I’ve eaten approximately 40 turkeys in my life. Well, parts of turkeys that is. I have never tried to eat a whole one by myself, but I have collected my fair share of turkey experiences and every year brings something new.
My mother’s turkeys were the holy grail of turkeys. She cooked turkeys that were juicy and succulent every Thanksgiving. I have a large family so mom had lots of practice and got really good at it. Every November, all 10 siblings, spouses, and sometimes aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors would gather together around the large dining room table, say the blessing and watch my father do the honors of cutting into the bird. We would eat and relax and eat some more. Modern-day American grazing. It was wonderful!
One year my brother brought in a smoked turkey he bought. The meat was pink, as smoked meats often are, but that turkey was a bad, bad bird. All of us got sick. Our holiday was spent worshipping the porcelain goddess. We were really thankful Dad built three bathrooms for all of us kids.
Then there was another year mom and dad decided that we would go to my aunt’s for Thanksgiving. The long anticipated turkey had been cooking all day. My mother would gently suggest that “perhaps it was time to check the bird.” But my aunt wouldn’t listen. When we finally sat down to dinner, and my uncle cut into the bird, all eyes were upon him. 24 eyeballs followed his every move as he hacked and sawed his way through the breast, bits of black and brown char flying all over the lacy tablecloth. No one wanted to eat that bird, but we were raised to be polite, so we had to.
With the first, terrible bite, I realized that if I was going to get that turkey to go down, I either had to soak it in my water glass or drown it in gravy. Pretty soon everyone was fighting over the gravy boat.
On the way home, all of us kids were deathly quiet. Dad broke the silence and said,
“In all my years, I never thought a turkey could taste like old shoe leather.” Everybody laughed and laughed. We never went to my aunt’s for Thanksgiving again.
One year our dogs snatched someone’s frozen turkey off of their porch and dragged it home through the snow by the handle. Because it was frozen they couldn’t bite it so there weren’t any bite marks or scratches on it. We’d never gotten a free turkey before and it was a whopper!
Then, during my more serious phase in life, I tried to pull a joke on my sister during the Thanksgiving rush and got kicked out of the airport for holding a large, bright pink sign that said “Save the Turkeys” on it. All I can say is, airports are picky about what signs you can and cannot hold during the holidays.
Years later, I moved to Arizona and had to cook my own turkeys. Mom was already in heaven so I couldn’t call her up and ask her advice. Yes, I could have called the Butterball Hotline, but the problem was, the weather was so darn nice that I went outside and forgot all about my turkey. It too, tasted like shoe leather.
The next year my friends and I decided that we were going to cook Thanksgiving dinner like real pioneers. We were all volunteers at Pioneer Living History Museum in north Phoenix and members of an Old West re-enactment group. We donned our pioneer duds and created our pioneer Thanksgiving menu. Each person was assigned a different ingredient and would cook on different stoves.
I was assigned sweet potatoes, an apple pie and biscuits. I had to make everything from scratch. It was kind of fun and everything came out fine, but, as fun as it was, I do not recommend wearing a full length dress, stockings, petticoats and a corset while cooking on a cast iron wood stove in Phoenix, Arizona in a cabin with no air conditioning.
When all the food was done, my friends and I gathered together. The turkey was placed on the table, and everyone lined up to fill their plates. But, something was wrong. A terrible smell emanated from the bird. It filled the entire room. People dropped their plates and ran outside, gagging.
Wyatt Earp didn’t waste any time. He grabbed the turkey off the table, threw it in a trash bag and ran out the front door. The young cowboy who cooked the bird, followed, screaming “Where you goin’ with my turkey?” We all thought it was the OK Corral all over again. As everyone watched, Wyatt tossed the turkey into a trash can and turned a cold stare on the cowboy. “You need to go bury that thing! It smells like it’s rotting! What type of wood did you use?” The cowboy, looking a little puzzled, answered, “Creosote.”
I don’t recommend using Creosote to cook anything.....ever.
Fast forward a few years, I finally learned how to cook a turkey properly. I like to brine my turkeys now, as it cooks faster and helps turkey-challenged people like myself cook juicy, moist birds. But that wasn’t enough. My family and I decided that we wanted to see what an all-natural, home raised turkey tasted like. We started looking into what it would cost to buy a pasture fed, organic turkey. Prices varied from $6-$8 per pound. For a 15-pound turkey, the total price, before tax would be $120. Too much. So we decided to raise and grow our own turkeys instead.
We bought seven little turkeys and planted corn, potatoes, pumpkins and squash. The turkeys grew fast and ate everything in sight. They loved our kitchen scraps and spent many happy hours digging around in the garden. Every time someone laughed, all the turkeys would puff all their feathers up, their heads would turn colors and they would all gobble. The kids had a fun time feeding them and watching them grow. One hen in particular, would follow us around the yard every morning and every evening as we did chores.
Before we knew it, October came, and it was time to butcher. Pioneer or not, there was no way in hades that I was going to pluck all those turkeys the old fashioned way after my adventure with chickens. So, we decided to take the turkeys to a processor in Wilcox. We rounded up the birds, put them in the truck and drove all the way there.
I was a little sad to say farewell to the turkeys. My kids were sad as well and they vowed not to eat them at Thanksgiving time. We left them with the processor and when we returned a few hours later they were neatly packaged and wrapped in white paper for the trip home. Three of the hens weighed 27 pounds and the three toms were 29-30 pounds.
Thanksgiving rolled around and of course, according to plan, we cooked up one of our birds. It was so large that my husband cooked half of it on the grill and I cooked the other half in the oven. Both of them came out really well. It was the best turkey we had ever tasted, and yes, the kids ate too!
Over the course of a year we probably spent more than $120 raising our turkeys, but we had a great experience that none of us will ever forget. My freezer is full of turkeys waiting their turn as the place of honor at Thanksgiving Day dinner. Looking back I can say that I have been blessed with a plethora of turkey experiences and that is half the fun of Thanksgiving. I hope that your Thanksgiving and turkey stories are happy, fun and blessed as well.
• Bridgette Crosby is a writer who lives in and loves the Queen Creek/San Tan Valley area. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.