I pick nervously at the dingy, frayed drawstring on my nubby, black, all-you-can-eat sweatpants. I’m on a 48-hour countdown before what’s left of my dinged and dented family descends to pick apart my Thanksgiving meal, like buzzards on road kill.
My iPhone pings with another text. This latest jab is from my brother, Mike.
Try her brick-oven biscuits, suitable for home construction…
To carry off this dinner, I was going to have to bring out the big guns. In my family, that’s no cliché.
Our special events feature weapons.
Take my niece Betty’s 16th birthday. We gathered in my brother’s barn under the dead-eyed gaze of deer heads and two giant American flags hanging from the rafters above stray brown and blue tweed sofas, recliners, and a fully stocked bar.
About 20 yards away, the light from 16 tall, white candles blazed from her cake against a backdrop of kelly-green pasture framed between the open rear doors of the barn.
Betty’s face shone with excitement — and with her most recent makeup experimentations. Her eyes, shadowed with a loud purple, fought for attention with her grinning, grandma-red lips. She rocked a moment on her beige platform shoes before she eased down onto the metal folding chair and took aim with her .22 rifle. Sixteen shots. One at a time, the flame on each candle sputtered and died. I clapped along with everyone else who marveled at her Annie Oakley-ness.
A few years later, Betty was crowned Miss America, and I watched anxiously as she strode onto the set of “Live With Kelly and Michael” — long, lightly streaked, dark blonde pageant hair fanning from under a “really not for daytime wear” rhinestone crown. Kelly Ripa marveled at how Betty could drive a tractor and plow a field. When Ripa said, “You should have won just for that alone, the most useful of all the Miss Americas,” I wondered if Betty would add, “Yes, and I’m a great shot, too!”
She did not.
In such a family, it didn’t matter that for years I complained, “Why can’t we have a Butterball turkey like normal people?” Life in the wild was harsh, and the birds my brother shot for our Thanksgiving meals had all the earmarks of that life. Sinewy thigh muscles. Stringy drumsticks. Meager breasts.
My mother would press her bright red lips together as she daggered her sharp green eyes in my direction. The diamonds in her two-inch-long, gold flower brooch winked reprovingly at me in the candlelight. Her pearl necklace with its ruby and diamond clasp swung dangerously low toward her plate as she leaned forward to ask, “Dodo, why do you want to poison us, with those unnatural foods full of chemicals?”
I don’t know, because it would be delicious? I looked away from her and pretended to focus on the gray-black lumps nestled beside my turkey slices, which were tattooed with the blue of birdshot. I had no idea what was in my mother’s dressing, except that it had been cooked inside the turkey, which seemed unsanitary to me, and the unappetizing, rubbery lumps were oysters.
“Dodie, this is delicious.” My sister-in-law, Tassie, smiled at me as she took another bite of my annual Thanksgiving Day contribution, the green-bean casserole.
My mother snickered each year when I showed up with my white, fluted, Corningware casserole dish. I’d tried to impress her by adding everything from water chestnuts to artichoke hearts, but she was unmoved, so I always returned to the recipe on the round can of Durkee’s French Fried Onion Rings. Green beans. Cream of mushroom soup. Pepper, and the onion rings. You don’t mess with perfection.
“Mom, try some of Dodie’s green-bean casserole,” Tassie urged. My mother lovingly patted her daughter-in-law’s hand as Tassie ladled a spoonful of my casserole on her plate. Tassie knew how to work my mother. Just an hour ago, she was racing around the kitchen sweating and serving as my mother’s sous chef. Now, she sat next to Mom, her blue eyes the only color in the black and white palette of her pale, perfectly oval face, dressed in a near-twin of my mother’s own simple, black, silk sheath dress, adorned with only the five-carat diamond bar pin Mom had given her for her birthday.
From the wild game recipes to the formal dinner dress, when my mother died, Tassie slid seamlessly into the role of Chief Holiday Chef. That first Thanksgiving without my Mom at the table was difficult, but Tassie’s hard work and commitment to our family ensured nothing else changed. I just didn’t complain about the wild turkey anymore. Five years later though, change came.
My brother Mike came by to tell me he and Tassie were divorcing after 32 years of marriage. His once bright red hair had eased into a more mature gold, and though his deep dimples were creased permanently into his face from years spent squinting and smiling in deer stands and duck blinds, I still recognized the same flint in his green eyes as in my mother’s. This was the way it would be.
“Randy,” I asked my husband when Mike left that day, “who’s going to cook Thanksgiving? Where will we eat?” I needed to know where to show up with the green bean casserole.
“Dodie, you have to do it.”
“Are you insane? We’ll die.”
“We won’t die. We may wish we were dead, but you’ll manage.”
“Are you going to shoot the turkey?”
“No, this is your chance to get that Butterball you’ve always wanted.”
I complained for weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, mostly about the fact that my shopping list had grown from the ingredients for green-bean casserole to foods and spices my friends swore I “surely must have on hand.” I complained about that because I couldn’t complain about the loss of Tassie, the person who, during the holidays, kept my mother’s spirits and traditions alive for all of us. I love my brother Mike, but dear God, I was terrified he was going to show up Thanksgiving week with some big, bloody, tick-infested bird for me to defeather, depellet, and de-whatever-you-do-to-wild-game before you cook it.
I’m up early on Thanksgiving Day, ready to tackle my big Butterball. My son-in-law, Keith, is a chef, and he’d offered to cook the meal, but I’d effectively dodged this job for 40 years and knew that I needed to step up.
I just needed a few tips from a pro.
Keith always wears thin, clear plastic gloves when he prepares food. They seem too delicate for me. They might tear, and then I will be infected with salmonella and spread it to all my innocent family members. Instead, I stopped by a medical supply store and bought a box of thick, cream-colored Magla Touch Latex disposable gloves. I’d read a University of Michigan study that said bacteria could live for a long time in the knife cuts on a plastic cutting board, so I bought a wooden one.
“Dodie, make the pound cake instead of the cheesecake. We don’t need both.” My husband offers this valuable advice on the menu as I’m tackling the bird in the sink with my surgical gloves and pink hospital scrubs printed with incongruously happy yellow smiley faces on the shirt. Dang it. The bird slides out of my grip with a wet slurpy slap against the stainless steel sink.
“I don’t know how to make those cakes. I have two frozen Marie Callender’s pumpkin pies.”
“You have to make the pound cake at least, and just follow the recipe. Don’t get creative and invent ingredients to add to it. That’s what always causes your disasters.”
“I don’t have the recipe.”
“What do you mean you don’t have the recipe?” One of his graying, old-man-crazy brows arches over a bright blue eye. “What kind of daughter doesn’t have her mother’s recipes?”
“Me! I don’t! Tassie had all the recipes, and I have my hands full here.” I’m insecure enough with the giant turkey flopped into the sink, and I’ve just read online that I need to make sure he’s cooked to 165 degrees internally. How am I supposed to know that?
“Well, just call Tassie and get the recipe.”
I can’t do that. I don’t want to. I know Tassie is trying to find her new Thanksgiving routine. She is going out of town to see her sisters and her father, but if I had my way, she would be here and we would all be eagerly awaiting a delicious meal. I wouldn’t have had to make dozens of phone calls to figure out who is coming to my home to eat, and who, like Tassie, is going somewhere else — somewhere that’s not where they’re supposed to be.
“Fine,” I snap at him, “now get out of my kitchen.”
I shiver in mild disgust as I slide a butcher knife under the disgusting pimpled skin of my Butterball. I’d read online that I could put salt and pepper under the skin of the turkey and it would flavor the meat instead of just the skin.
I snap open my step stool so I can reach the highest shelf in my cabinet, where I think I have some old spices that might jazz up the turkey more than just plain salt and pepper. Do spices have an expiration date? I see dozens of glass bottles. Sage, paprika, rosemary — what’s arrowroot? I don’t remember buying these, but I do have vague memories of cooking attempts gone wrong associated with them. The brown-in-the-bag chicken recipe that my friend guaranteed would keep the chicken moist. She didn’t bother to tell me that I had to buy a special plastic baking bag, so I used a brown paper grocery sack. It torched up in the oven, the kitchen filled with smoke, the alarm shrieked, and since we’d just moved into a new house, I had to call the sheriff to figure out how to turn it off. I think that’s when I bought the rosemary.
I dig in under Big Bird’s skin with both gloved hands to rub in the Greek seasoning, the turmeric, rosemary, sage, and some kind of Creole Shrimp Boil powder I found. When I finish, I slather the giant turkey’s skin with olive oil. My arms tremble with the strain of lifting the aluminum broiling pan I bought just for this occasion. The flimsy metal begins to fold inward with the weight of the bird so I rush to drop him onto the oven rack and slam the door shut.
I have hours now to prepare the rest of the meal, but timing is everything. I knew I didn’t have the skill to have every dish warm at the same time when I served the meal, but I did need to time the dressing properly so no one would spot the seven Stove Top Savory Herb boxes in the trash, and I still had a cake to bake.
My son-in-law says he will be here an hour before everyone else and bring a meat thermometer. Apparently using my SpongeBob SquarePants baby rectal one is a bad idea. I could hear the side-eye in his voice over the phone when I suggested it.
“Randy, you have to go buy me a KitchenAid Mixer right now.” I was trying to beat down four bricks of cream cheese, four cups of flour, and a cup of sugar with my flimsy hand-held mixer.
“What’s a KitchenAid mixer?”
“I saw one at Tassie’s. It mixes by itself.”
“Where do I buy it?”
“Who do I look like, Julia Child? I don’t know.” I was on my sixth pair of gloves, and my scrubs were moist in some places and soaked in others, depending on where I had spilled the water, the milk, or the badly cracked egg on myself.
“OK, I’m online, and Lowe’s has just one left. Jesus, Dodie, this thing costs $400! Why can’t you use the mixer you have?”
“Because, I don’t have all day.” I ran a gloved hand through the stringy, bleached-blond strands of hair falling in my eyes. “Oh, yuck, I have turkey-germ hair now. Go. I can’t do everything!”
“Fine, but what a waste of money in this kitchen,” he grumbled.
He finally leaves, and I check on Big Bird. The rosemary under his skin has burned black, so now my turkey looks diseased. His breast and legs are scarred with little charcoal twigs shining dully from under his translucent skin. Maybe I can scrape some of the blackened spice out from under it — or maybe I can say it’s a Creole turkey. Not baked. Blackened.
The door from the garage slams open, “Well, here’s your million-dollar mixer. That’s my last errand, OK?
I thank him and grab a clean butcher knife to hack away at the KitchenAid box. I take out a giant stainless steel bowl, the mixer, which is ridiculously heavy, and three white ceramic attachments, none of which looks like a mixing tool. I finally choose one at random and pour the mixture into the bowl.
“This mixer is going to be loud, Randy, you might want to go to the bedroom and watch TV.”
He leaves the kitchen as I pull a round steel knob on the side of the mixer toward me. The paddly attachment begins turning, but I need more speed, so I pull the knob toward me again. The shiny silver bowl starts rattling violently and tipping back and forth. I panic, and try to grip the steel knob to turn off the mixer, but instead it picks up speed. I grab at the bowl to steady it, but it’s spinning too fast, so I do what I always do when household machinery turns on me.
Just as I’m about to yank the cord out of the wall, the hand I’m using to steady the rattling bowl apparently pushes it off center. Globs of thick, glue-like, cheesecake filling shoot out at me. I scream as I try to dodge the clumps of cream cheese and yellow egg-yolk runnels that splatter onto my face and chest. The smiley faces on my smock now cry lumpy, cream-colored tears.
I catch a whiff of something suspiciously foul as I run a bedraggled kitchen towel that’s been on duty all day over my face. I’m completely contaminated by now, so I just keep wiping off batter, knowing I’m probably smearing on salmonella.
I’ve washed the deadly bacteria from my hair and body. I’m now decontaminated and presentable, in a blue flowered tunic over navy leggings. It’s as close to what my mother would call “appropriate Thanksgiving dress” as I can get, but to keep the spirit I’m wearing Mom’s pearls and the diamond and gold flower brooch. I feel as though I’ve sneaked into her closet to play dress up, and any moment now she will swoop in and demand that I remove her jewelry and give it to Tassie, and wash that war paint off my face. Randy has everyone seated at the table.
In the kitchen, I slip on my last pair of surgical gloves and manhandle the turkey until Big Bird is perfectly centered on the white china platter. The gold edges of the oval plate encircle him like a radiant halo. The big Butterball doesn’t look like the ones on the Thanksgiving television commercials, but according to Keith’s fancy thermometer, it won’t make anyone sick. It’s not the “blackening” that’s off — its shape is odd. The wings stick out like someone performing the chicken dance at a wedding, and his legs are unnaturally splayed apart. I try to tuck them back into the little skin sling they were in when I bought the turkey, but it’s burned black and crumbles to ash when I try to re-truss him.
Oh, well, the sides are nice and golden so I paste a big smile on my face and walk proudly into the dining room. I sing out a tone-deaf “ta-da!” and gently set my masterpiece on the center of the table. The quick intakes of breath tell me the complimentary ooohhhs and aaahhhs are about to begin. I sit down and beam at my admirers.
“Why’d you cook the bird upside down, Dodie?”
“What?” The white linen napkin I was about to place in my lap drifts down to my plate.
My brother points to the bird. “You cooked him upside down. Can’t you tell that’s not the breast?”
“No! It’s a male bird, so I just thought it was flat-chested.”
“You idiot.” My brother shakes his head and laughs. “Keith, let’s turn this bird over.”
My son-in-law the chef defends me.
“Mike,” Keith says, “I think Dodie cooked it this way on purpose because turkey meat dries out.” He guides the bird with an ornate silver serving fork as my brother stabs my beleaguered turkey with the carving knife. It wobbles and finally flips over on its back.
“See how moist this breast meat looks?” Keith asks the assembled. I agree with Keith. The meat does look moist, mainly because globs of unenticing, congealed fat are sliding down the side of the pimpled, fish-belly-white bird breast, but its shape now looks more Butterbally. The wings tuck in naturally now, and the gargantuan drumsticks slide together modestly under the weight of the giant breast.
“It looks good, Dodie,” Keith says as he takes the knife and begins slicing, “and take a look at these collards. Old Glory. Best canned collards you can buy!”
My daughter chimes in. “It does look good, Mom. Will you pass the Stove Top? Is it Savory Herb? That’s my favorite.”
I have fooled no one today, but I am too exhausted to feel bad about it. I’ll do better next year. Or maybe Randy and I will become like those old people who populate cruise ships during the holidays. I can understand now how the pain of memory would drive people to leave their families during the holidays. It hurts to realize that families are like the people in them. They don’t last forever, and there’s nothing you can do to stop the relentless passage of time that changes them. There is death. There is divorce. The children grow up and grow gone.
“Is Mikey coming home for Christmas?” Randy asks.
“I doubt it,” answers my brother. “He’s busy with auditions in New York.”
The table chatter fades as I head back into the kitchen. I catch a glimpse of my tired face in the hallway mirror. My mother’s pearls reflect the yellow, flickering light of the candles burning on the sideboard. I lean forward a moment to inspect how the glow from the flames highlights the deepening laugh lines around my sharp green eyes, the set of my thinning lips slashed with bright red lipstick. I gasp at how the half-light mocks me, exposing every sag, every wrinkle, and every tear-trough traced by loss.
One deep breath. Then, my smile is steady again when I place my white Corningware baking dish on the table.
“Ya’ll didn’t think I’d forget the green-bean casserole, did you?”