How to Cook a Turkey, or The Stomach: Not the Way to a Man’s Pants
The final Thanksgiving I spent with my family my father said grace. We were not a religious family, despite the fact that we had all done some time in Catholic school. Sure, we had gone to church weekly when we were kids, but it became more sporadic as we got older. We had First Communions, mostly because we were Italian and when you’re Italian, that’s your first fund-raiser. But we never heard righteous treacle like, “God has this in his plan for you,” and for that I will always be grateful to my parents.
I don’t remember us saying grace much, if ever, which is why it was so strange when my father said, “Dear Lord, we would like to thank you for everything you’ve given us. We have one child who smokes and another who’s been kicked out of school, but at least we have each other, Lord, although sometimes that’s not much of a consolation.”
It was my freshman year of college. I hadn’t been planning to come home at all, but at the last minute I found myself both missing my boyfriend and cooling on the friend at whose house I had been planning to spend the weekend. So I came home with my friend Erin in tow.
My grandmother had been the cook in the family and after she died three years prior, Thanksgiving became a rather forgettable holiday. Her amazing stuffing had been replaced with Stove Top. We stopped spending the holiday with our cousins, aunts, and uncles and as my father has already mentioned, he and my mother and my brother and I weren’t much consolation to each other. So after that first Thanksgiving home, I decided that I had no compelling reason to go home for that again, certainly not with Christmas a mere four weeks later. I wonder now if my grandmother had lived longer—or if my mother or her siblings had been able to continue the culinary tradition—if that would have changed things. After all, people who go home regularly for holidays usually talk about how they can’t wait for a favorite aunt’s pie or their mother’s sweet potatoes, and their travel experiences and family dynamics must be just as difficult as mine have always been. Maybe it’s the food that keeps you coming back. I’ve been known to put up with a lot of bullshit in order to eat some truly delicious food. I never turn down an opportunity to eat at Osteria Mozza even though I’m certain child molesters on death row are served their last meal with less attitude. Bad service, condescending friends, judgmental siblings … isn’t it all the same thing?
So, the following year, Thanksgiving away from home, while fun, wasn’t much of a culinary adventure. Erin and I spent the holiday in Boston, eating canned vegetables and watching Moonlighting reruns on an obscure cable channel. The year after was too much of one. I found myself in Prague with my roommate: two girls alone who had just walked into a gigantic beer hall of an establishment, filled only with men. The tables ran the length of the room and had benches instead of chairs; what we now refer to charmingly as family style, but in that moment felt more like “gang rape” than “family.” They made room for us at a table and instead of having their way with us, just handed us menus written entirely in Czech. Fortunately, we were sitting by the one man who spoke a small amount of English, enough to point to one item on the menu that was “chicken and Camembert.” It was simple but good, much better than we expected and we went back again the next night.
The following year I decided to cook. For the first time I was living alone, in what felt like a spacious one-bedroom apartment, one floor beneath a roof deck. It was about five hundred square feet and the last flight of stairs was so old and crooked it felt like they performed back-alley abortions at the top. The only heat in the apartment was on the side of the stove. It was a pipe, punctured with many small holes and encased in a metal box. Periodically the pipe would fill with gas and then the pilot would light it so that what was heating your house was nothing more than a pipe with flames coming out of it. The heat would cause the metal case to expand and then about five minutes after the heat shut off, it would snap back into its original place with a THANG! All night you would hear this cycle as you tried to sleep: the hiss of natural gas filling your apartment, the THWOOOOSH as the entire pipe caught fire, and then, once you finally started to get back to sleep, the metallic THANG of the metal contracting, the whole time thinking it was a distinct possibility you would never live to see the morning.
My apartment was in the North End of Boston, the quaint Italian section of town that had not yet been touched by high-end condos and supermarket chains. Every day I would walk home past Polcari’s, the spice store run by the ancient brother and sister who sold spices by the ounce in little paper bags for fifty cents. They had whole coffee beans, an assortment of rice and flours, and the best price on chocolate-covered espresso beans anywhere in the city. Across the street was Bova’s bakery, which was open twenty-four hours a day, because someone was always inside baking bread. No matter what time of the night I was coming home, I could always get fresh bread, usually still hot from the oven, and my friends and I would plunge our drunken fists into the center and pull out chunks of the warm, white fluff. There were a couple of different butcher shops, a few produce markets, a liquor store. There were numerous pastry shops and every Easter they’d have cakes shaped like lambs with white coconut frosting in the window. It sounds totally garish, but I loved them because I remembered seeing them every Easter dinner as a little girl. Right before I turned down my street was the “Boston I,” the closest thing they had to a grocery store. It reminded me of the market my grandmother had gone to while I was growing up. They sold deli meats in the back and the shelves were stacked with pasta and soups and necessities. That was a family-run business, too, and as I never had an extra key, if I had to make sure a friend needed to get into my apartment, I left it with Chuckie or Cheryl behind the counter. I could walk home every day and do my shopping as I went; talk to Miss Polcari about what to do with cream of tartar, ask the butcher what looked good, get a little local gossip.
Maybe it was the inspiration I found daily at the markets or the nostalgia inducing lamb cakes that made me want to cook that year. But most likely, it was Simon.
Simon was in my ballet class freshman year. I was a savvy enough freshman to know that men in your (elective) ballet class weren’t good crush material, and I still held onto this notion long after I learned (to my surprise) that Simon was straight. The next semester he was in my jazz dance class. He was a handsome, skinny guy with longish hair, always in a sleeveless black T-shirt and black bike shorts, two earrings and no smile. The summer after jazz class, we found ourselves taking the same extracurricular acting class from a teacher we both loved who had his own studio. The work was entirely movement based and it was another opportunity for Simon to wear his jazz/ballet ensemble. Eventually we had a Shakespeare class together and I finally got to see him in pants. By this time I knew he had a girlfriend who was a year ahead of me and they felt practically married. He seemed like one of those people who took “the work” very seriously, whatever work, whether it was ballet, jazz, Shakespeare, or bartending. I didn’t trust people like that as I was afraid if I took anything that seriously I could still fail and then what?
Despite our increasing number of classes together we didn’t become friends until he and his girlfriend broke up. Not that it was romantic; I just think when they were no longer together he was forced to open up his world a bit, especially as they had had so many friends in common. I was going through something of a breakup, too, having had a falling out with my roommate of three years. The timing was right: we both needed a new friend.
I remember exactly when it shifted. We were in Shakespeare class together, tying our shoes after getting into our Elizabethan garb and he said, “You’re going to call me this summer, right, Tess?”
I was shocked that he wanted to be my friend. Sure, after three years of ballet tights, iambic pentameter, and crawling across the floor pretending to be prehistoric protozoa, we had finally relaxed a bit and started to actually make each other laugh. But now this once standoffish person who it took me three years to get comfortable with wanted to actually be my friend outside of school, like real friends. Not just the fake kind who pretend to like each other in class because their girlfriend of three years dumped them and they have no one else to talk to.
I assured him I would call him, and so I did, getting his voice-mail each and every time. Simon never called back. Finally, I called, he didn’t answer, and so I left my last message. “Hi, Simon, it’s Tess. I only take this shit from guys I sleep with. Call me back.” He did that day, laughing.
He was a few years older than the rest of us and had friends and experiences and a life outside of our college, which was one of the reasons I liked being his friend. He had a perspective that most other people I knew lacked, and also, a determination; having been on his own since sixteen, he worked as a bartender three or four nights a week until two in the morning to pay for school. I saw myself in him, or at least wanted to. Since I had gotten back from Europe the year before, I felt stifled; my world had once again been limited to the lives and dramas of people in a four-block radius. When you’re staring at the Colosseum, it’s kind of hard to think that who got the lead in the Sondheim musical is going to matter in two thousand years. I returned to Boston with a desire to work hard, study hard, and achieve great things. And now one of these great things I wanted to achieve was having sex with Simon.
It started in the fall. We had both been cast in an obscure German play written by a man who spent his entire life looking for the perfect woman to commit suicide with. The director of our play was a crazy Dutchman, who had an Italian name and only one testicle, which for some reason I knew about. As would become a pattern in my life, my relationship with Simon developed over food.
Every night before class we would meet for dinner. I was always on my way back to campus from work and he was coming from class and neither one of us had time to return home to eat. It became a ritual, both of us just showing up at the acting studio each night. He’d put his arm around me and I’d say, “Are we dining?” He’d say, “Yes,” and off we would go to spend an entire hour’s worth of retail pay on a fancy Back Bay sandwich just so we could talk. And one of these days as he was talking, his voice soft and raspy due to damage during childhood surgery, there was something about the combination of his words and the look on his face. I looked at him and was overwhelmed with the urge to say, “I like you.”
What I didn’t like was the sandwich I was having that night. Something didn’t taste right about it and I was worried that I was having some sort of an allergic reaction. Simon was doing most of the talking at this point, and didn’t seem at all worried that I might be turning blue or puffing up at any moment. But when we got up to leave he saw that my sandwich was mostly untouched. He took a moment to wrap it up and said, “I vomited so much of my own neurosis onto the table, there wasn’t any room for your sandwich.” These were the most romantic words I had heard to date!
After rehearsal that night, we went with the rest of the cast for drinks and Crazy Dutch Director with Italian Name came with us. The two beers I had on my non-sandwich-filled stomach left me feeling pretty buzzed (Oh, for the days when I had no tolerance!) and in no position to react well when Crazy Dutch Director asked me why I was so bitter. Um, maybe because crazy, foreign, one-balled men who should be old enough to know better buy me drinks and then insult me? Despite Simon coming to my defense, I felt awkward and self-conscious so naturally, Simon and I go back to the Mad Dutchman’s house for bourbon. I don’t drink bourbon.
I was drunk on my ability to have an opinion. He was drunk on his delusions of Svengaliism. We were both drunk on bourbon. What followed was the interrogation of a mouthy, idealstic college girl armed with way too much reading, by a man with one testicle and English as a second language. At one point he tells me to, “Go into politics then, don’t be an actor!” At another he says, “I ask you questions and you respond with tears.” At another, I am on his lap and he is drying my tears. It was around this point that Simon tells me we have to go. Good call. He takes me back to his place, gives me water and goldfish crackers to “slow the alcohol down from reaching the liver.” (Does this actually work?) The two of us pass out platonically on his bed as the sun comes up. I loved this man!
The next morning we tried to make sense of the bizarre evening and he says to me, “I want you to know, Tess, if I had thought you were in any danger, I would have had you out of there, if I didn’t think it was safe.” I so loved this man!
October rehearsals gave way to November and as that month started to slip away and we drew closer to opening night, I knew I was nearing the end of my daily excuse to see Simon. Determined to take our relationship to the next level, I formulated a plan. I needed to create an opportunity to spend more time with him; time when he didn’t have to take off for his 10 p.m. shift at the club. I would have to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Wasn’t it the same with Peppermint Patty and Charlie Brown? Doesn’t she invite herself over to Thanksgiving dinner because she has such a crush on him?
Rounding out my guest list was one of my best friends, Anna, a grad student in literature; her very English boyfriend, Nigel; the very opinionated Regina who was on her third year as a senior; and my brother, the drummer, Junior.
Junior was in his first year at the Berklee College of Music, also in Boston. I had been excited that he was going to school in the same town I was and had visions of us hanging out and going to concerts together. As it turned out, he went out and he went to concerts. I stayed home and tried to reach him and I worried.
I was predisposed to worry about him ever since the time I was five and he was three and we were playing at my grandmother’s house. My mother walked into the room and started freaking out. This was not uncommon. The reason, however, was. My brother had eaten some of my mother’s cigarettes. Later he would learn that not only could they be smoked, you could actually smoke stuff better than cigarettes. And then one day still later, I would see him eat that, too. But that day he was just eating cigarettes.
My mother looked at me. “Why weren’t you watching him?”
Looking back now, I realize the answers to that question were the following: a) not my son, b) not my cigarettes, and c) I’m five.
But at the time I just thought, “Oh, I guess that’s my job,” and the role of the overprotective older sibling was forged.
His first week of school he called me at work to find out how to get to Providence, Rhode Island, by train. He didn’t know anyone in Providence; he didn’t know anyone in Boston yet. I told him to take the commuter rail and tried to give him all the information I could before I had to get back to work. I worried the rest of the shift. Would he know to get back before the trains stopped running? Would he not get himself mugged or arrested? He’d had his first run-in with the law that summer for misdemeanor jackassery, which had gotten plea-bargained down to first degree being a stoner, but I didn’t know if he’d be as lucky in a town where his lawyer wouldn’t be a friend of my father’s who normally handled high-profile murder cases. And exactly why again was he going to Providence? As soon as I got off work, I tried to call him back. And I kept trying for the next twenty-four hours. What would he do if he missed that last train? Would he try to hitchhike? Would he try to sleep in the park? When he finally picks up, he tells me that he spent the night in Providence … in Cheap Trick’s hotel suite.
My first thought is what exactly did my brother do to get into Cheap Trick’s hotel suite. But then he explains one of the band members has a kid who played soccer with a friend of my brother’s at Berklee and so they all went down to Providence to see them play. My brother wasn’t performing untoward acts to get backstage, he was actually hanging with someone’s dad.
Another night I had gotten home rather late to find my door open. I had given my brother a key in case he ever needed to come by, but still, that was no reason he should leave the door wide open. I found him “asleep” on a haphazardly pulled out futon that had one whole half pulled up onto a trunk. I panicked as it got increasingly harder to wake him up and when I finally did I noticed his T-shirt was smeared with blood.
Still another time, he shows up at night, sunglasses still on, talking about the ride in. “It was bedlam on the bus, man.” Just then he reaches inside his jean jacket and pulls out a plastic cup of beer from his inside pocket, like some deadbeat James Bond.
With all the worrying I was doing about my brother, my love life, and crazy Dutch directors, it’s probably little wonder that I had also just started suffering from acid reflux, a condition that would haunt my red-wine loving, foodie soul for years to come. Only I didn’t quite know what it was at the time. I only knew I was experiencing intense chest and back pain on a regular basis and was convinced I had a lung collapsing. The pain was most severe across my back so I had asked my brother to show up around one that afternoon to help me get the large turkey into the oven.
I wasn’t starting the turkey until early afternoon because I didn’t intend to eat until eight that night. I think eating a large meal at two o’clock in the afternoon is completely weird and unnatural, like putting a TV set outdoors so you can watch TV from your pool.
One o’clock came and went and no brother. I tried calling. He didn’t answer. Shocker. Rather than tell him I only take this from guys I sleep with, I put the turkey in the oven myself. I followed the simple steps my father had given me the day before: wash out the turkey, and take out the neck and bag of giblets. I only found a bag with the neck in it and I was pretty thorough so I figured some turkey along the line must have had two bags of giblets or something. I poured butter over it, stuck a thermometer into what I thought was the thickest part of the thigh without touching bone, although fuck if I knew. Every time I tried to keep it from touching bone, it just ended up coming out the other side of the leg. I tried to push it down as far as I could without touching the bone, but how do I know where that is? Eventually, I did the best I could and away it went into the oven, covered with aluminum foil.
During all of this, my brother didn’t call, but Simon did. We talked for long enough that he invited me over his place to hang before dinner.
“Umm … you mean the dinner that I’m cooking? That I have a bird in the oven right now for.… But you can come over here early, if you want.”
Now we had the whole afternoon to hang before any of my cockblocking friends got there! Or my prodigal brother. If he wasn’t dead.
I had asked Simon to bring the wine since he was a bartender and would know about such things and also since he was over twenty-one. He arrived in his uniform: jeans, black turtleneck, black John Fluevogs. He took off his long coat; he was cold and smelled like winter. On the table was the brown bag of wine. I looked inside to take the wine out and I saw what looked like a condom in there. Not used or anything. Wrapped. He wasn’t a weirdo.
I don’t ask myself the following questions:
• Why would a man wander the streets of Boston on Thanksgiving, carrying one lone condom in a bag when he has a wallet, a coat, and jeans?
• Why would he leave it in the paper bag with the wine, after I’ve said, “Let me get the wine?”
• Who’s going to baste the turkey every hour if I’m in the bedroom letting Simon stuff my cavity?
But he doesn’t stuff my cavity. Instead we spend the afternoon talking and eventually other friends arrive. Regina comes with a selection of sides from Boston Market. I am horrified, but impressed by her effort as she hates to cook and this, to her, is cooking. Anna and Nigel show up. She with a chocolate trifle; he with a foreigner’s skepticism about our American holiday. Still no brother, but Simon is touching me, putting his arm around me, which more than makes up for Junior’s disappearance.
I had invited one other person, my friend Samantha, an ethereal redhead who women wanted to be and men wanted to sleep with. She was a deep, old soul who could talk to you like you were the only one in the world who understood her and she, you. She was also notoriously fucking unreliable. The calls had started that morning.
“I’m coming. I’m coming. I just need to take a nap.”
“I’m so sorry. I fell asleep for longer than I thought. But I’m coming.”
“Definitely. But I may be a little late.”
So I had two guests MIA, another I was trying to seduce, and the mashed potatoes needed to be started. This was my first lesson in what a goddamn pain mashed potatoes were. They’re almost impossible to do ahead of time. Oh, I’ve read the tips, too. “Simply reheat with some more milk and butter.” “Reheat in the oven.” “Keep warm in the crockpot.” They just don’t taste right. And cooking them at dinner time is a military operation. All you want to do is eat and these fuckers have to be peeled and then cut and then boiled and then mashed. All while you’re trying to make gravy. Which it was also time to start.
I was proud of my first turkey, so far. The basting had worked and I had plenty of pan drippings to make my gravy with, which everyone knows is the whole point. Turkey merely exists as a surface to help you shovel gravy into your mouth. Only something happened while I was pulling the cooked turkey out of the pan. A brown, plastic bag fell out. I didn’t get a turkey without giblets, after all; instead the plastic bag must have been wedged so far inside of it, I couldn’t find it. And now I had just cooked said plastic bag at 325°F for seven hours. That couldn’t be good.
Concerned, I called my friend Steve, a chef. I also called my brother once for good measure. Still no answer. But Steve picked up.
“Steve! Help! I cooked the turkey with the bag of giblets in it!”
“All right,” he said in his laid back, deadhead fashion. “You are going to have some awesome gravy, then.”
Steve assured me that everyone does this at least once. Convinced I’m not going to kill anyone, I turned my attention back to the potatoes and the gravy. Lively discussion drifted in from the next room. The kind of discussion I couldn’t wait to get out of high school to have and that I now long for when I’m being forced to listen to what everyone is wearing to Mommy & Me class. Regina and Nigel are discussing German poetry. This is exactly the sort of French salon I imagined would happen at my first Thanksgiving when I pushed those two steamer trunks together that afternoon and used an Indian tapestry as a tablecloth.
The phone rings. It’s not my brother. It’s Samantha.
“I’m coming, but please start without me. I don’t mind. I just can’t motivate to leave right now.”
She was in the strange German play with us, too, only she was the lead and was carrying on like the rehearsals were as taxing as studying for the medical boards while raising three children on your own.
Speaking of Germans, the discussion on poetry was getting too lively. I recognized the tone in Regina’s voice. She disagreed with something Nigel had said, and now it was about to get weird. Regina had a bachelor’s in nothing but was the authority on everything. She would let you dig a hole, talking about something you gave not a shit about, and then pronounce her judgment on it in the same cold tone of voice one might say, “I know he’s your best friend, but he raped my sister and murdered her children and I don’t understand how you can be friends with him.” All conversation would grind to a halt while the person, who somehow found themselves on the wrong side of a discussion of surrealism versus Dada when they thought both were actually kind of crap, would wonder why this woman was so angry about it.
And I was still cutting potatoes! My gravy was as thin as Regina’s patience must have been growing, and soon enough I heard the telltale silence that meant that Regina had finally shut Nigel down. Sure enough, she appeared in the kitchen a moment later, complaining about the pompous, chauvinistic old-boy networks of English boarding schools and don’t you know they all bugger each other anyway. I was desperate enough that I let her take the knife and finish the potatoes. She was desperate enough to actually do it.
The phone rings again.
“I’m sorry. I just think I need to be home and quiet and read my tarot cards and turn in early. Is that OK?”
Sure it’s OK for you to lead me on all day and pretend like you’re coming over while I cook with a bad back and where is my brother?!
He finally shows up.
“Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!” (He is not Southern.)
I yell at him, then hug him, then yell at him again.
I notice he has some rather rudimentary stitches on his hand across his knuckles, but I don’t say anything knowing I’m not going to get a straight answer anyway.
Time to eat!
We carve the turkey as best as we can, having never done it before. The apartment has an eat-in kitchen; a rarity in the city but perhaps not so uncommon in the part of town where Italian mammas are cooking all day. However, it’s still not large enough to fit the seven people I was expecting, nor do I have a table that big. So we sit down to feast in the living room, a small nook between the bedroom and the kitchen, just big enough for a futon and a TV and now the two pushed-together steamer trunks with their candle-wax-stained Indian tapestry tablecloth that we sit cross-legged around. The gravy runs all over the plate but still tastes good, which I suppose is the point. My first attempt at stuffing—I actually bought “stuffing bread” and cut it up and dried it out and cooked it with mushrooms—is somewhat bland but tastes good when soaked in runny gravy.
The “cooking” has worn Regina out and she sits watching everyone eat, shaking her head. She has planted herself next to my brother, since she now refuses to talk to most of the other guests. However, given the cramped size of our dining area, she remains, at most, a foot and a half away from anyone she is trying to avoid. Which perhaps makes it even more obnoxious when she takes out a real honest-to-goodness-for-tobacco-pipe and starts smoking it as that day’s affectation, no doubt wondering why no one gets her.
Nigel asks me how I like my school. I think for a moment.
“There’s a lot I haven’t liked about it. There are many things I hated about it. But looking back on it, I can’t say that it’s been a bad experience in the end, because it was the things I hated that made me mad, that made me go and seek out other things, and that made me who I am right now, and I’m happy with who I am.”
He laughs cynically. “That’s a very American answer.”
I wonder what that means. I also wonder why lately I am being asked difficult life questions by condescending European men.
Eventually everyone leaves. The dinner portion was a relative success. But that’s not the part I care about. Simon is still there. He reclines on my futon, a glass of wine in his hand, and stares up at the ceiling in some manner of existential angst. We talk for a long time. Finally, he gets up to go. It’s after two in the morning and as he puts on his coat, he starts talking passionately about Martin Luther King Jr.—no idea how this came up—but he’s so strong and passionate and he gets so close to my face, and for a moment I think he’s about to kiss me, but he doesn’t and I’m excited, and confused, and totally infatuated and God only knows how all of that manifests itself on my face because all of a sudden he stops midsentence and looks concerned.
“What’s wrong? Are you OK?”
“Yeah. I’m just confused.”
I try to brush it aside. “Nothing.”
“No, why?” he insists.
I couldn’t help myself. “Because there you go getting all impassioned all over my kitchen, and I feel like kissing you!”
And there it was. Out in the open. All over my kitchen floor. All of the things he could have said next … I don’t feel that way or I want to kiss you, too, or I have to go. All of the things he could have said … this is what he actually says:
“I don’t know. I just do. And I feel dumb.”
“Well, don’t feel dumb.”
“But I do. We have a good friendship going here and I don’t want to make you feel weird.”
“Well, I don’t feel weird. I’m just shocked. I’m surprised.”
Seriously? He’s surprised? We’ve been hanging out for the last twelve hours! I cooked a turkey for him! And what about that condom? I make a mental note to look for that paper bag as soon as he’s left.
He assures me everything is fine and we hug good-bye making plans to blue ball each other two days from now at the movies or somewhere. As soon as the door closes I look for the paper bag somewhere in the chaos of turkey carcasses and empty Boston Market containers. I find it and look inside. What at first glance looked like a condom, was actually a packet of chamomile tea. I had done all of this in order to have sex with an herbal tea drinker.
But I had had my first taste of a turkey that I had cooked myself, which was in essence, my first taste of freedom. I no longer needed to spend a holiday with my family if I wanted to have a proper meal. Conversely, I no longer had to while away my holiday in a former Eastern Bloc country eating what I hoped was chicken, just because I didn’t want to spend it with my family. I could cook a turkey. I could invite the guests of my choosing. I could hold myself to unachievable standards and elaborate ideals that I made up in my head and then feel terribly about myself when I failed to re-create them. I could make myself crazy. I could drink and fight and sob and hate myself through an entire dinner party.
I could do all of that. But I didn’t know that then.
Don’t worry if your china lacks a complete setting for eight. You can still set an elegant table and easily distract guests from your mismatched plates with a colorful Indian tapestry that smells like pot, the drama of whether or not your brother is still alive, or your know-it-all friend who has taken six years to finish her theater degree and yet still insists on heatedly debating German poetry with your friend, who is getting his Ph.D. in literature and studied at Oxford.
Copyright © 2012 by Tess Raferty