SCENE: YOUR KITCHEN counter, this coming Thursday — yes; that’s correct: THIS THURSDAY, 5 a.m. A Fred Meyer flyer is open in front of you, next to a list soon to contain 23 items, give or take. You turn in semipanic to your countertop Personal Digital Assistant Obelisk™ and attempt to undig your own preparatory grave.
“Amanda: Get me the Butterball Turkey Talk Line, stat!”
Amanda: “I’m sorry, Dave; I can’t do that right now.”
You: “As I keep reminding you, I’m not Dave. And what is the problem?”
Amanda: “I’m having some trouble with network congestion right now (Amanda makes exaggerated hacking-cough sound; such a wit!). Try again later.”
You: “Amanda: Dial 1-800-BUTTERBALL.”
Amanda: “Sor-RY! Patching through.”
Commence 17 minutes of “hold” music.
Butterball Lady: “Good Morning! Thanks for calling the Turkey Talk Line! How may I help you?”
You: “I need to know how big of a frozen turkey I need for 13 people — possibly 17, if the deadbeat boyfriend brings along his four kids from prior sketchy relationships.”
BBL: “Well, let’s back up a tad. Your turkey needs to undergo a carefully controlled thawing process, in a properly refrigerated setting. You really should have started this process up to a week ago.”
You: “Wow. Judgmental much? I realize that, but nobody does that anymore. Our Labradoodle had ACL surgery in Tukwila last week and has to have sedatives every four hours; one of the aluminum wheels on my Ford Explorer — the wheel, not the tire — developed a leak; the deck umbrella lifted off and harpooned our neighbor’s $16,000 greenhouse; and I had to go to a teeth cleaning, where the preachy Judge Judy hygienist gave me a 45-minute dissertation on gumline bone density and gingivitis.”
BBL: “I’m sorry to hear that, Dave. Have you had a chance to check out our All Natural Turkey Breakfast Sausage Patties? They are minimally processed, gluten-free, and have 60 percent less fat than …”
You: “Amanda, cancel!”
SO IT GOES. As you read this, the eternal time clock tracking the hours until Those Whom One Should Not Disappoint arrive at your front door for Thanksgiving Day Dinner is counting down. Tick tock!
At the decided risk of upping the pressure, it’s beyond argument that Thanksgiving — even though it’s based on a questionable historical myth, and lives on primarily as a means to allow the nation’s turkey ranchers, spud wranglers, psychotherapists and cranberry boggers to keep their noses above economic tides — is one of the big three major American holidays, ranking in the Seattle area right between Recycling Month and Flaming Socialist City Council Member Appreciation Day.
You’re just going to have to deal. And if you’re not paying proper attention, lots of stuff can potentially go wrong.
There might be fire. Multigenerational dyspepsia. Botulism and various lesser food poisonings! Civil strife. Familial breaking points. Did we mention fire?
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way, and as usual, your humble correspondent is here to bail your butt out. His qualifications:
• Lived through countless Turkey Day gatherings of family and friends, hosted quite a few. Still on “good” speaking terms with approximately 44% of extended family and three or four close acquaintances.
• Can cook a turkey from fresh, frozen, whole or spatchcocked, via heat sources including flame, electrical coils, briquettes, hot rocks, firewood, propane, military- or civilian-grade flame thrower, hot oil or sweet seeping radiator steam from 1970s vintage American automobiles.
• Once served a six-month probationary period in The Seattle Times food section (you could look this up) and sat next to the test kitchen (RIP), within earshot of cheerful staff members who, FOR FREE, patiently helped callers unravel the world’s turkey-basting mysteries.
(Possibly Valuable Trivia-Night Side Note: The actual Turkey Talk-Line at Butterball, whose CEO Kerry Doughty, incidentally, was named the highly coveted 2018 Poultry Person of the Year by a major protein-industry journal, was launched in 1981 with six apron-clad female home economists. Its much-larger staff now includes Spanish-speaking operators and “male talk-line experts.” One can only imagine how much larger this service will grow once its home area, North Carolina, gets the internet.)
SO I AM not an expert but could play one on the phone, so here’s the bottom line: Because most of us have been reverse-engineered to possess the attention span of a flash bulb, we have boiled your keys to hosting a successful holiday feast into five easily digested chunks. Think of this as Thanksgiving for the rest of us — the overworked person’s Quick Start Guide to a holiday gathering for those of you too busy to read the full manual — or, worse, who are starting to fear you might have to call your mother for help.
Whether you live in a $222 million compound at Hunt’s Point or a $1.2 million one-bedroom in what used to be Ballard, your home needs to exude some sort of Thanksgivingy “savory warmth.” This can be achieved via cheap pumpkin-spice-scented candles; a nostalgia-inducing, plastic-stamped Cornucopia table centerpiece display; and in general, lots of orange, brown and tan stuff.
The combined noxious odors from all of these items will contribute to an authentic North American Thanksgiving Aroma once you put the severed neck of an 8-quart dead bird in a 1-quart saucepan to boil away on your stovetop for 14 hours for no apparent reason (see “Giblets” section, below).
Pick up some magazines that exude homeyness — Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, Sunset and Marie Claire are popular, along with regional favorites High Times (Carnation/Duvall gatherings), Guns & Ammo (Wenatchee), and Whisky Advocate (Olympia). Spread these across the coffee table to give the appearance that your home is a castle for your engaged, keen mind, not just the place where you pick up Uber Eats cartons.
A nice added touch: Dial up some tunes on the streaming box. Good: Donovan. Passable: Ray Charles. Bad: Korn and/or Darkthrone.
Sorry, but this is required. Look, everyone knows that, in a real pinch, it’s easy enough to order up a prepared bird and have it delivered piping hot to your front door. But what fun — and we include in this the possible summoning of first responders — would that be?
Had you been paying attention last week and prepared your bird, you’d be looking at a simple, calm, several-hour baking task. But noooo. You didn’t, so your home-prep options now are limited. You can:
• Drive to QFC, and engage in a death-match wrestle-off with an 84-year-old woman for the last fresh turkey in the meat department. If you vanquish your opponent, the trophy bird still could be roasted according to Butterball-approved specifications, or better yet, deep-fried.
The latter is the fastest method. It creates a deliciously brown, crusted turkey with fat literally oozing out of its former pores, in only about an hour and change for a medium-sized fowl. And the chances your boiling vat of turkey oil will tip over, explode into open conflagration and burn your entire neighborhood clean to the ground are only about 70-30. Feeling lucky, punk?
• Procure a frozen bird — possibly for free or next to it at your local grocer, which really does not want to see the damn thing after today under any circumstances, and cook it from bowling-ball frozen (commence gasping in horror). Seriously: Take it from the president non-elect of Procrasti-Nation: This actually works, and is completely safe, following directions like these, which unfairly refer to the process as the roasting of a “Desperation Turkey.” For many of us sages, it was the plan all along.
Just like members of Congress, dead birds can multitask — in this case, thawing and baking all at the same time. The only trick is a single MacGyvering of the famed “giblet packet” from the depths of the turkey corpse cavity midway through the baking process (pro tip: welding gloves and survival knife). This roasting method is tried, true and effective, producing a moist bird and actually reducing the risk of bacterial unpleasantness. The catch: YOU HAVE TO GET IT IN THE OVEN RIGHT NOW, because it’s going to take 50% longer to cook than a bird properly defrosted in a meticulous process that should have commenced in October.
Due to its simplicity, abject lack of prep and good results, this has become my preferred method, the biggest advantage being that you avoid having a bloated, shrink-wrapped torso of fowl elbowing everything else out of the fridge, glowering at you like a winged Tony Soprano for an entire week leading up to T-Day Minus Zero. When “cooking from the frozen state” (note: not necessarily a reference to North Dakota), you go from freezer to oven in about 10 minutes.
3. Trimmings and Desserts.
Some essentials here, beginning with mashed potatoes (fairly straightforward), and don’t forget that slurry of holiday magic, the vegetable-hinting green bean casserole, assembled with copious globs of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup; a couple cans of flaccid beans; and a delightful crunchy topping of French’s French-Fried Onions, which — let’s face it — is basically a container of crushed Funyuns. So it has that going for it, and one serving supplies a two-year ration of salt. Just shut up and eat it: It has made America what it is today.
Also critical: cranberry sauce. Some choices here:
• Epicurean-approved cranberry sauce method: Wait for the perfect autumn day, with breezes from 6-12 mph from the southwest; don breathable hip waders; enter a certified cranberry bog; wade to approximate knee level; and handpick 177 fresh berries. Keeping them at a constant temperature of 49.7 degrees Fahrenheit, carefully transport them home from Grays Harbor County. Store in the refrigerator for at least 11 days. One week before Thanksgiving, remove berries from refrigerator; place in a 3.25-quart, enamel-coated Le Creuset Signature Saucepan; and heat at 164 degrees for …
• Judd-approved cranberry sauce method: Obtain two cans of Ocean Spray Jellied Cranberry Sauce from Safeway. Open cans. Dump on plate. Serve, and relish the smiling faces of dinner guests delighted by the quivering gelatinous, corn-syrup-infused goodness — and faithfully maintained tin-can shapes, right down to the seams — of this unique product. Whenever someone bumps the table, it’s like having a maroon-clad chubby guy doing some tabletop yoga right there next to the yams.
Stuffing: Not difficult if made separately. Too much trouble to stuff in the bird, and frankly, undignified for the poor creature. Farm this out to your sister, if you have one; someone else, if you don’t; or your new best friend, Stove Top, if all else fails (you could do worse, and anyone who’s ever consumed a Swanson’s traditional turkey frozen dinner already has). Note: Kale has no place in stuffing, nor do oysters. Get real.
Rolls: Yes, please. Just buy some. Another traditional Thanksgiving Vehicle for Butter.
Butter: See above.
Wine: Maybe. See “Political Discourse,” below.
Gravy: Who are you kidding? Ask your mom. Or better yet: Apron her up, hand her a bag o’ flour and a wire whisk, and get the hell out of the way after the bird comes out of the oven.
Giblets: These ghastly internal organs are somehow related to gravy. Cook them on the stovetop all day, on low, so they’re not scalding hot when you chuck them later on.
Dessert: Duh. Pumpkin pie. What you want to do for optimal results is go with homemade, preferably slicing up and cooking the fresh pumpkin flesh yourself, and obviously making your own crust. What you will do is buy one for 6 bucks at Costco, adding several years to your life and leaving you money left over for canned whipped cream, the gourmet touch.
4. Seating Assignments/Acceptable Discourse /Intangibles
At some point, during or after dinner, some member of your family or group will — and you can take this to the bank — want to engage in a particularly painful torture, long ago banned by both the Geneva Conventions and the National Accordion Association Conventions, called, “Let’s Go Around the Table and Hear What Everyone is Thankful For!”
Aside from the ending-a-sentence-with-a-preposition atrocity, this modern tradition is like the shingles of familial discourse, painful to all concerned. Best strategy: Play along, be quick, get in, get out. Cut to, “Family and friends!” or, “My successful polyp-removal surgery!” or some such triteness. Even better strategy: Identify the most likely candidate to bring up this horrific suggestion beforehand, then forget to invite them.
But even if this can be avoided, other intergroup, worlds-colliding chatter is highly likely at some point, reminding you that there are very valid reasons you don’t see most of these people at any other time during the year.
There’s no getting around this: Political bickering is the elephant in the room — assuming the last surviving elephant, real or metaphorical, has not already been big-game-hunted, crated up, flown home and mounted in the corner of an Aspen estate by one of the two oldest sons of the President of These United States. It has always been bad — possibly bail-bondsman bad — to delve into political discussions at normal holiday gatherings. It’s even worse here in the Someone Will Take Offense at Everything Era.
Sample likely dinner-table conversation:
Grandma Thelma, clearing throat: “Has anyone heard from the relatives back in Maryland?”
Grandpa Fred: “No. Why do you hate the president?”
You can see where this is going. Twofold advice: At the first whiff of political theater, crank up the soothing Donovan audio stream, preferably playing “Catch the Wind” on repeat cycle.
Worse comes to worst, start talking about the Seattle Mariners, at which point even those with nowhere to go will want to get there as soon as possible.
5. Clearing the Decks
Right around this time, a handy break should occur on the flat screen, in the Detroit Lions vs. New Jersey Generals Holiday Classic, and, if you’re lucky, at least one person will want to rise, clutch belt, moan and roll on out the door toward home. If you’re really lucky, this will prove contagious.
Seize, seize, seize this opportunity. Do not go gently into that, “Hey, Elmer: Can I help you out to the car with that?” night!
Before you know it, you will have communed with family and friends, carried on tradition, possibly avoided a small-scale public-health crisis and lived to fight on — this time armed with a large bird carcass that really oughta be made into a hearty soup or something.
It is significantly more than the least you could have done for the cause of civility. And it’s over. For that, you can be … well, you know. Save the sentiment for next year. You’re going to need it.