Quirky turkey

Turkey Day. If it was up to me, Thanksgiving would be nicknamed for the towering pillar of mashed potatoes with a giblet gravy moat I erect at the center of my plate. I know Helen would agree. And her sister, Becky, would rename the day in honor of the huge trough of green bean casserole she dives into first. Tom, on the other hand, would be more focused on the pie smorgasbord he’d be having for dessert than the protein course. But I guess saying “Happy Mashed Tater Day” or “How was your Plentiful Pie Day?” doesn’t have the right ring to it. People, understandably, pay more homage to the turkey than any big-as-a- boat crock of green beans or other side dishes.

It’s not surprising that Thanksgiving is synonymous with the bountiful, succulent bird at the center of our holiday table. After all, it’s been a Native American symbol of abundance and generosity since way before the Pilgrims invited themselves over for dinner. Besides, we’d be gathered together with our plates half empty if the king of poultry didn’t show up for the party.

“What are your plans for Thanksgiving this year?” folks ask. What they really want to know, especially if they’re women, is: Do I have to cook a turkey and all the trimmings or have I been invited to sit admiringly at the other end of the table while someone else stands behind the iconic platter of Butterball? “Meeting up with the girls out at Tom’s brother Jon’s in Idaho this year,” I report back—which is, apparently, interesting and unexpected enough to stop the conversation right then and there. What folks might not know (besides my preference for mashed taters and giblets) is that I already have a pretty amazing turkey feast under my belt this year.

“Wow…what a nice fat gobbler,” Tom remarked when our friend Keith’s son, Fletcher, first showed off the turkey he was raising in his back yard.

“Thanks,” Fletcher said. “We call him MC.”

“MC?” Tom pondered the name. Fletcher was too young and too down to earth to be an MC Hammer fan. He couldn’t help but wonder if the kid was getting so attached to the bird that he didn’t remember why he was making it so fat.

“It stands for Main Course,” Fletcher said as he threw out more feed.

MC grew to a whopping 35 pounds last month when, covered in bacon, oven basted and then grilled, he fulfilled his name at Keith’s annual Rangeley Beast Feast barbecue. “Best turkey I ever had!” I raved, forgoing the mashed taters and gravy in favor of another slice. “Good ol’ MC is setting the bar pretty high for Thanksgiving from now on.”

But I’ll bet Jon and his wife, Nancy, with their Big Green Egg outdoor cooker/smoker, are fixing to out-do MC this year. They’ll plop a turkey in the giant ceramic egg first thing in the morning and presto…out will come mouth-watering perfection. Heck, once they combine Helen’s chef training and Becky’s flair with open-flame cuisine with their Big Green Egg prowress—while the rest of us sprinkle on spices and wine-infused cooking tips—the Idaho turkey is bound to be a culinary creation rivaling all Beast Feasts far and wide.

I’m figuring they may even shatter Yankee magazine’s assertion from back in my just-married years that Great New England Cook William Blackburn was king of the Thanksgiving barbecue. Blackburn, whose specialty was whole beasts on the
barbecue, loved to cook outdoors because “there’s something primordial about
it” and the process involves a lot of “show” for his guests.

I still remember the article, picturing the flamboyant chef in his fire-retardant apron, ready to demonstrate to the ladies at Better Homes and Gardens the real origins of flame broiling. He was going to take them back—way back before long-handled forks, red and white tablecloths, and covering over the grill in September—by preparing his favorite main dish…Turseduckencornail. (For those of you familiar with my Christmas Turducken of last year’s “A Moving Feast” fame, this creation adds three more birds to the turkey-duck-chicken composite.)

“Gather together the following,” the Yankee article instructs, “a quail, a Cornish game hen, a chicken, a duck, a goose and a turkey. Make a large batch of your favorite stuffing. Or, if you have several favorites, make them all!” After that intro, I suspected I was in for a taste adventure a little bit more complicated than mixing up the Stove Top stuffing and waiting for the little pop-up turkey timer to surface. Reading further, I wondered if I should start heading for Tom’s hunting gear instead of the grocery store.

“To make a Turseduckencornail, you must debone each of the birds without cutting any of the skin.” The chef explains this process, advising that I start with the quail to gain knife skills experience for the bigger birds. He’s already way out of my realm, though. I have trouble separating drumsticks from thigh bones, primarily because the entire contents of my knife drawer can barely saw through an onion.

For years I’ve wondered if any single, brave cook successfully completed Chef Blackburn’s instructions, emerging from the kitchen with a quail inside of a Cornish hen inside of a chicken inside of a duck inside of a goose inside of a turkey. Was this sextuplet of a bird fitting to serve as the main course and, if so, did the host or hostess have any fingers left with which to serve and plate?

According to the article, you actually begin the whole stuffing hierarchy by placing a hard boiled egg inside the quail. After properly fastening the Turseduckencornail, you put it over the fire for “about 9 hours.” If you have any trouble turning the bird midway, don’t force it, advises Blackburn.  (Believe me, I wouldn’t. To me, a spatula is a precision instrument!)

To serve, you cut the Turseduckencornail lengthwise. “If done perfectly,” Blackburn notes,
“you’ll slice the hard boiled egg into halves.”  Then you slice it again crossway, giving each
guest a portion of all the meats. Serves 20.” (Yeah, the Flintstones and the Rubbles, with plenty of leftovers…)

Seriously, I would love to have the perseverance and precision necessary to make Turseduckencornail—not to mention one of those knives that simultaneously cuts paper, tin cans and old shoes. I imagine the resulting flavors are well worth the effort and the giblet gravy must be sinful. But the last time I experimented with anything bigger than a burger on the barbecue, I ended up with “Chernobyl Chicken.” I can only imagine my results with 40 pounds (and 20 hours worth of deboned poultry) perched atop the grill. “Honey, I don’t know how to tell you this but I burned the Turseduckencornail…”

So, with MC still tickling my taste buds and Chef Blackburn’s over abundance of  poultry tucked in my “not in this lifetime” memory banks, I’ll thankfully watch my brother and sister-in-law put the turkey inside the outdoor egg while I’m inside mashing the taters.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! (For last year’s message, see “Portraits of Thanksgiving.”)

A moving feast

As a woman who prides herself on upholding nontraditional traditions, nothing is more sacred than my holiday feast. No common turkey for me. Christmas goose? No thank you—still too middle of the road. Years ago, I dumped my old standby of beef loin in favor of a bolder, more exotic cut of roast beast(s). Come rain or snow or dark mountain-top delivery, I now must eat Turducken.

Tur(key) + duck + (chick)en = Turducken. It’s a de-boned chicken stuffed into a de-boned duck, which is then stuffed into a de-boned turkey. The turkey drumsticks, breast and outer skin remain, making it look like your iconic holiday main course. But inside it’s a savory mystery of light and dark meats that Grandma never carried to the table unless she came from down on the bayou.  I discovered Turducken on the Food Network, back when cooking/reality shows weren’t a dime a dozen and actually offered some instructional value. I remember the demo having all the boast and swagger of Emeril Live, the intrigue of Man vs. Wild, and the potential pitfalls of a DIY episode gone bad. I took one look at the succulent end-product the chef presented to the camera and knew I wanted to devour some Turducken. I took a longer look at the chef’s three-hour carving and stuffing procedure and knew I wanted it prepared in anyone’s kitchen but my own.

That’s when I found the Cajun Grocer, voted best Turducken source by The Wall Street Journal. Their website got my mouth watering and convinced me that shipping a 15-pound frozen turkey trifecta was a breeze. As long as I observed their holiday delivery schedule from Lafayette, Louisiana, I could savor their signature creation anywhere in the world. I got so fired up, I even went for their spicy seafood Jambalaya stuffing.

The first couple of Turducken Christmases boosted my confidence. Leery that first year that the thing would arrive on Dec. 21 and be rotten come Christmas morning, I since learned that its hermetically sealed, dry ice-packed shipping box kept it frozen till way after oven time if I didn’t unearth it immediately upon delivery. Thawing it took nearly an ice age! I also figured out that: 1) relying on the little pop-up thermometer for Turducken doneness is not a perfect science; 2) despite how it sounds, Jambalaya stuffing juices make for some awesome gravy; and 3) once I served the concentric circles of sliced meat with all their Cajun fixings, my family would come to expect and highly anticipate a repeat performance every year.

Naturally, I planned for Turducken to be the central attraction at my first Christmas dinner in Rangeley. I placed my order on Dec. 9, and went about the rest of my holiday business, calm in knowing I had already checked off my top-of-the-list item. “Been there, done that,” I said to myself, picturing the square styrofoam container showing up on my porch via UPS just in time for my thawing ritual. It wasn’t till mid-December, after plowing through the rest of my online ordering and a couple of snow dumps, that the reality of my new situation dawned on me. The Cajun Grocer’s holiday schedule showed plenty of time for a regular, good old ground shipment to arrive on the 23rd. But the website’s fine print didn’t say anything about shipping to a private road—across a causeway from a long, dirt town road—that eventually led to a post office and a general store. Ground shipments that couldn’t land in my PO box in Oquossoc (or behind my box in the post mistress’ crowded quarters) had to cover a whole lot more ground now that I no longer lived in the flatlands of New Hampshire. Each UPS or FedEx package destined for my side of the lake required tons of lead time, at least two phone calls, a tracking number that was useless beyond Waterville, a neighborhood vigil, and a backup plan in case the thing never showed up.

After consulting the Cajun Grocer website again and cursing myself for picking the Dec. 20 ship option two weeks earlier, I nervously dialed 1-888-CRAWFISH to get help from the Turducken tech support folks. “I really need this to arrive by the 23rd,” I explained, “and I live in a rural area. If I switch to FedEx second-day air, can delivery be guaranteed by then?”

“Certainly, ma’am,” the customer service woman told me in a sweet drawl. My phone number would be printed on the address label so the driver could call if he had any problems reaching my location. Even though I knew she was picturing southern “rural” delivery and not necessarily my snowy landscape, I paid the $17 shipping upgrade and felt relieved.

By the week before Christmas, I had told my story to the woman at the Rangeley  dispatch, central winter dumping ground for most wayward packages. Tom had even gone there to retrieve a couple boxes that, although they got my hopes up, were not my Turducken. He had also been summoned down to the town side of the causeway bridge to pick up another different package off the FedEx truck. With my feast in limbo as I waited for my phone call with drop-off instructions, I understood why the natives resorted to dried venison this time of year. According to the FedEx tracking site, I had poultry in motion on Dec. 20, as promised. But, after that, my special delivery, had become a Tur-TRUCK-en.

The first phone call came on Dec. 22. It was FedEx headquarters in Augusta informing me they would not be able to deliver until the following day. “That’s fine.” I sighed, “Just have the driver call me if for any reason he can’t make it all the way up my road.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am, the driver does not carry a phone,” I was told. No phone? Really? Along moose alley in winter carrying dozens of packages with sketchy addresses? “But my husband just got called by the driver yesterday to go meet him….” Well, turns out, that was the Waterville FedEx guy. My box was on the Augusta truck and the Augusta guy doesn’t use a phone.

The second FedEx phone call came on the afternoon before Christmas Eve. My package was on the truck, but the driver would, unfortunately, not make it to my location that day. Could he drop it off at…(insert an agonizing pause and any number of possible suggestions between here and Augusta)…..the Oquossoc Grocery? “Yes!” I yelled into the phone. My heart soared as I called Tom and Becky, enroute home from skiing at Saddleback, and left a message. “Pick up the Turducken on your way through,” I pleaded. “And if, for any reason, it doesn’t show up, please grab a ham!”

As far as Christmas miracles go, the timely arrival of my Turducken was a small thing in a year filled with blessings. It didn’t require guidance from a heavenly star, just a note to self to back plan better next year. The greatest gift was the family around my table for my first Christmas in Rangeley. We gathered from afar—from over the causeway and through the woods—to eat, drink homemade wine, and top off our feast with pie Tom dreamt about as he picked blueberries back in August. And, of course, we laughed as I told tales of the traveling Tur-TRUCK-en, the latest piece in our rich, but slightly off-center, folklore.