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Holiday Roast

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Illustration by Terri Groat-Ellner

Sisyphus has nothing on my mother, who each and every holiday season chooses to reinvent the concept of roasting a turkey

By Christina Waters

MAYBE IT'S some sort of seasonal amnesia, but every year my mother has to relearn how to roast a turkey. Thanksgiving rolls around, followed inevitably by Christmas, and my mother once again starts searching her memory banks for the formula.

"Is it 20 minutes per pound," she muses, as if she had never cooked umpteen-dozen turkeys before in her life, "or is it a 350-degree oven for four hours depending on whether the bird is stuffed or unstuffed?"

Perhaps it's because turkeys are not cooked at any other time of the year. Or more likely because my mother was--and is--sort of a West Coast anti-Martha Stewart. Whatever the case, my sister and I are enlisted each year to research the state of the art on turkey cookery, as if it involves some sort of Julia Child voodoo rather than what it all-too-humbly is: the ritual roasting of a big bird.

Thanksgiving at my parents' house has always been a warm-up for Christmas (the Christmas-dinner menu is a verbatim repeat of the Thanksgiving menu), and so my mother has always figured, with characteristic pragmatism, that if she ruins the bird for the first meal, she can salvage her reputation with the sequel. In more recent years, my mother has cut her losses and presented a lavishly glazed, precooked ham as her Christmas offering.

How hard can this holiday ritual really be? I often wonder, thumbing through Fanny Farmer, Betty Crocker and even the jovial James Beard for their thinking on the matter. The answer: It's hard enough to require turkey hotlines all over the country that are ready to provide emergency guidance and reassurance.

One year, my mother actually read the instructions that came with the 18-pound Butterball she was about to sacrifice on the General Electric altar. Sadly, she chose to exclude the "do-not-cover-until-the-final-half-hour" step, confident that her sheer years of roasting experience entitled her to ignore the Butterball research team and its collective expertise.

In the end, the bird always got stuffed--apples, raisins, white bread, sage, eggs, celery and onions--and, with much melodrama, lifted, hoisted, shoved and sequestered in the oven by noon at the very latest on the day of feasting.

Hours rolled by, touchdowns were scored and guests arrived--the kitchen started smelling wonderful. But was it ready? How could we tell? The heavy bird--a mass of sputtering hot juices, incredibly heavy roasting pan and a tent of aluminum foil that, when opened for a peek, could never, ever be repositioned in its former, airtight glory--had to be checked often during that last critical hour.

By that time my mother and I had shared a flute of Champagne, sort of a "thank-you" gift to ourselves for having made it that far into the orchestration of potatoes, peas, cornbread, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pies, little hot crab appetizers and the ever-popular relish tray packed with the '50s-version of antipasti--carrot and celery sticks, canned black olives, scallions, radishes and sweet gherkins.

Heady with bubbly and imminent triumph, we let down our guard.

Here's where things took a nose dive. Guests would start hanging around the kitchen wondering when dinner was going to be ready. My father would begin to erupt with a rash of impatience. My sister would start whining about going over to her boyfriend's house. The pressure would mount.

And yes, as you've already guessed, somehow the turkey failed to cooperate with the glory my mother and I had envisioned. In all the years I lived at home, the Thanksgiving turkey--followed by its Yuletide doppelgänger--was either undercooked or overcooked, defiantly absent of browning or burnt as crisply as Joan of Arc during her final moments on Earth.

So predictable was this annual fiasco that my mother, having long since relinquished any shame about the matter, often allowed herself to be photographed holding the immolated avian remains on an heirloom silver platter.

I keep one of these photos of my mother with her latest victim on the bookshelf above my desk. A cautionary culinary postcard from my girlhood.

Next week: Mom redeems herself when she enters the realm of holiday baking.

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From the December 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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