I’ve only set an entire kitchen on fire once during the holidays (and folks, I’m talking the kind of oven mishap where incredibly handsome firemen show up followed by hypercritical insurance adjusters…).
Most of my cooking “mishaps” seem to come around the holidays, and almost all of them involve some type of poultry fire. (I did, however, burn a can of peas once, but for the life of me I can’t figure out how it happened.) I’m sure anyone out there who’s ever faced the task of cooking their first turkey can tell you, it’s daunting. My first time making a holiday meal was a lot like so many of the other “firsts” I’ve experienced during my short tenure as a housewife; confusing, exhausting, and ultimately something I only cared to attempt once a year.
Back in those days (and now I feel like I just turned 102) we didn’t have a network solely devoted to food; all we really had were a few shows devoted to cooking which aired sporadically on PBS, and frankly, watching Julia Child was absolutely no help at all. All I wanted to do was cook a turkey, not debone it and cover it in a duck skin. I’d like to tell you that I could turn to my dear sweet mother for culinary advice, but Mummy just didn’t believe in all that rigmarole about women staying in the kitchen and being solely responsible for putting a nice meal on the table every night. Don’t get me wrong, she was a pretty decent cook (she could line up pre-made biscuits on a sheet pan like nobody’s business) but when it came to giving me pointers on how to prepare a lovely holiday dinner, her words of wisdom sort of went something like this:
Lisa: “Mom, how do you stuff a turkey”?
Mrs. Brown: “Give him an extra helping of mashed potatoes during dinner.”
So yeah, if I aimed to be Martha Stewart I was on my own.
The very first time I made an entire Thanksgiving dinner from start to finish actually did result in a small poultry fire (as have all the other times I’ve ever made a turkey during the last 30 years or so). Perhaps I’m adding too much sage to the turkey skin, or maybe it’s the kerosene–who can really say for sure. Of course I’m joking about that last part, but not about the many, many, many oven fires I’ve witnessed during November in my years as a cook. I honestly don’t know what it is. I can buy the most expensive roasting pan that the dollar store sells and the moment you try and lift that 25 pound turkey out of the oven, the crispy smoking bird comes crashing through the bottom of the pan and.. WHOOSH, Flame City. For years my son thought that the sound of the smoke alarm going off meant that the meal was almost ready (or to stay as close to the ground as possible and come set the table for dinner).
The most memorable holiday dinners I’ve ever made have been for my parents. I don’t know if every daughter feels the same way I did, but one of my fondest wishes as I grew older was to one day prepare a Thanksgiving feast for my loving and caring family. One year, when I still thought my mom and dad might actually care about such things, I informed them that I would be making Thanksgiving dinner for our whole family entirely by myself, with a heart full of love and my own two hands (which I then had to promise I would wash thoroughly because my mother seems to think that since I played with dirt as a 6 year old my hands are now perpetually filthy). I spent weeks and weeks looking through cookbooks and magazines trying to find the perfect recipes for delicious dressings, yams, and green beans. I made my own bread which I then turned into stuffing with apples and sausage and homemade chicken stock. I was up at 4 in the morning pulling the most hideously imaginable things out of a poor deflated turkeys’ nether regions. I was exhilarated and proud and excited to present the feast to my family and to hear their words of praise and exhilaration. The only thing I failed to make from scratch that year was cranberry sauce; I ended up buying a dented can at the last minute from a gas station form a bin that was marked “BARELY EXPIRED”. Astonishingly, my family raved about everything; I’ve never felt so triumphant in my entire life.
The following is my interpretation of what transpired at the kitchen table the next day:
Lisa: I see that you’re both having peanut butter and stale crackers for your lunch, you do realize that those foiled covered dishes in the refrigerator are leftovers, right?
Dad: Yes, we thought you might want to take all that food back home with you, far, far away from here.
Lisa: Dad, I don’t think they’re going to let me board a plane with a 25 pound turkey carcass and 19 containers of side dishes.
Mom: Maybe you’ll run into some type of incredibly desperate homeless person on your way to the airport who’s desperate for any type of homemade meal.
Lisa: Good use of the word “desperate” mother, I thought you both loved dinner yesterday, you raved about it for hours.
Dad: Don’t go taking this the wrong way, but to be perfectly honest the turkey, the mashed potatoes, and your sweet tea were all a little bit dry, that’s all. You made a lovely meal, you tried something new, we ate it, and now we never really need to talk or think about it again.
Mom: What your father is trying to say, dear, is that we think you’re a wonderful mother and we love how well you write.
Lisa: So let me get this straight: There was not one thing that I made yesterday for my loving parents on Thanksgiving that you weird people actually enjoyed?
Dad: I thought the cranberry sauce was pretty good.
Lisa: It was from a can that I bought from a gas station on the interstate…
Mom: And for that, dear, we’re thankful.
I guess the thing about being with your family during the holidays is that each time that you’re together you have the opportunity to create another set of memories to pass along to the next generation. If your family is anything like mine, those memories will hopefully be full of a lot of love, a few bittersweet tears for empty chairs and times gone by, and just enough laughter to get you through to the next year. (And some well placed fire extinguishers. Just in case).