After people learn I've gone to culinary school, and now edit cookbooks and write about food, they act a little intimidated about having me over for dinner. Do you want to know how I alleviate their fears? I tell them of the Thanksgiving of 2000.
It was our first "Married Holiday" and I was deep in my amateur food fever. A recent edition of Cook's Illustrated told me, in its usual exhaustive but highly informative way, which was the best-tasting frozen turkey for my hard-earned editor's money. My husband duly went to Star Market and bought a seven-pound turkey based on my carefully researched brand specifications. Because our families live in Minneapolis, the D.C.-area, and my husband all his school holidays as bonus thesis-time, our Thanksgivings were always pretty small. However, we liked to provide a haven for any grad students in the math department who were knocking about with no other place to go. At the most, though, we never had more than two or three extra mouths, so we got used to buying the smaller birds. Seven pounds, maybe eight, was our limit. After sufficient thaw-time in the fridge, I put the beast in the sink and slit the plastic shroud. I don't know how long it took me to notice that there was something wrong. I think it was when I tried to start washing out the cavity and couldn't find it. I also couldn't find the legs and wings. I called my mother in a panic:
Me: "Where are the legs and wings? I can't find the legs and wings!"
Mom: "Who is this?"
Me: "It's me! I can't find the legs and wings on my turkey!"
Mom: "I don't understand what you're talking about."
Me: "Mom, pay attention -- I've got my turkey but it doesn't have any legs or wings!"
Mom: "Did you thaw it properly? Maybe they're folded against the sides. Look inside the thing -- does it have the giblets?"
Me: "Okay, hang on...IT DOESN'T HAVE AN INSIDE!"
Mom: "That's just odd -- are you looking at it right end up?"
Me: "I don't know -- the thing doesn't have a head any more, how do I know which end is up?"
Mom: "Do you see the neck flap?"
Mom: "Well, the other end would be the cavity."
Me: "See, you're not listening to me -- there is NO CAVITY!"
Mom: "What kind of turkey is this?"
Me: "I don't know, a seven-pound something Cook's Illustrated recommended -- what is going on with it?!"
Mom: "I've never heard of a turkey where you couldn't see the legs and wings attached to it." Then, as I double-checked the weight, I noticed all the writing on the wrapper: "Seven pound [BRAND NAME] turkey breast."
Mom: "What, 'oh'?"
Me: "It's a breast."
Mom: "I don't understand -- what's a breast?"
Me: "My turkey -- it's a breast."
Mom: "You mean, it's not a turkey at all?"
Me: "No, it's a turkey, it just doesn't have legs, wings or an inside."
Mom: "So, it's a breast."
Mom: "So, no dark meat?"
Mom: "Okay, well, enjoy that!"
Me: "But I don't know HOW to cook a BREAST! I know HOW to cook an entire turkey, I have all the INSTRUCTIONS for an entire turkey, but I don't know how to cook JUST A BREAST!"
Mom: "It can't be that much of a difference."
Me: "Mom, it's a HUGE difference of, like, many pounds of weight!"
Mom: "I have to get back to our actual turkey. Are you going to be okay?"
Me: "Yeah, I guess so."
Mom: "Okay, happy Thanksgiving -- we'll call you later."
To be fair to my husband -- who was responsible for bringing home the legless, wingless, cavityless thing of turkey meat home to us -- it was a MASSIVE breast. I mean, we were looking for an entire bird to weigh seven pounds and he brought home just one part of that bird that weighed seven pounds. I opened my Jacques and Julia and found a nice recipe for turkey breast provencale. However, not having any herbes de Provence on hand at that time in my life, I compensated and sent my husband back to the store for olives and to Cambridge Naturals for lavender. To those, I added garlic and thyme and ground everything together with a bit of olive oil until it reached paste stage. Then I loosened the skin around the breast and smeared the Provencal Paste all around. Considering everything, the seven pound breast came out really great and, being white meat, it was a very healthy and extremely aromatic alternative. Even so, I do love a good drumstick at Thanksgiving. The other mistake I made that year was thinking I could make mashed potatoes from red-skinned potatoes. Never again. What I got was a gluey, glutinous mass of grossosity. I even spooned the potatoes into our Apilco pan and tried to bake them dry, but it didn't really get me anywhere.
When people hear about the Thanksgiving of 2000 along with the story that I once tried to make toast in a microwave they're not so afraid to have me over for dinner any more.