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.