With Thanksgiving dinner today, I find myself in my usual state of anxiety. It’s not that I don’t like cooking, it’s that I’m really bad at planning for it. I am less of a weekly meal plan kind of girl and more of a “What’s for dinner? Oh, look, cereal!” kind of girl. I can make the basics, but don’t ask me to step out of my comfort zone and for the love of all that is holy, do NOT ask me to make an appropriate amount. I will either make enough to feed a professional football team or I will make sure that at least half of the table goes hungry. There is no in between. And with the same certainty that the sun will rise in the east and set in the west, I will forget at least two key ingredients.
But with an extended family that includes more people than the average G8 Summit, planning is not just recommended, it’s required. There’s a lot of coordination that goes into our family Thanksgiving dinners, and consequently, little room for error.
To get the ball rolling, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, the menu gets divvied up and sign up sheets get emailed around. The key to these signup sheets is to get there early and snag the mashed potatoes before anyone else does. Or if you’re really smart, you’ll call dibs on the rolls, then head straight to the Ukrop’s Bakery.
But somehow this year, despite being the one that sent the sign-up sheet, I got stuck with the turkey. I’m still not sure how it happened. But here we are and all that stands between me and a full-on panic attack is a 20+ pound bird that looks like it might actually be an ostrich.
Unfortunately, I come from a family of good cooks. Or I should say, “creative cooks.” In the past, various family members have turned out stunning Thanksgiving meals featuring turkeys that have been brined, turkeys that have been fried and turkeys that have been massaged lovingly with all manners of butter and herbs. If their turkeys are the gold standard of Thanksgiving fare, mine is destined to be the D- of remedial middle school math. I don’t mean to be self-deprecating. I really don’t. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that the large barnyard fowl and I have a long and complicated history.
The first turkey I ever cooked was the year I got married. We were living in San Francisco, far from family, so we had Friends-giving instead. I had never cooked a turkey before, in fact, I had barely cooked anything before. The bird barely fit in my oven and at the end of the day, we were all very grateful for the Thai spring rolls someone had brought.
Somehow I managed to avoid turkey-duty for the next 12 years or so, until the year I was living in Libreville, Gabon in west central Africa. The thing about Libreville was that nearly everything was imported – from the cereal to the baking supplies. As a coastal town, fresh fish and seafood was within the realm of possibility – but a turkey? Not unless one washed up on the beach. And even then you would have to double check to make sure it wasn’t actually an old tire.
With Thanksgiving approaching, a group of fellow American ex-pats and myself banded together with the plan of making Thanksgiving dinner for our friends who hailed from Italy, France, Morocco, Ireland and the like. With one shop in the entire city that carried turkey, and even then only on occasion, I was excited when a friend called to say that frozen turkeys were in. It was like she put out the bat signal – the Americans came running from every direction and snatched turkeys up like they were gold. By the time I got there, the only options were really just some frozen turkey breasts and drumsticks, so I got what I could and ran home to hoard everything in my freezer until Thanksgiving two weeks later.
Now, as I always do during this time of year, I am trying very consciously and actively to focus on gratitude. So when I say that I had a housekeeper, please know that I am so insanely grateful to have had her — let’s be very clear on that point before this story continues. However, two days before Thanksgiving, our housekeeper had taken my precious turkey out of the freezer and cooked it, which meant that 24 hours before Thanksgiving dinner, I was turkey-less. I went back to the shop, but of course, the turkeys were gone. Well, I shouldn’t say “gone.” There were wings and feet. But somehow that didn’t seem quite as festive.
“No problem,” I said, resourceful as ever. “I’ll just cook a big chicken. It’s basically the same thing.” So I grabbed the biggest, fattest chicken I could find and headed home Wednesday afternoon quite pleased with my problem-solving skills.
I left the giant chicken out to thaw overnight and bright and early Thursday morning, it was ready to go. This is when I chose to actually look at the label. It read: “Coq a Mijoter.” Now, I knew that to order steamed dumplings at our favorite Chinese restaurant in Gabon, a French-speaking county, we asked for Ravioli Mijoter. Soooooo…this was a steaming chicken?
That’s when I saw the little picture of a simmering pot.
It didn’t take long to figure out that I had not purchased a Roasting Chicken. I bought a Stewing Rooster. The only thing I could figure is that for a rooster to be this big, he must have been old. And probably went down with a fight. Which would explain the giant thighs, which were, as it turns out, well-muscled as opposed to pleasantly plump.
We promptly named him “Ricky.”
Come to find out, “coq a vin” is the primary rooster dish of choice…although half the recipes call for a Cornish game hen or some other more accommodating bird. And even then, there’s marinating and boiling and baking and stewing and pounding and chopping and finally eating, at which point one has become nearly too weak to hold the fork. What I really took away from this is not so much that roosters are delicious, but rather that they take days to cook. I only had eight hours to make this bad boy edible.
OK, so what do you do to make meat more tender? You can boil it. I got out my largest pot and in went the rooster. The only problem was that he was too big to fit. Like, way too big.
Again, I remained calm and problem solved. I would simply boil his head down for the first hour, then flip him. However, in the midst of all of this rooster handling, it came to my attention that he still had feathers in various places. So now, not only was I boiling his butt, I was plucking feathers from his neck. It just went downhill from there.
Fortunately, another friend had called in the meantime to tell me that she had found turkey breasts somewhere else. After I told her that I had already bought a rooster, and she could breathe again, I begged a proper turkey breast off of her and within an hour, my girls were downstairs, money in hand, making a street side turkey purchase through her car window.
This was about the time I remembered that I had also volunteered to make rolls.
Fourteen cups of flour later, and a turkey breast ready to go in the oven as soon as Ricky was done, I thought everything was pretty well under control…until I realized that I didn’t have a rolling pin. After mashing the dough around for a while, I went for the wine bottle, which as it turns out, works just as well as a rolling pin. Of course, I poured a glass or two just to make sure it would still work half-full. It did.
Fast-forward to Thanksgiving dinner. I showed up 2 hours later than I planned because my oven could only hold one thing at a time and, of course, everything I volunteered to bring had to be baked – for hours. Also, at this point, I had drunk most of my rolling pin.
We arrived at our hosts’ house and my rooster was hard as a rock, my turkey breast was dry, the rolls had refused to rise and they looked like “shoes,” to quote a friend. Ironically, they all got eaten – mainly because my Italian friend said they tasted like gnocchi. Yep. Thanksgiving gnocchi…just like the Pilgrims ate.
But, in the end, I have to say, Ricky saved the day. Not only did he make a nice centerpiece, he also supplied the gravy. And I have to admit, it was a very nice gravy – rooster flavored and all.
The next day, our housekeeper, once again, stepped in and chopped Ricky up then cooked him down into a nice soup. When I gave it to the girls for lunch, I told them that this was part of my family’s Thanksgiving tradition, to make soup from the leftovers. Girl 1 replied, “Seriously? Rooster soup. That’s what you always ate after Thanksgiving?” She makes a good point. I just reminded her to be thankful it wasn’t shoes.
Today, as I sit here facing another turkey, I have to admit, I’m a little nervous. But I’m also filled with a crazy kind of gratitude. I’m thankful that I have a turkey to cook – even if I wreck it. I’m thankful I have a big family to cook it for. I am immensely grateful for the journey I’ve had and the friends I’ve made. And if I’m being totally honest, I am thankful for Ricky the Thanksgiving Rooster. He may not have been what I had in mind, but in the end, he gave us some laughs – and a whole lot of perspective.