatory turkey-cooking holidays—known popularly and more succinctly as Thanksgiving and Christmas—can we talk?  In this brief period of calm, maybe we’re ready to admit the truth: turkeys are intimidating.  I never even want to meet a real, live turkey—I find their frozen brethren more than a match.

How do turkeys intimidate me?  Let me count the ways.    

This time of year, perfectly cooked turkeys adorn the cover of every women’s magazine.  Like the summer swimsuit models before them, turkeys taunt me with the unattainability of their Zen-like calm, their improbably bronzed bodies.  The appearance of stoic acceptance of their role as lead performer rather than honoured guest at our dinner tables is merely a clever ruse.  As their final act of defiance, turkeys confound cooks, exacting a revenge no less effective for its subtlety.

Cooking a turkey involves what contractors call ‘tight performance specifications’.  This isn’t like throwing a steak on the BBQ: no one asks whether you’d like your turkey rare, medium or well-done, in the full confidence that you’ll eat whatever you get.  The options with turkey are more like ‘under-done and full of salmonella’, ‘just right’, and ‘too dry’.  As some long-misplaced cookbook unsympathetically informed the young cook I once was, there is a vanishingly small window of opportunity when the bird is Just Right: dark meat, done; white meat, not yet too dry.

Tight performance specification is only the beginning.  Achieving the mystical stage of Just Right is a unique undertaking every time.  Forget those misleadingly straightforward charts in the cookbooks, the ones that spuriously link weight to cooking time.  Using results replicated in numerous labs across the nation, physicists have recently confirmed Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle for turkeys—if you know how much it weighs, you can’t know when it will be cooked.

Consider the multiplicity of factors that render useless those easy-to-use charts.

Is the bird fresh or frozen?  If it was frozen, has it been thawed to room temperature, refrigerator temperature, or are there still ice crystals in the cavity?

Will there be stuffing and, if so, what kind and density—bread, rice, sausage, onions, oranges?

Is it pre-basted, ravaged by a vegetable-fat-injecting hypodermic, an ‘insert and forget’ model that allows the oven to maintain its temperature without nosy interruptions?  Or is it a baste-your-own false-economy model, taxing both the oven’s homeostatic abilities and human perseverance with a 20-minute basting cycle through the cooking period?  Incalculably, the heat escaping through the open door throws off the cooking-time estimate; literally, it exacerbates conditions in an already figuratively overheated kitchen.

Independent of type, how big is the turkey compared to the oven?  Cookbooks all agree that too little air circulation around the bird will slow cooking, but are also unanimous in refusing to even estimate by how much.

Finally, how big is the turkey in absolute terms?  Larger birds, especially, reflect a broader societal trend that you may have noticed: artificial breast enhancement.  Breeders have given us the extra white meat we apparently crave, while ruining schedules based on the unenhanced white-to-dark-meat ratio of even 20 years ago.

No, to honour these charts with a name more definite than ‘guidelines’ would abandon all pretence to scientific integrity.

Tight specifications, ambiguous guidelines for attaining them—it gets worse.  Cooking turkeys is high visibility too: we use them for our most festive dinners.  As family and friends assemble, sometimes from across the time zones, the pressure to deliver the perfect dinner mounts.

In my mind’s eye I see mother and grandmother conferring in hushed tones over a huge bird, wondering whether the thing was safe to serve or already too dry—somehow, Just Right never seemed a feasible option.  These vivid childhood memories have merged with my own anxious moments standing over a slower-than-expected turkey.  As the vegetable dishes quietly sagged into mush, the decibel level rose in the living room, extended family clamouring to be fed.

Years ago, I decided to throw in the baster and focus my efforts on a more achievable task than cooking the perfect turkey: avoiding the festive kitchen altogether.  Mid-October finds me on vacation—enjoying Canadian Thanksgiving in a diner.  American friends are no longer surprised to find me on their doorstep, bottle of wine in hand, for their November celebration.  At Christmas, I fly across the country to celebrate with family—any family will do, as long as they cook the bird.

I’ve recently noticed friends-and-relations pursuing a similar outsourcing strategy, drawing on both innate management capability and the wisdom that sometimes comes with age.  Several years, a chum from high school took her parents to turkey dinners presented by the ever-elegant railway hotel; my own parents did an upscale turkey take-out to host several couples in their home.  Both kept the traditional meal while dispensing with the traditional work.

In a world where governments and businesses alike build entire strategies around outsourcing anything deemed not a ‘core competency’, maybe pushing the turkey dinner off onto someone else is an idea whose time has come.  Maybe we are finally ready to leave this job where it belongs—with the professionals who are paid to deal with turkeys: hotel chefs and magazine photographers, among them.

Certainly, for me, amateur hour is over.  Since I gave up trying to cook turkeys, I’ve been a happier, more relaxed person.  There’s no going home again.  Not, at least, until turkey-cooking season is well and truly over.

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10 Comments

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Gary – What?? Aren’t we supposed to suffer for art? I guess I could take my own advice and figure out a way to assemble the dinner… For now, when I can’t duck it entirely (no pun intended – I’m sure ducks are quite as annoying as turkeys), i settle for spreading the joy, getting others to bring side dishes and doing make-aheads.

  1. Marion

    I rarely share cooking anecdotes, but this sems to fit. A few weeks ago I bought a 12 pounder with the intention to roast it, strip the meat from the bones, and make a mess of turkey stew – a family favourite – to freeze in meal-size portions for the freezer. (We lost the craving for the traditional turkey dinner some years ago and rarely have a slice of roast turkey on a plate anymore.) Anyway, I followed the directions on the shrink wrap to roast it covered at 350 for x hours (don’t remember, but according to weight), then remove cover and baste for last 30 mins for the golden brown look. I used my Mum’s old enamel roasting pan with cover. When I took off the lid I was stunned to find that it was a magazine-cover brown and that the thermometer indicated perfect doneness for both white and dark meat. I don’t think I’ve ever done a turkey covered the whole time, or not basted it, but it sure worked well. It woud have been a wonderful sight on a Thanksgiving dinner table, but I ripped it apart as planned and we had a wonderful stew.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Marion – Maybe roasting turkeys is the culinary equivalent of haggling over price. They say the only time you get a good price is when you really don’t want the thing. Maybe the only time the turkey turns out well is when you don’t need it to….

  2. Jim Taylor

    I assume you have heard (or read) Stuart MacLean’s magnificent tale of how Dave cooked the turkey? At the Plaza Hotel? And put gravy on the lightbulbs so the house would smell of roast turkey when the family came back?

    I’m surprised you didn’t refer to live turkeys. We had an Irish Setter for about ten years, and took him to a farm where they raised live turkeys. Being a setter, he had a genetic disposition to pursue birds. He took off after the pen where the turkeys strutted. When he encountered a 35-pound Tom turkey who was considerably larger with fluffed feathers than he (the dog) was, the dog backed away with his tail between his legs!

    Jim T

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a live turkey up close. I did see geese at a Hutterite farm on a school field trip – yikes! Scary enough. The locals were some amused at this city girl’s angst! (Addendum – for those interested in Dave Cooks a Turkey, this site has a link to it.)

  3. Isabel, a live turkey is scary and a flock of live turkeys is downright terrifying. We lived in a country residential area in Pennsylvania. A flock of turkeys moved into the woods nearby. They’d hold turkey meetings in the middle of the road and peck at your tires while you crept by, yelling and honking your horn…what a sight. Worse still, sometimes they’d lose their grip on the hillside and roll into the road right in front of your car–more pecking, yelling and honking. These silly birds could make humans look like buffoons in the wink of an eye.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Susan – Turkey meetings? I think I’ve been to some of those… The closest I’ve come to wild turkeys is watching them from inside a friend’s house as they picked over the cast-offs from the bird feeders. Cute/appealing they’re not, but with that degree of separation, not scary either. But I know when I run into Canada geese on the ground, I keep a respectful distance.

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