A Thanksgiving Full of Turkeys

Whenever I used to be on the verge of making a decision that Andy didn’t think was a good idea, to try to remind me of a past bad “I told you so” decision, he would say two words– “Bill Hicks”.  That was in reference to a time when I played a comedy album (on cassette) of that late profane comedian for my parents, who were visiting from out of town.  “I wouldn’t do that,” he warned.  “It’s pretty blue.” I insisted on playing it anyway, telling him I’d play side one only, that the stuff he was thinking about was on side two. “I think you’re wrong,” he warned again. He was right. It was more than blue, and my face was more than red to be listening to it in my parents’ presence.  But now I finally have two simple words that I can say to him to remind him of when I was right: “propane tank”.

See, we hosted 18 people for Thanksgiving a few days ago, the first time I think we’ve ever played host on that holiday, and Andy and I decided a few days ago to have a “turkey-off”, a little friendly informal competition to see who could cook the best-tasting bird.  He wanted to smoke a turkey indirectly on a gas grill; I wanted to bake one in the oven.  The oven would be more of a sure thing, I felt, since I’d done that before on Christmas awhile ago, and it was fine.  I planned to just follow the directions on the bag like I did before.  Keep it simple, I thought, since that was kind of the theme of our Thanksgiving this year– we were providing the meat and everyone else was bringing side dishes.  Besides, why would I want to try something new with 18 guests coming? Besides, with three family birthday celebrations all happening this month as well, keeping things simple was a necessity.

But…that was hard for me to do when the newspaper, every day, was showing new and tasty ways to prepare Thanksgiving food.  At every checkout line, Rachel Ray, Martha Stewart and Paula Deen were yelling at me from the magazine covers…and then Andy started buying his supplies, and they were showing up on the kitchen counter. A bag of wood chips. A new digital meat thermometer… and celery, onions, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.  “I’m doing what’s called the Simon and Garfunkel method,” he proudly proclaimed.  And all I was planning to do was follow directions from the bag of a Wal-Mart turkey? What’s that, the Hank Williams, Jr. method?

I started asking friends how they were planning to fix their turkey, and got a few more ideas.  When my friend Shannon mentioned how she used the Alton Brown method, and that even her husband, who is a chef, was impressed, I decided to look it up.  Alton is a Food Network star and I quickly found it at bonappetit.com.  It involved brining, or soaking the bird overnight in a salt and vegetable broth solution, then cooking it at a very high heat for 30 minutes to crisp up the skin and lock in the juices, and turning down the oven to 350 for the rest of the cook time.  Interesting. I mentioned the method to Andy. “I’m brining mine, too,” he said, and explained that’s why he’d been washing out our coolers. Well, that decided it for me.  If  he could “brine”, then I could, too.

He let me choose the cooler I wanted to use and I started buying my supplies.  We discussed our plans further.  “What are you going to do if the grill’s propane tank runs out while you’re cooking?” I asked him.  “Shouldn’t you have a spare ready just in case?” (As longtime Uncool Mom readers may remember, I’m usually the grillmeister at our house and indirect gas grilling is my cooking method of choice…) I told him that better yet, if he didn’t want to buy another tank, he could cook it a day ahead of time to make sure stores would be open if he needed to run out to get ours refilled (or traded in for another).  From past experience, I’ve had propane tanks run out “mid-steak” several times…but in the true “I’ll take risks” way of life that cause men’s insurance rates to be higher than women’s, he chose to go forward with only the propane tank on hand, and cook it a few hours before he planned to serve it.

Thanksgiving Day dawned later than usual for me– I’d been up til 3 a.m. the night before, setting tables, cleaning house, and preparing the brining solution (I’d spent much of Wednesday helping Allison celebrate her 17th birthday) and when I saw 8:20 a.m. on the alarm clock, I thought my bird had really been cooked, if you know what I mean. My turkey was supposed to already be in the oven– and I still needed to get dressed and walk the dogs, not to mention rinse the turkey, pat it dry, stuff the cavity, make a “foil snake” for the bottom of the roasting pan, and “cover every digit of the hands with butter and massage the skin”… I ran downstairs in my pajamas and simply let the dogs out in the backyard, not caring if the neighbors saw me.  A nice apple wood smoke smell filled the air as well as the music of John Hyatt and Bruce Springsteen– Andy had moved a speaker out on the patio so he could hum along and cook at the same time…and he was by the grill, cleaning up. “Everything’s going fine,” he said.  “It’s been cooking for about a half hour and the grill temperature’s perfect.”

Well, la dee freakin’ da.  I rolled up my long flannel pajama sleeves, hauled the round cooler out of the fridge and started pouring off the brining solution into the sink. Of course I spilled some (I swear that cooler has a crack somewhere), and had to wipe up the mess with old towels.  As I was patting down the bird with paper towels after rinsing it, Andy came into the kitchen about 8:45 looking panicked and announced that the propane had just run out.  “What do I do?” he asked. I could have said “I told you so” but all I could think of was that my bird wasn’t even in the oven yet and we might be feeding our guests popcorn and toast a la “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”… I figured there had to be some place open on Thanksgiving that sold propane.  “Don’t some gas stations sell it?” I asked.  He called Wal Mart to see if they were open and they were, but the closest location is not that close to our house.  He unhooked the tank from the grill, jumped in the car with it and headed out.  His bird remained on the grill, waiting…meanwhile, Emmie had woken up and needed attention.  She felt awful and had plopped down on a sofa in the living room, and wanted me to take her temperature and bring her some medicine.  I went into nurse mode while my bird waited, too…

Luckily Emmie had no fever (just a bad cold) and after giving her a couple extra-strength Tylenol and bringing her some orange juice, I told her to watch the parade on TV and stay out of the kitchen…Miraculously my bird went in the oven around 9:10 a.m.  If Alton Brown’s calculations were correct, it would still be done by the time guests started arriving at 12:45; but if the online reader comments were correct, it would take a lot longer…

At 9:15, as I was cleaning up the kitchen, the phone rang. It was Andy, calling from Wal Mart. “They can’t find the keys to open up the %$#@! outdoor propane cage!!” he said.  Now I really wanted to say I told you so, but now was not the time.  I told him to wait a few minutes longer to see if they could find them and then go to another Wal Mart if they couldn’t. But surely they would find them…don’t all the propane-loving ranchers and cowboys of the world shop at Wal Mart? I thought about his bird, still waiting on the grill…

My bird came through the 30-minute, 500-degree phase with flying colors– a gorge
ous golden-brown color to be exact.  I turned down the heat, put the “protective foil shield” on the breast meat and inserted my new meat thermometer into “the deepest part” of that breast meat (I’d bought an even fancier thermometer than Andy– one with a cord that reaches outside the oven and magnets a digital reader to the outside of the oven, so the door never has to be opened– SWEET!). By 9:45 Andy was still not home, and I couldn’t reach him by phone. What if he’d had to drive to another store? And what if they didn’t have propane? He walked in the door about 10 minutes later, new propane tank in hand. “They never did find the keys,” he said, so he indeed had to drive to another Wal Mart. “Do you think the turkey meat is bad now?” he asked.  I told him to keep going, that time-wise it probably hadn’t been long enough to reach the danger zone…

Amazingly, both our birds cooked at the same rate all morning, hitting the same internal temperatures at about the same time and at the right pace.  They were both done before the guests arrived and we got to show them off before carving.  The verdict from all was that they were both good, in different ways.  Mine was juicier, his was smokier, of course, but still pretty juicy.  All in all, it was a perfect Thanksgiving– well…except for the fact that one of my family heirloom stoneware platters got broken and Luke nipped one of our guests on the leg…but luckily I found a replacement for the platter on ebay later that night for only $15, and Luke did not break the skin…and, no one got sick later because that smoked turkey had sat on an “off” grill for an hour, just as Uncool Mom (or should I say “the Bridge Over Troubled Water”) had suspected…

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