Friday, November 29, 2013

Martha Burned my Turkey

To be clear about this, I roast a turkey very seldom. They are heavy great birds, and I am no spring chicken anymore, to be slinging heavy great birds around the kitchen. Still, the idea of placing a perfectly roasted turkey before my adoring relatives continues to grip me from time to time. I fell for it again this year.

You must understand that I don't particularly like turkey. Harold positively detests it, preferring ham, which I hardly ever cook for him anymore since I'm persuaded that the nitrites will make him sick. But, a fresh turkey, carefully prepared, without that rancid turkey fat taste that one gets from a turkey that was frozen several years ago! That might be fit to eat. So, feeling the turkey itch again, and having invited all my local relatives to Thanksgiving dinner, I turned to the kitchen shelf Harold built some years ago to hold our recipe books, now groaning under the huge collection. Among the magazines I found a copy of the November 2005 issue of Martha Stewart Living, subtitled Thanksgiving 101, with ravishing pictures of pies on the cover. Martha would tell me how to do a turkey.

And so I embarked upon the Martha Stewart turkey adventure.

It began with brining the turkey. Eighteen pounds was about right for eight or nine people, she said. I pre-ordered a fresh Butterball from the Giant. It was quite reasonably priced, I thought, considering that fresh turkeys were scarce this year, according to rumor. Then I prepared the brine according to Martha's recipe. You would think, brine, that's salt water, right? But Martha's brine called for way more sugar than salt, as well as peppercorns, herbs, and a whole lot of chopped vegetables. I think I spent a couple of hours chopping vegetables. You bring the "brine" to a boil and let it cool completely.

Completely, she said. But how cool is that, really? The turkey has to sit in the brine for 24 hours. The clock was ticking. While the "brine" was still lukewarm I unwrapped my Butterball, rinsed it, and patted it dry. The packaging material claimed that the bird had been brined already, but I told myself that their brine could have been nothing like Martha's. I was sure, for instance, that they hadn't put in chopped leeks. I would brine the turkey again. If a little is good a lot is better, my father used to say.

The following morning found me wrestling the bird onto the rack for stuffing and roasting. "Tuck the wings under the body," Martha advised, but this was easier said than done; the turkey seemed to be suffering rigor mortis, and the wings refused to do anything other than stick out awkwardly on either side of the huge puffy breast. Never mind. Once I had draped it all with butter-and-wine-soaked cheesecloth, as Martha recommended, all would be well. But I found that the old package of cheesecloth I was counting on had been used for a nest by little bugs. I threw it out. No cheesecloth, then. I did what my mother had always done, which was to smear butter all over the turkey skin and put it in the oven like that. Naked.

Martha said, begin by roasting the turkey at 425 degrees for 30 minutes. I set the timer and settled down for some much-needed rest with a good Georgette Heyer regency novel, Lady of Quality, whose plot, truth be told, is pretty much like that of Sprig Muslin, but hey. A great read. I was so absorbed in it that I didn't notice the black smoke rolling out of the kitchen door.

When the timer went off I went back into the thick air of the kitchen and opened the oven door, only to see the ends of the turkey's wings burnt off and the skin all blackened and scorched. Horrors. And three more hours before the inside would be cooked.

"Martha!" I cried. "What have you done?" In a panic I turned the oven down to 325, rather than the 350 she recommended, and basted the scorched bird ineffectually. "Nuts to you then," I muttered. After that I ignored all Martha's advice and used my own judgment. Later I turned the oven back up to 350 and basted the turkey some more. When the meat thermometer said it was done I got Harold to take it out of the oven.

I put the turkey platter on the table with the blackest parts away from the family. They were happy with it; they all said they liked their turkey well-cooked. When I had a bite I was happy with it, myself. It didn't taste like turkey. The meat was moist and in fact quite delicious, and tasted enough like ham to please even Harold. But the poor bird looked as if it had been though a terrible fire. I didn't have the heart to put the garnishes around it that Martha had suggested, the crabapples (go find crabapples these days, I was going to use kumquats) or the sage leaves. I'm sorry I didn't think to take a picture of it for you before we ate it all up.

You'll be happy to know that turkey stuffing makes a very tasty breakfast.

© 2013 Kate Gallison


  1. Oh, Kate, I am howling. I'm sure Martha Stewart isn't as hilarious. And I'll be looking for Lady of Quality.
    I spent Thanksgiving with the flu, a demanding companion. My husband, luckily, is a mensch and we agreed we had many things to be thankful for. I was afraid when I called my friend to cancel the plans she was going to regale me with what I would be missing, but she is a woman of taste and discernment and told me her mother was keeping the menu a surprise. I will ask her if her mother brined the turkey.

  2. You are hilarious. I saved the leftover stuffing for dinner, but I did have pie for breakfast today.

  3. Enjoyed a good belly laugh at this! On the other side of the coin, I'd already written my take on cooking - re Kwik Kwizeen which I'll send for Dec. 15, as an unchef's prep for a yuletide feast!

  4. You tell a great story. Funny!! It is interesting how turkey dinners can make some pretty interesting stories. My mother once served a raw turkey because, of all days to break, the thermostat in the oven went haywire. There was the smell of cooking meat, but she had to cut the bird up and fry it on top of the stove while the hungry guests ate mashed potatoes and the vegetables with butter.

  5. Margaret inspires me to sing to you, Kate. 'You're the top; you're a turkey dinner. You're the top; you're the derby winner….." Good you can't actually hear my voice.

  6. Ah, thank you, thank you. And to think I used to be a pretty good cook. I'm not even going to get into what happened when I put the potatoes in the food processor and overprocessed them instead of respectably mashing them, how they had to be served with a ladle and were thinner than the gravy. Or how the microwave died in the middle of preparing the green beans. Next year, slow-cooker stew.

  7. Clark burned the turkey, too, but I was too hungry to care. We'd traveled 80 miles down the Taconic, then 42 more--twice! He fried the poor thing Southern style in a pot of hot oil in the yard. I guess you're not supposed to paint it first with barbecue sauce; it came out black as a fire fatality. I ate it without complaint late that Thanksgiving.