Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A tale of three turkeys.....

"Have a nice Thanksgiving!"

Dickens didn't write a Thanksgiving as yet there is no "Scrooge" for turkey day. I guess it could be the English sailor Thomas Dermer who gave the original inhabitants of Cape Cod small pox and influenza and wiped them, out pre-Pilgrims......In the meantime, I'll volunteer. I hate friggin' Thanksgiving......and I am descended from at least three of the orginal immigrant survivors.

Turkey Day food is so BROWN......and any attempts to liven it up are usually looked at askance. To me the whole Thanksgiving ethos is like that old Star Trek episode: The Captain and Spock discover a planet that is constantly reliving The Gunfight at The OK Corral because some UFO's had left a video hundreds of years before. The inhabitants still walked around in ridiculous cowboy gear imitating a reality that never existed.

The Pilgrim's were starving, scurvy ridden, god-addled, English country people who had been living in Holland (two gastronomic capitals if there ever were....) and were dependent upon the kindness of strangers.....technologically bankrupt subsistence aborigines barely recovering from their own pandemic that had literally decimated them. As in killed 9 of ten. Only 60% of the Pilgrims died the first year. Wooo-hoo! Let's party!

I am an Irish person, and a similar absurdity takes place on St. Paddy's Day: starvation rations, subsistence foods of highly questsionable character are trotted out as an ethnic marker. Corned beef was eaten by the Irish building the railroads because it was the cheapest thing that wouldn't laden with chemicals it didn't need refrigeration. And don't talk to me about potatoes and cabbage. Cabbage has just enough vitamin C to keep a destitute worker's teeth from dropping out of his head before his back gives out. It was big at Treblinka, too.

Anyway......this year we are going whole hog. I succumbed to fatal yuppy bullshit and bought an heirloom turkey. I think it is a good thing.....but I am so traumatized by the homicidal shoppers and drivers at Costco and Whole Foods yesterday that I can't make rational judgements for a few days. An off duty policeman actually badged me in Whole Foods to get me away from the turkeys.....and the morbidly obese Costco cretins abandoned all pretense at civility and drove their SUV's and mini-vans like feral Italian cab drivers at a Pope's funeral. Horns, screaming, utter gridlock.....fatties just parking in place in the gridlock, or just turning up the AC and stereo and leaning on the horn. Fighting over flatbeds, cellulite flailing.

I expected the worst from today's Wharf/Farmer's Market trip. Amanda told me to just prepare myself mentally like a Bosnian woman at a Serbian gang-rape: "They just go out of their bodies, you see.....then it is happening to someone else....." (This reads like the PDR specific for Ketamine......a dissociative anesthetic. I had a large jar when I lived in Greece.....too bad there aren't raves anymore for a new supply......) I pictured in my mind the deranged octogenarian that fatally flattened a dozen people at an LA market last year.

Turns out there was no one there. Acres of parking.....Thanksgiving is the one day that the old people who normally plague the market like a driver's ed movie from hell actually get food cooked for them..... I guess, by the young folk....or by The Home. Sadly, there were also only a few vendors. It was like the Moscow Farmer's Market......or come to think of it, the Plymouth Farmer's Market four hundred years ago. Fun with root vegetables!

As always, I was questioned at length by daffy elderly shoppers. This is what I get for being one of two professionals who actually shop for local produce (the other is Walter Manzke of Bouchée). Today, the topic was Turducken: "How do I do a turducken?"

Turducken and bocce are twin plagues brought upon this earth by John Madden, the former Raiders coach. The turducken is basically a galatin (completely boned whole birds) of turkey.....stuffed with a duck galatin......stuffed with a chicken galatin. The chicken is then best stuffed with the fifteen page recipe cum description of how to do a galatin. The whole thing is then tied and roasted. If you like to double dip your absurd cooking fads, you can then deep fry the fucking thing. Whichever method you choose.....bring lots of gravy, because by the time the chicken cooks to a safe 160 degrees, that turkey is one dry mothafucka.

The first four letters of the dish say it all.

There was an old story (that pre-dates John Madden by about 150 years) told by abusive French chefs to explain to underlings some random horrible act perpetrated on some perfectly defenseless food in the name of "gourmet" Zen turned inside out after having sex with Karl Marx: the amount of work going into a dish determines it's value.

The difference between a gourmand and a gourmet:

Make a galatin of an ostrich. Stuff it with a swan. Stuff that with a turkey. Stuff that with a goose. Stuff that with a capon, which you stuff with a duck, which you stuff with a pigeon....on down to an in the song. A sparrow. There is no SPCA in France, believe me.

Take the alouette and stuff it with a caper which is wrapped in an anchovie.

The gourmet eats the caper......the gourmand eats all the rest. Have at it, John......

My favorite Thanksgiving advice day took place years ago. My brother-in-law Monckton was driving west....actually emigrating west in a Triumph Spitfire with two dogs and his girl-friend. He was stuck in Denver for Thankgiving and was staying with Dr. Peter The Peter Doctor, my old Cornell college roommate and former restaurant partner. Monckton was trying to be a good guest and mellow the effect of his descent on Peter's apartment with the entourage and his own normal charming but LSD fuelled persona, by cooking a traditional dinner.

Michael and I had long chats about the side dishes, and a detailed chat about the bird: Stuff the neck cavity with aromatics (apples, onions, garlic, rosemary) and leave the body cavity open except for some random herbs. Rub the whole bird down with good butter, and have more melted butter ready to baste away. Put the bird in a 500 oven to get things going, then turn it down to 275 and cover the breast with some layers of cheesecloth or parchment to keep it moist. Baste for a couple of hours.

"All clear, chief!" Things went well, apparently.

Well, there was one little thing. Michael could not find any cheesecloth, or parchment he protected the breast with a couple of bandanas he used to keep his hair from flying around in the Spitty.

Red......paisley bandanas....

Which dyed the breast meat a lovely red paisley pattern to a depth of about four inches........

Oh, well.

Come to think of it, I did have ONE nice Thanksgiving, once......and Monckton was responsible. Both the Horrible Ohio In-Laws and my mom and grandma were visiting. We cooked at the catering kitchen to escape the dense fug at the house: Jane, Michael, me, Annie and my brothers went to prep and fetch the food. Michael supplied a half pound of local mushrooms and we laughed for six hours......I was actually sore the next day. No turkeys were cooked. I think we went out for Chinese.........

Next Totally Cool Cooking Method: Deep fried turkeys. For no small expense you can by a small Atlas Centaur rocket motor capable of producing about 250,000 BTUs, a large aluminum stock pot and five gallons of peanut oil. You get these things at Costco.....but you will have to fight a fat man for them.

Next, you prepare the turkey normally......and heat the fat in the stockpot to 350 degrees. You pop in the bird, and bob is your uncle in only a half hour or so. What could be better? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, our friend Dr. Bob went for this, as he did all things gastronomic. Dr. Bob was the first guy anywhere to put in a wood pizza oven. He took cooking lessons in Italy with Bugiali; he took grill lessons in North Carolina with Bubba; he took deep fry lessons in Texas from Dick Cheney, apparently. (Turns out Dr. Bob was doing a little stuffing on the this case another Palma High parent with similar gastronomic interests.......)

Dr. Bob's big moment came on Turkey Day. He had his Atlas Centaur set up in the back yard by the pizza oven, just off Del Monte golf course. The fat was hot, the guests had arrived. In went the bird.

The only thing that Bob hadn't quite grasped was that the bird should be thawed first, before being fried. The resutant mix of ice and boiling grease caused a geyser of fat that shrieked into the sky.....and of course, ignited. It somehow missed Bob, but the fat flowed like lava from Kilauea Iki out onto the golf course.......The firemen who responded were too convulsed with laughter to function, and may have been as sore as I was after the mushrooms......Dr. Bob sent out for Chinese as well.

The Final Desperately Cool way to cook a turkey is on a Weber kettle grill. Mmmm. Bird, Weber, charcoal..... manly men standing around drinking manly drinks, presiding over the manly denaturing of manly protein.....What could go wrong?

I have only one experiece with Weberizing turkeys....despite cooking at least two meals a week on Webers....often for hundreds of people, every week for three decades now.

We were doing a Thanksgiving do at Durney Vineyard in Cachagua, for Dear Old Mr. Durney (see other Durney posts). This is years ago.....long enough ago that a Charley's Angel was the guest of honor, and she was still working.....this was the smart, dark-haired one.

Durney Vineyard had a beautiful little guest house with a gorgeous pool overlooking the vineyards and the Cachagua valley. There was also a consecrated chapel and a wine cave. The house had been there a while, though.....since Eisenhower, at least....and I think old Ike might have personally installed the all-electric kitchen. And the wiring....

The day started out wet, and grew wildly stormy very quickly.

As a company we have a well-known antipathy to making coffee, in any form....ever. Mr. Durney was aware of this and successfully badgered us into bringing along an urn......("We make coffee the old-fashioned way.....we URN it!).

Despite, or as a result of, the storm....the afternoon was going swimmingly. Very cosy. Nice Mass in Latin from Father Juan. Decent wine. Nice hors d'oeuvres. The Angel was very nice, and kind, and down-to-earth. The birds were in the ovens, with the yams and the stuffing. The gravy was bubbling on the stove, and the water was ready for the mashers.

At this point, NotGay Ray said, "I am going to plug in the it will be ready." He reached for the cord and slipped it into the outlet. At that precise moment, there was a terrific lightning strike, and a huge bang. The fucking coffee maker blew the 16 amp circuit in the kitchen, and along with the lightning strike, the whole vineyard electrical service all the way up to the pole transformer.

Darkness....utter black darkness.

Mr. old bastard that he was.....had no functioning flashlights, and only fag ends of candles. We got the guests calmed and lept into action in the kitchen, and fired up the Weber with oak chips and branches.

Soon we had a nice fire, and a good ash base. I piled on the turkey, and packed it with yams and packages of stuffing. We wrapped the whole bastard in yards of tinfoil, and carefully balanced on the lid, like some insane Tin Woodman sculpture. Every 20 minutes, we would take apart the entire structure, add coals, turn the bird, and rebuild the fucking thing.

Meanwhile, Mr. Durney had swung into full Doug MacArthur mode: finding underlings and berating them. Somehow he got onto a PG&E supervisor who agreed to send out a repairman......on Thanksgiving, in a blinding lightning storm, miles out to nowhere in Cachagua at the ass end of a long obscure driveway. In the pitch dark.

We were sweating bullets.....the gravy was warming in the fireplace, and the spuds were stuffed in foil into the fireplace coals. The guests were starting to get antsy, and the bird was nowhere close. Finally, we just had to go with it.

Luckily the lights were low, the side dishes were mostly cooked and the gravy hot. I shaved the warm outside of that bird like a surgeon in a burn ward, working on skin grafts. I served some kind of turkey to everyone.

The Angel remained kind.

Dinner was achieved.

Finally the PG&E guy arrived. Mr. Durney bitched him out for taking so long, and the poor schlub went back out into the howling gale. He climbed the pole somehow and flipped the breaker on the transformer. Lights, camera, action.

The guy came back in to make sure everything was kosher.....dripping wet storm all over the tiles. Mr. Durney, maybe somewhat shamed by the guy's heroic behavior and his own pettiness, said, "Can we get you anything? Anything at all?"

"Well......I'd love a cup of coffee......."


Blogger Brian said...

Personally I will always remember one very stoned Thanksgiving in Ithaca at your apartment when I was first subjected to your culinary mashinations ... and in case you haven't noticed, he's baaaack, the godfather of infinite jesting, all 1120 pages of him ...

6:37 AM  

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