Turkey Disasters

By , Staff Writer
November 2012

In the mid ‘80s, when John Duncan was in seventh grade, he had no business driving. But the day before Thanksgiving, he took his family’s truck for a ride in the woods behind his East Texas house.

“He immediately got it stuck,” says his mom Mary Duncan. “So he ran home and got all the boys [his three older brothers] to come help.”

So the boys did what boys would do and went to rescue their brother and the truck, leaving their new – large – puppy in the kitchen unsupervised. With the Thanksgiving turkey.

The dog had a great Thanksgiving.

About 40 years ago, Helen Spector had a rocky start trying to roast turkey for her new in-laws. Since then, she’s hosted many successful Thanksgivings. (Photo: www.hartphoto.com)

It seems almost everyone has a Thanksgiving-turkey disaster story. After all, that turkey is one of the year’s most anticipated mains. And with much pressure, mishaps are bound to happen, resulting in stories that stick. Read on to hear a few.

Too clean
When Nathalie and Terry Ross worked at GE Appliance Park in Louisville, Ky., they inevitably heard about calls to the company’s Answer Center. Nathalie says the most memorable Thanksgiving call was from a woman who put her turkey in the oven and set it to “clean,” thinking the high temperature would cook the bird faster. When her oven automatically locked and began generating very high heat, the turkey caught fire.

“She called us in a panic wanting to know how to get the turkey out,” Nathalie says. “I always remember this when I touch the knobs on my oven and accidentally hit ‘clean’!”

The iguana ate it
Avid gardener and cook Tina Pyne sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with family in New Iberia, La., along with her younger brother and his then 9-year-old son Nickolas. Somehow Nickolas thought it would be a good idea to put Henry, his pet iguana, on his aunt’s head.

When Tina jumped, so did Henry – right down the length of the Thanksgiving table. Over the turkey, through the rice dressing, in the cranberry sauce, landing in the mashed potatoes. “Every person there was covered in flying food,” Tina says. “We went out for Chinese.”

Saving the day
When Melvin Dow was a student at Harvard Law, a fellow student, newly married, invited him and a small group for early Thanksgiving lunch. It was to be his friend’s wife’s first time to host Thanksgiving. Early on, she realized the turkey wasn’t quick to cook, so she offered to make breakfast for her guests. After breakfast, everyone sat visiting and drinking for a few more hours, until the wife again offered a meal – this time lunch – in place of the still-cooking turkey. Several hours later, still the turkey wasn’t ready, so the wife ordered pizza.

Late into the night, she finally presented the turkey, only to cut into it and find it raw. The wife locked herself in her bedroom crying. Melvin and a friend (having taken note of a tip in The New York Times earlier that day) sewed the turkey skin together (to keep the meat moist) and set it back in the oven. Around midnight, everyone sat down to – cooked! – turkey.

Who’s on first?
Donna Pilgrim, an eighth-grade English teacher at St. Francis Episcopal Day School, negotiated with her mother and grandmother about who should make what for Christmas. Donna was hosting and had young children. Her mom and grandmother offered to bring the bulk so that Donna wouldn’t have too much to do.

A great-looking turkey is totally doable with the right recipe. (Photo: www.lawellphoto.com)

“I understood Mom was bringing the turkey,” Donna says. “But when they arrived, my mom, sister and grandmother brought in tons of covered dishes and desserts.” Eventually everyone looked around and said, “Who cooked the turkey?” That’s when Donna’s grandmother shook her head and said, “There goes Christmas spirit.” They had a vegetarian holiday, and still today nobody admits to having been in charge of the turkey.

The oven did it
Helen Spector (who almost had us use an alias for this story) has been married to her husband Andy for over 40 years, hosting numerous successful Thanksgivings. But as newlyweds living in upstate New York, Thanksgiving wasn’t exactly perfect.

“I’m not sure why, but I wanted to cook for my fabulous, extraordinary-cook mother-in-law,” Helen says. “I put the turkey in that morning and kept basting it and looking at it, but it didn’t seem to be cooking. I kept asking Andy what was wrong with it.” Once everything else was ready, Andy tried to carve the turkey, but it was still frozen. So Helen was left to announce, embarrassed, that the turkey wouldn’t be ready this Thanksgiving – maybe next. In a validating moment, she later realized the oven’s thermostat was broken. But the damage stuck: “It took a number of years before I’d do Thanksgiving again.”

When Cherri Carbonara works as a public relations exec, you’d think nothing could baffle her. But the first time she cooked a Thanksgiving turkey for a group of 12, she was stumped. Having awakened early in the morning to put the turkey in the oven, she accidentally roasted the bird upside down – with the bag of parts still inside.

“Everyone in the family was there for the big reveal,” Cherri says. “But when I uncovered the roaster, the first thing I heard was, ‘Is that a turkey?’” All’s well that ends well, though: Cherri says the juices flowed down into the turkey breast, and it tasted great. “A chef I met recently told me that many chefs now cook the bird upside down for this reason! I would recommend trying it.” But without the bagged innards inside.

Distracted defrosting
At some point, everyone’s run a warm faucet over a frozen bird to speed defrosting. But when Heather Kearney did it, life got in the way. “I actually put the turkey in the sink and turned on the faucet because it wasn’t thawing quickly enough,” she says. “Then I was distracted by the phone and raced out of the house to pick up a pie and totally forgot the sink.”

By the time Heather came home, the house was flooded. It took the whole family to clean up. Her father-in-law came over with fans to dry rugs, her mother bought a wet vac, and her son and his friend dried hardwoods with towels. “It’s hilarious now but not at the time!”

If you’re making the turkey this year, avert disaster and think about trying the following recipe. We can’t promise perfection, but you’ll be off to a good start.

Herb-Butter Turkey
The author combined her mother and grandmother’s turkey recipe with
Bon Appetit’s November 2005 “Tom Colicchio’s Herb-Butter Turkey” to create this recipe. It yields stellar results every year.

¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, divided
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme, plus 15 fresh thyme sprigs
2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon, plus 5 fresh tarragon sprigs
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary, plus 5 fresh rosemary sprigs
2 teaspoons minced fresh sage, plus 5 fresh sage sprigs
1 Tablespoon salt
1¾ teaspoons pepper
1 16-pound turkey (fresh or thawed)
1 large lemon, pricked several times with the tongs of a fork
2 cups low-salt chicken broth, divided

Special equipment: kitchen string, double layer of cheesecloth big enough to cover the turkey, turkey baster, instant-read meat thermometer

With the back of a fork, mix ½ cup (1 stick) of butter and all minced herbs, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Let stand at room temperature.

Set rack at lowest position in oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Take the giblets and neck out of the turkey and rinse the bird inside and out. Remove any excess fat and pat the turkey dry. Starting at the neck end, slide your hand between the skin and breast meat to loosen skin. Rub 4 tablespoons herb butter over breast meat and under skin. Place the turkey in a large roasting pan. Place 4 tablespoons plain butter, all fresh herb sprigs and lemon in main cavity. Tuck wing tips under and tie legs together loosely with kitchen string. In the microwave, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons herb butter. Coat the cheesecloth with the melted butter, and drape the buttery cheesecloth over the entire bird.

Place the turkey in the oven and roast 45 minutes. Pour 1 cup of broth over. Roast another 45 minutes. Baste with pan juices, then pour 1 cup of broth over. Baste every 45 minutes for about 4 hours, or until the instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh (not touching the bone) registers 170 degrees. (If the turkey is getting too brown but the internal temperature is too low, loosely tent the bird with foil.)

Remove the turkey from the oven, remove and discard the cheesecloth and carefully transfer the turkey  to a platter or cutting board (inserting sturdy two-pronged meat forks in either end of the bird helps). Let the turkey rest for about 30 minutes. Bring the turkey to the table or buffet in a big, grand gesture. Carve, serve and smile.

Leftover Turkey Sandwich from Hotel Icon’s Line & Lariat chef David Luna

1 Tablespoon butter
1 thick slice white or wheat bread
1 large spoonful leftover cornbread stuffing
4 thick slices roast turkey
¼ cup leftover gravy, hot
1 Tablespoon cranberry sauce

Melt a little butter in a sauté pan. Toast the bread slice and set aside. In the same pan, melt a little more butter. Pan fry the stuffing and turkey slices until crispy and hot. Add this to the top of the griddled bread. Pour the gravy over the top. Serve with cranberry sauce and enjoy the bowl games.

Turkey Salad from Tony’s Executive Chef Grant Gordon

4 cups white meat turkey, diced in 1-inch cubes
½ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
½ cup golden raisins, rehydrated in warm water
½ cup fennel, chopped
¼ cup scallions, chopped
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and serve.

  • CQ

    This delightful article brings back fond memories of my youth. My mom always prepared the exact same Thanksgiving foods. If any of these traditional items had gone missing or been exchanged for something new and different, my dad and my sisters and I would have hollered to the rooftops. 

    Besides the handsome turkey stuffed with Pepperidge Farm dressing, we feasted on butternut squash, Uncle Ben’s rice, creamed chestnuts, creamed onions, homemade cranberry sauce, Ocean Spray jellied cranberry, Pepperidge Farm crescent rolls with butter. (There was also gravy; I passed on it.) The other “sides” included celery and carrot sticks, and crackers with Cracker Barrel cheese. And for dessert: apple pie, pecan pie, and pumpkin pie. A la mode, if we wanted.

    I’ve hewed to that menu into my adulthood. But in recent years I’ve ushered in a substitute “meat,” in line with my newfound understanding of the needlessness of eating animals, and my desire to align my life to my compassion for all beings.

    So now there’s Tofurky on my table. Everything else is the same, except that everything containing milk, cream or butter now has delicious non-dairy alternatives. (Chestnuts don’t exist any more, sad to say.)

    And you know what? My palate is just as satisfied, and my heart is filled with the joy of knowing that I haven’t contributed (at least to my knowledge) to any animal’s terror or pain, captivity or slaughter. And, a biggie for me, I haven’t betrayed a single creature.
    Here are a few articles and videos that explain why I’ve happily undergone a transformation in my heart, mind and actions with regard to Thanksgiving meals — and every meal:

    Finally, if you’d like to see a picture that describes how I think turkeys should be part of Thanksgiving Day, please go here http://www.CreatureQuotes.com then on Chapter 18 then scroll to the photo on the bottom on page 15. The photo credit is on page 90.

    A Gentle Thanksgiving — one that doesn’t partake of raising-and-robbing sweet turkeys — to all.

  • CQ

    Oops, make that Pillsbury (not Pepperidge Farm) crescent rolls! :-)

  • http://beaelliott.blogspot.com/ Bea Elliott

    I too celebrate a different kind of holiday… But there’s nothing shy in the way of fixings and trimmings that surround the platters of tofurky and Field Roast. Such yummy goodness – All of it! We haven’t missed “the bird” for years and the festivities are just as grand! 

    Oh! We did change one other thing – With a table set in the abundant generosities of what plants have given us as nourishment… We honor the date as ThanksLiving Day.  I hope everyone has a very satisfying and compassionate ThanksLiving Day!