Last year, like every other year, my mom called and asked, "What do you want to do about Thanksgiving?" It's a rhetorical question, a test that I've become used to passing. My mom would say she's respecting my freedom, offering me an out. But I know she's really confirming that we're on for our only family tradition—the preparation of what's called the Thompson turkey.
I did not like the event as a child. My mom loved to cook, but she was very tense in the kitchen. On most evenings, I avoided fights over proper measurements and mashed potato responsibilities by being relegated to dishwashing duty, during which I pretended I was a jailed princess awaiting my prince's rescue.
But on Thanksgiving I knew there was no escaping the line of fire. The recipe was laborious, and I was cheap labor.
On Thanksgiving morning, I instantly felt guilty. I'd rise late, shuffle into the kitchen, and see my mom hours into preparation. Sleeves rolled up and her arms elbow deep in bowls, she'd mix chopped apples, oranges, pineapple, water chestnuts, onions, celery, and preserved ginger. To that she'd add grated lemon; mustard; seeds of caraway, celery, sesame, and poppy; oregano; bay leaf; black pepper; green pepper; mace; parsley; garlic; turmeric; marjoram; summer savory; poultry seasoning; Tabasco; and clove heads. This was the beginning of our stuffing.
My jobs, which I did begrudgingly, varied from rubbing the bird inside and out with salt and pepper (yuck), mashing potatoes, or kneading breadcrumbs, butter, and ground veal and pork into the stuffing.
My mother read the recipe aloud to anyone who would hear it. It's written in prose and offers helpful tips along the way like, "Have a drink, for God's sake," which I would have obliged if I were old enough since I knew there was still the matter of basting.
Basting, done every 15 minutes all day long with an apple cider and water concoction that would later give our gravy its legendary tang, caused great resentment. I just didn't want to do it. One year I painted my nails and pleaded amnesty to not ruin them. Another year it was my aching back.
By dinner we always were mentally exhausted, but never too tired to appreciate our creation. We fought over the leftovers and ultimately settled on making two birds in my mom's double oven.
Over the years we tried a number of things to make the cooking easier. We took turns basting, watched old movies, and opened bottles of wine by 10 a.m. Somewhere along the way we began to have fun.
The first Thanksgiving I hosted was with a boyfriend. We agreed on an intimate evening with our mothers at his house. But by the time dinner rolled around, the table setting included room for eight of his friends.
My mom arrived early and got to work while my boyfriend, who promised to help, was nowhere to be found. When his mother surfaced, it was only to refill her vodka cocktail and complain about the infection from her fresh face-lift. It was just me, mom, and our turkey against the world.
My relationship ended with the pumpkin pie course. I threw the turkey carcass into a clean garbage bag, slung it over my shoulder, and felt gleefully Grinchlike as I chucked the remains of our edible treasure into the car. He didn't deserve the turkey.
After that, mom and I went back to cooking at her house. But things were different. We civilly alternated basting, took turns on the Lazy-Boy, and enjoyed the day. The focus had turned from the results to the process.
One year I had a new home and a new boyfriend. Mom and I cooked, and my boyfriend's family, whom I had yet to meet, arrived for dinner. I’d also received a call from my dad, who hadn't seen my mother in years. He and his wife's plans had changed, and they, too, were available. My boyfriend set the table for ten, tended to the fire and our guests. Mom and I orchestrated the turkey.
The evening was warm, stress-free, and perfect. During a pause between first and second helpings, my mom told the tale of our turkey. I watched her, feeling proud and accomplished, with my heart more full than my stomach.
I’ve tried to initiate my own daughter into the rite of the Thompson turkey, but so far she’s reincarnating my initial resistance. I’ll try again this year. My mom now allows me to take full basting responsibilities. And when she calls to ask, “What do you want to do about Thanksgiving?” I’ll know my favorite family tradition continues.
Erika Lenkert is the creator and editor-in-chief of GFF Magazine.
The Thompson Turkey
1 turkey, 18 - 22 pounds, with giblets
5 1/2 c. water
Salt, freshly ground pepper, vegetable oil
1 large bay leaf
1 clove garlic, minced
1 t. each: paprika
1 t. salt
1/2 t. ground coriander
1 Granny Smith apple, cored, unpeeled, diced
1 medium orange, diced
1 can (20 oz.) crushed pineapple, undrained
Rind of 1 lemon, grated or minced
3 T. chopped preserved ginger
2 cans (8 oz. each) water chestnuts, drained and sliced
6 ribs celery, minced
5 cloves garlic, minced
4 large onions, minced
4 whole cloves, crushed
1 red or green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 large bay leaf, crushed
1/4 c. minced fresh parsley
1 T. celery seed
1 T. poultry seasoning (or 2 T. each chopped fresh sage and fresh thyme)
2 1/2 t. dried oregano or 3 T. fresh oregano, chopped
2 t. each: hot dry mustard (Coleman's)
2 t. caraway seeds
2 t. poppy seeds
1 1/2 t. sesame seeds
1 t. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t. mace
1/2 t. turmeric
1/2 t. dried marjoram (or 2 t. fresh)
1/2 t. dried summer savory (or 2 t. fresh)
2 dashes hot red pepper sauce
1 1/2 lb. fine dry bread crumbs (about 4 3/4 c.)
3/4 lb. ground veal
1/4 lb. ground pork
1 stick (1/2 c.) butter, softened
8 egg yolks
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 T. each: hot dry mustard,
1 T. juice from an onion
1 T. lemon juice, or more as needed
1 t. salt
1/4 t. ground red pepper
1/3 to 1/2 c. flour
4 c. hard cider
Preheat oven to 500 F. or as high as it will go for at least 1 hour.
Trim fat from inside the turkey and mince finely.
Place in saucepan with 1/2 cup of the water, and bring to a boil.
Cook until water has evaporated, about 5 minutes; set aside.
Rub turkey inside and out with salt and pepper.
Rub turkey thoroughly with vegetable oil.
Reserving liver, chop gizzard, neck, and heart finely, and simmer for about 1 hour in a small saucepan with remaining 5 cups of water, bay leaf, garlic, paprika, salt and coriander.
For stuffing, combine apple, orange, pineapple, lemon rind, ginger and water chestnuts in medium bowl; set aside.
Mix celery, garlic, onions, cloves, bell pepper, bay leaf, parsley, celery seed, poultry seasoning, oregano, dry mustard, caraway seeds, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, black pepper, mace, turmeric, marjoram, summer savory, hot red pepper sauce and MSG in another bowl; set aside.
In a third large bowl, mix bread crumbs, veal, pork, butter and reserved turkey fat; mix well.
Combine contents of all three bowls, mixing well.
Loosely stuff the turkey, including the neck cavity, and truss, tying legs together.
Put any remaining stuffing in a greased casserole and bake later at 325 F. for about one hour.
Make the paste: Combine all ingredients, adding enough flour to form a thick paste.
Arrange turkey breast side down on a rack wrapped in foil sitting in a shallow roasting pan, and brush foil with oil.
Roast turkey for 15 minutes, or until browned.
Turn breast side up and roast for 15 minutes more.
Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees F.
With a pastry brush, coat the turkey completely with the paste.
Add reserved turkey liver to simmering giblet gravy and cook until no longer pink; then remove all giblets.
Add cider and water to simmering giblet gravy, and keep warm on top of stove. This is your basting liquid.
Roast turkey, basting frequently, for 4 1/2 - 5 hours, or until an instant meat thermometer reads 180 to 185 in the thigh; 170 in the breast and 160 in the stuffing.
Let rest 15 - 20 minutes, before peeling away blackened crust.