For the first 30-odd years of my life, our traditional Thanksgiving celebration was an annual source of dread. Not because of the food, which was invariably delicious, or the company, which was convivial. No, the source of anxiety was due to the fact that it required a journey from the hinterland to my sister’s inlaws in the Cities – a trek that was always fraught with tension for us small town folks. In late November in Minnesota, slick roads and limited visibility are always a concern. But even those years when the weather was clear as a bell, disaster was always just an ill-chosen lane change away. We country folk don’t do well in urban environments. We fear the traffic, the aggression of big-city drivers, the bewildering tangle of lanes and exits one has to navigate. Here’s the thing about city driving: If you miss your exit, or worse, get into the wrong lane and are forced to exit where you don’t want to, there’s a very good chance that you will never, ever find your way back on the right path again. My college roommate’s family, from an even more northerly and rural small town, once had occasion to drive to the Twin Cities for a family wedding. They became hopelessly lost and drove aimlessly around Minneapolis and St. Paul all day and into the night, missing the wedding and reception entirely. Finally they stopped at a hotel for the night and somehow managed to find their way home again the next morning. This is what it’s like for us bumpkins.
So despite taking the same route every year for decades, the perennially befuddled trio of Mom, Dad and me got lost to some degree almost every Thanksgiving. As my Dad would mutter between clenched teeth as he gripped the steering wheel, white-knuckled, “They change the damned roads every year.” (They don’t.) There was a precise moment, even after an otherwise uneventful first 120 miles, when it was more than 50-50 that things would go sideways. We took a particular off-ramp from the interstate, which terminated in an intersection. We had a choice at that point to turn to the left, traversing a freeway overpass, or continue going straight. And every, single year when we reached that stoplight, we would look at one another with panic-stricken expressions and murmur, “Do we turn here? Do we go over the bridge? Or do we go straight?” Since we all clearly had some kind of mental block about this decision, it might have made sense for us to record the right answer on a piece of paper and stash it in the glove compartment for consultation on subsequent trips. Strangely, that never occurred to us. So we continued to make the wrong decision about half the time. In fact, thinking back now, I still don’t remember if we turn at that stupid intersection.
It’s been quite a few years now since the annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage ended. Both German patriarchs of our respective families are gone, their progeny dispersed hither and yon. Nowadays Thanksgiving is a quiet day at home, just me and my mom. We have managed to create a few new traditions, though. I always cook a feast for 10, and mom always wonders aloud why I don’t produce a more reasonable quantity of food for two people. And I patiently explain that cutting down a recipe involves math that makes my head explode. You tell me, what’s a quarter of 3/8 of a cup? I feel a panic attack coming on just typing that equation.
For this year’s turkey, I decided to try Alton Brown’s brining technique. I did a simple dry brine last year, and found it changed my turkey experience not at all. It occurred to me that more dramatic results must surely require more elaborate preparation, hence the two-day brine odyssey. I assembled and cooked the ingredients on Tuesday evening: a gallon of vegetable stock, a cup of salt and a few sprinkles of some obscure and outrageously priced spices (Fun fact: a small bottle of candied ginger will set you back $10 in these parts, and the likelihood that you’ll ever use more than the single teaspoon called for in this recipe is just about nil. Ditto on the “allspice berries.”) Anyway. On Wednesday evening I assembled the brew in a 5-gallon bucket: murky, urine-colored brine, a gallon of heavily iced water and the naked turkey bird. The whole concoction was placed in the downstairs refrigerator overnight – though, since Alton specifies turning the bird over halfway through the 12-hour process, I had to stay up until 1 am watching pimple-popping videos until time to roll the fowl over onto her back.
In the morning, the Butterball looked a bit the worse for wear. And by Butterball, I refer to myself. The turkey seemed fine. I hoisted it out of the brine, which I discarded to my mother’s great dismay (“What a waste!”). Perhaps I should have saved it to make soup, or ladled it into sparkling crystal glasses with a spritz of seltzer for a pre-feast aperitif. (People drink Cold Duck, don’t they? Shouldn’t Salty Turkey be a thing?). Tom Turkey (whom I addressed as “our gentleman caller” in my best Southern drawl) went into the sink for a quick rinse. Then the poor devil had “steeped savories” poured down his hollow gullet. This comprised an apple, a cinnamon stick and half an onion, microwaved on high for five minutes. Then Tom was slathered with canola oil until he glistened like a bodybuilder, sprinkled with Rustic Herb Seasoning and popped into a 500 degree oven for 30 minutes, followed by 2.5 hours at 350.
Cooking Tip: If you have previously had an apple pie run over onto the bottom of your oven, or perhaps a few chunks of frozen pizza fall between the grates of the rack onto the heating element, it is wise to clean the oven before subjecting it to this level of heat. Unless you like smoked turkey.
I’m happy to report that, apart from a faint hint of charcoal scent from the pie filling incineration, the turkey turned out well. To be honest, though, it did not differ appreciably in flavor or texture from every other turkey I’ve ever eaten. Perhaps one has to have a truly discerning palate, like people who test fine wines or new ice cream flavors, to appreciate the difference that all the fuss of brining the bird makes. Mom and I enjoyed a delightful feast which is likely to continue in several forms of leftovers over the course of the next week or so (see “Cooking a 100 lbs. of food for two people” above).
We even made one of those trendy “mannequin” videos to commemorate the occasion.
The full Tastefully Simple-centric menu, in case you are interested, consisted of:
Roasted Rustic Herb Turkey, crockpot mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry fluff salad, Spinach & Herb Butter Rolls with Shallot Tarragon Butter, Creamy Wild Rice Stuffing and traditional green bean casserole. And how was YOUR holiday?