22 November 2008

A Turkey To Remember

The season of jolly has officially started at Chez Ward/Uchrin. The turkey lands on Thursday. I’m wrapping presents to mail before the spouse and I leave on a two-week pre-Christmas vacation, plotting where to put the tree, and humming my new holiday theme song.

That thudding you just heard was the sound of my fellow BtV bloggers fainting dead away. I can understand their shock. I thought I’d never find a song that perfectly expresses the totality of my holiday experience.

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” always made me want to gnash my teeth. “White Christmas”? Faggeddaboudit. The only thing snow at Christmas ever did for me was turn the three-hour car trip to visit my Philadelphia-based relatives into fourteen hours of white-out torture on I-95. I admit a sneaking fondness for Madonna’s “Santa Baby”, but there’s no way I could limit its application to a single season. One look at my shoe closet and the secret’s out; I’m a Material Girl the whole year round.

Then I saw the first episode of True Blood, the HBO series based on Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire novels, and heard Jace Everett sing the show’s opening theme. Now I realize, the only thing most women think about when they hear “Bad Things” is hot, sweaty vampire sex with Stephen Moyer’s Bill Compton or Alexander Skarsgard’s Eric Northman. Not that I’d throw either of them (or Robert Pattinson’s Edward Cullen, if it came to that) out of bed for eating crackers, but when Everett wails “I want to do really bad things with you” over the opening montage of car-struck possum and decomposing fox, I don’t think about sex. I think about food—specifically, my mother’s cooking.

Which isn’t to say my formative holidays were roadkill. My childhood Thanksgivings and Christmases were filled with love and the kind of comic catastrophes you can dine out on for life—and where I come from, dining out is very important. I was blessed with a wonderful family and a great mother in every way that mattered. But when it came to all the traditional “wifely skills”… Let’s just say, in my mom’s hands, an oven qualified as a WMD.

Mom was a registered nurse and Army officer. Cooking wasn’t listed anywhere on her efficiency reports until her job description changed from officer to officer’s wife. This was fortunate, because the kitchen was not my mother’s natural habitat. For one thing, her medical training had left her with some rather unique notions of nutritional hygiene. Many was the time I’d come home from school to find her washing frozen steaks with soap and water before sticking them, still hard and glassy, under the broiler. Do you remember the part in A Christmas Story when Ralphie’s about to get his mouth washed out with soap and he fantasizes about going blind from swallowing too much of the wrong brand? The first time I heard his cinematic dad, Darren McGavin yodel “I told you not to use the Lifebuoy!” I laughed so hard I almost needed to change my underwear. I knew that piquant flavor well, though in my case, the taste of soap was more of a seasoning than a punishment.

When Hormel experimented with injecting chili inside their hotdogs, people Mom barely knew wrote to congratulate her on being hired as a consultant. She thought they were complimenting her. But then, she also thought the officers and their wives who attended her cocktail parties adored her Alaskan King Crab dip.

At eight, I knew better. There was a SOP (that’s “standard operating procedure” for those of you not raised on acronyms) passed from the wife of each of my dad’s commanding officers to her successor. The CO, his wife, his executive officer (XO) and the XO’s wife always arrived at my mother’s parties in a group. While the XO’s wife distracted my mom with loud cries of gladness, the CO’s wife would grab me by the elbow and frog march me down the buffet table. She’d point to each dish in turn and demand, “Who made this?”

Since Mom was well-liked, most of the food on her table came from the kitchens of friends and neighbors. But she always included one or two of her “specialties”. Once she identified Mother’s handiwork, the CO’s wife would neutralize it by using the appropriate cutlery to push the contents of the dish under the parsley garnish my mom used to hide the burnt edges circling the plate. Dad’s colleagues and spouses diligently avoided the dishes with the watery holes in the middle, and Mom was never the wiser.

Even my dad, who worshipped the puncture marks in the ground made by the stiletto heels of Mom’s size six shoes, practiced gustatory avoidance tactics. But he was a lot sneakier about it. He’d drag himself home after working a twelve-hour day and croon, “Jean, you look beat. Why don’t you let me take you out?” On a major’s salary, we ate out more often than any full colonel’s family on the base. (Generals’ families didn’t need to eat out; back then, they were entitled to the service of professional cooks. The dogs.)

Thanksgivings we ate in the hospital mess hall. My dad claimed it was critical to the morale of the troops under his command. In fact, since he was a hospital registrar, most of his “troops” were civilians—who were probably at home enjoying home-cooked turkey with all the trimmings. But it was a good line. I didn’t learn the truth until years later, when a medical issue prompted him to confess. I think he wanted to clear his conscience just in case. But it’s telling that, for all confession’s supposed to be good for the soul, he never felt quite close enough to death to confess his dining lies to Mother.

However, the kitchen crimes Mom committed as an Army wife were only a foretaste of mess-terpieces to come. The first years after dad retired weren’t so bad. I learned to cook early. It was a matter of self-preservation, and Dad reaped the giant, man-sized portion of the benefits. But much as I loved my parents, these halcyon days of healthy eating doomed to end. And soon. I always planned to leave the nest as soon as I graduated college.

Still, what happened next was mostly Dad’s own fault. The year after I graduated college, he bought Mom a big house with the spacious, modern kitchen of her dreams and a basement filled the party equipment of the previous owners. These implements of epicurean destruction included something Mom called a “roaster”—a rectangular crock pot with a temperature dial and strange cooking racks studded with circular holes. Then he bought her the ultimate stove—a gleaming, self-cleaning convection oven, which could also be used as a microwave. Mom was so smitten with it, she wouldn’t even use the self-cleaning fixture. She insisted Dad clean it by hand, as he had all her military-issue stoves.

That oven was the culinary equivalent of Pandora ’s Box. It filled Mom with the drive to cook as never before. Harkening back to her days in the military, Mom warmed up by figuring out the formula whereby whole eggs could be nuked into C-rations.

Then she exploded a pot of spaghetti sauce.

She exploded the pot—the porcelain enameled, cast iron pot—of spaghetti sauce. Ironically, spaghetti sauce was the one thing Mom could cook really well. This ability must’ve been a weird genetic memory passed down from her Italian ancestors, because she certainly couldn’t cook anything else. She used to make the sauce in industrial-sized portions and freeze pots of it for when her family came to visit. (Knowing her longer than the rest of us, visiting relatives generally refused to eat anything else she made unless it went straight from the box to the toaster.)

On the evening in question, Aunt Neli and Uncle Mickey showed up unannounced. Mother reasonably concluded she could never thaw a pot of sauce in time for dinner. Since the sauce she needed was in a porcelain-enameled iron pot, she couldn’t defrost the sauce in the microwave, either. So she set it on one of the stove’s electric burners and turned the dial to the highest setting… and forgot all about it while she and Aunt Neli settled down for an intense discussion of the character, ancestry and personal grooming habits of the in-law of a second cousin once removed.

I happened to be home on holiday and looking forward to the one good meal I didn’t have to cook for myself. I moseyed into the kitchen in time to see what I thought was steam curling from under the lid of the pot. It was starting to shake too. I was about to open my mouth to ask if the pot was supposed to do that when I heard what sounded like a shot.

Having been raised on a succession of military bases, I knew there was only one possible response to that sound. I hit the deck. Luckily, so did my mother, aunt and uncle. Believe me, porcelain-enameled cast iron makes some serious shrapnel.

A less loving man—or a less fatalistic one—would’ve declared the stove off-limits at that point. Not my father. He not only paid to replace the top of the stove, he sprang for redecorating the whole kitchen.

As a result, my mother was still committing cooking atrocities when I finally got married and dragged the spouse home to the ‘rents. I picked a man who could cook too. I was so proud of myself. But I should’ve realized Greg’s ability was no defense against my mom’s determination to reinvent herself as a culinary virtuoso.

She fixed him her special eggs. I nearly lost him then and there. If Greg could’ve found where I hid his running shoes, he would’ve been across the border to Maryland before anybody could catch him.

For dinner, Mom asked us to pick up a rack of pre-cooked spare ribs. Words cannot express the relief we felt at this request. What could she possibly do pre-cooked ribs? All she had to do is throw them into Pyrex dish and nuke ‘em for a few minutes.

We sorely underestimated her.

Well, my mother did microwave the ribs for eight minutes on “High”, as specified in the instructions. But she couldn’t smell the ribs when they were done. Being concerned about safety of improperly heated pre-cooked pork, she set the timer for another ten minutes and nuked the ribs again. She still couldn’t smell them, so she repeated the process. After forty minutes, she figured the meat had to be done, regardless of cooking method. She called everybody in the house to the table and, with a flourish worthy of an Iron Chef season champion, opened the door to the oven. A cloud of gray ash billowed from the stove. Even this did not dampen her enthusiasm. She set the smoking plate on the trivets and announced, “Dinner is served.”

Greg and I were incapable of speech. The ribs looked like something from Ground Zero at Nagasaki. There was nothing left except blackened fingers of bone clawing the sky.

My father, on the other hand, was in his element. His face split in his biggest, sweetest smile. “Well, Jean,” he told my mother brightly, “nobody will ever get trichinosis from this pork.”

Then the s-o-b drove up the street to buy himself a hotdog.

After that, Greg and I knew it was cook or be killed. The next year, with Dad’s help, we shanghaied Christmas dinner. We prepared everything, from the fresh-killed, locally grown turkey Dad bought at the Chestnut Hill market to the homemade gravy and mashed potatoes, to the stuffing, the salad, the vegetables and dessert. The only thing mother was allowed to do was pick out the pre-sliced, pre-cooked ham.

She wasn’t even allowed to warm the ham. Earlier that year she’d made Dad Jello with the pineapple she’d cooked on a canned ham, and he’d been off his feed ever since. Considering my dad had been orphaned at an early age, liked mess hall food and had, by that point, survived more than thirty years of Mother’s cooking, that’s saying an awful lot—emphasis on the awful.

Mom’s family raved about the dinner. They couldn’t sing Greg’s praises loudly enough. They even spared a kind word for my contributions to the feast.

Mother could not allow this insult to her culinary honor to go unavenged. She bided her time. The next year, she bought a fresh-killed local turkey. At the after-Thanksgiving sale. She stuck it in the freezer. Two weeks before Christmas, she set bird out in the unheated, glassed-in breezeway between the house and the garage to thaw. Nobody paid any attention, because that’s where she always put gifts of fruitcake and cookies, and any large tchotchkes displaced by her holiday decorations. Who’d notice one more lump of butcher paper and plastic wrap in the middle of all that stuff?

Greg and I didn’t know to look. In blissful ignorance of all her plans, we arrived late that Christmas Eve. Exhausted as we were from work and the after-dark drive from Virginia to Pennsylvania, we immediately inquired about the turkey. Mom ordered Dad to bring it in. Something about the bird didn’t look right. It wasn’t packaged the way it had been the year before. Concerned, Greg prodded it through its wrappings. It didn’t feel right, either. When he said as much, Mom snapped, “Oh, it’s all in your head.”

Too tired to argue, I shrugged and asked Greg to carry the bird to the frig in the garage. “What are you doing that for?” my mom demanded. “It can stay in the breezeway.”

“No,” I said. “It needs to be refrigerated to keep it from spoiling. The temperature in the breezeway’s too variable.”

Mom pouted, but she let me rearrange the contents of the garage refrigerator to accommodate the bird. At that point, I should’ve suspected something was wrong. But Greg and I were so tired. We could barely work up the energy to ask for an early wake-up call and haul our suitcases to our bedroom.

The wake-up call never came. My first clue that the day wasn’t going to go as planned came when I opened my eyes to a light-filled bedroom. The bedroom we used in my parents’ house faced northwest. It never saw daylight until almost noon. Frantic, I pushed Greg out of bed and staggered into the kitchen.

A pot of sausage stuffing was warming on one burner of the stove. Turkey giblets and water—nothing but water—were boiling in another pot. The remaining burners were occupied by the hot water kettle and something that might’ve been oatmeal in another dimension. The oven was cold. I opened it and found the racks loaded with pyrex dishes filled with canned refrigerator rolls and a mush Mother identified as mixed turnips and sweet potatoes. “With the skins,” she added proudly.

“Oh God,” I groaned, squeezing my temples. “The family’s going to be here in an hour and a half. We’ll never get the turkey cooked in time.”

“Don’t be silly,” Mom said. “It’s almost done.”

“How?” Greg asked.

“I cooked it, of course,” Mom replied.

The prospect of any turkey cooked by my mother was bad enough, but what was worse was she couldn’t possibly have cooked it in that cold oven. For one thing, my mom never woke before 8 a.m., and then only with the greatest reluctance and the kind of maddened roaring usually associated with Boris Karloff’s depiction of Frankensteins’s monster. For another, she’d insist on roasting the hapless bird until it resembled cracklings stuffed with sawdust—a four-hour process at the very least. It was barely noon.

“Where?” Greg asked as I croaked, “You didn’t. Not the roaster. Please, tell me you didn’t try to cook the turkey in the roaster.”

The roaster which burned the edges of whatever was cooked on those funny racks with the circular holes. The roaster which left the middle uncooked and runny.

“I don’t know why you don’t like it,” Mom said. “It always worked fine for me.”

“That sounds ominous,” Greg said as Mom left to retrieve her turkey from the basement.

“It gets worse,” I said, pointing to the giblet water that would never in anyone’s wildest dream turn into anything resembling gravy.

Greg gulped. “At least we have ham. You did say she bought a ham.”

“She said she did. I’d better check.” I turned to open the kitchen door to the breezeway. An unearthly keening from the basement stopped me in my tracks.

“You never told me your house was haunted,” said the love of my life. It was as close as he ever came to death at my hands. The only thing that saved him from instant strangulation was the sound of Mother’s feet pounding up the cellar stairs, and the sure and certain knowledge I needed my fingers free to deal with whatever disaster she was about to foist upon us.

Still caterwauling, Mom ran into the kitchen. At first I was afraid she’d burned herself. Steam whistled from the foil-wrapped aluminum roasting pan she carried in front of her. But her hands were safely gloved with oven mitts.

“I think I overcooked it!” she wailed.

Greg pressed his lips together to keep from stating the obvious. “Put the pan down,” I said in a strained voice.

Mom dropped the pan on the hot pads she’d placed on the kitchen table for that purpose. Stripping off her mitts, she ripped the foil off the pan.

The turkey, I swear to you, sighed. Then, with a great whoosh of air, it imploded. All that was left was a concave mass of flaccid, quivering flesh with moist, brown wing tips and legs sticking out like the four cardinal points of the compass.

Eyes wide behind his glasses, Greg stuck a cigarette in his mouth and headed to the basement. It was the only place he could smoke inside my parents’ house. For once, I was tempted to join him, and I’ve never smoked in my life.

Mom yowled an invocation to Cthulhu. Dad appeared. She held out her arms like she wanted him to pick her up and carry her away from all this. She was small enough and he was tall enough that it was still technically possible, despite their age. But like me, Dad couldn’t tear his gaze away from the nameless horror that used to be a turkey.

“Hotdogs. Must. Get. Hotdogs,” he gasped and ran out to the garage. He started his car and zipped down the street in less time than it took Greg finished his cigarette and return from the basement.

“Don’t forget the parsley,” Mom yelled after Dad's retreating back. “If we put enough parsley on the plate, they’ll never notice how it looks.”

“No, Mom, they will. Give me the bird. We need to bury it before Greg’s parents arrive. You don’t want in-laws—” I italicized the word “—to see it like this.”

For once, the terrible threat of embarrassment in front of relatives by marriage failed to bring Mom to her senses. Using the mitts like potholders, she clutched the pan as close to her chest as she dared. “No, it’s my turkey. You had your turkey last year. This one’s mine. Mine! All mine!”

“Okay, Mom, it’s yours. But you need to put it down and get dressed, right?”

“So do you,” Mom said, her expression sly. Think Golem talking about his Precious, and you’ve got the look pasted across my mother’s face at that moment.

Greg emerged from the basement. “I’ll lay out the turkey,” he said.

“You promise,” Mom demanded. “You’ve got to promise.”

“Sure, I promise,” Greg said. “It probably isn’t any worse than a turkey cooked in the dishwasher.”

Satisfied, Mom scurried to her bedroom to get dressed. I crossed my arms and glared at Greg. “How could you serve that, that thing to your worst enemy, much less people who know where you live? And what’s this crap about cooking in a dishwasher?”

“That thing you call a roaster—it’s the rectangular pot with the thermostat on top of the white cabinet, right?”

“Yeah,” I said uncertainly.

“It’s got racks with round openings the size of quarters.”

“And your point?”

“That isn’t a roaster. It’s an autoclave. It’s what they use in hospitals to sterilize test tubes. With steam. Your mom was a nurse. Didn’t she ever mention it?”

No, as a matter of fact, she didn’t. She didn’t mention the whole two week “defrost” in the breezeway either. This meant that no matter how hard Greg, Dad and I tried to steer the company toward the ham, salad and vegetables I prepared in the last hour before dinner, they insisted on trying the bird. To be fair, Greg’s parents and all my aunts and uncles were in their sixties and seventies, and very worried about what the salt in the ham would do to their blood pressure. But knowing Mother, they really should’ve worried more about other parts of their anatomies. Those parts weren’t as young as they used to be either.

But in keeping with the spirit of the season, they were all very kind about it. No one charged Dad for the emergency room visits they all made later that night. Or all the new prescription medicines and antibiotics they had to take. For a month.

Mother thought the party was a tremendous success—a triumph undimmed by the fact Greg’s parents carefully arranged to never eat in her house again. Of course, considering how she felt about in-laws, that might've been made of win too.

She didn’t get sick either. I never could figure that part out. Greg muttered darkly about Lovecraftian mutations, but Dad was the Ward out of Providence. Mom was a Biferie out of Philadelphia, so that couldn’t be it. Even so, I’m awfully glad she didn’t live long enough to see the True Blood credits. I shudder think of what she might’ve done with possum.

And parsley.

Happy feasting!

Jean Marie
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