Monday, December 16, 2013

Thankless birds

Later, as the house fell silent except for the hum of the furnace, Lori turned to me and said, “Too bad about the chickens, I was hoping your family would be talking about them for years to come,” and I said, “Oh, they will. Those chickens will never be forgotten.”

After a long pause, she laughed. “I guess you’re right,” she said. “But they might never ask you to cook again.”

I’ve always said that the things we remember most are those that go spectacularly wrong. Adventures, I call them, and not in the usual sense of an exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity calling for enterprise and enthusiasm. (U-Haul’s unfortunate use of the word in their motto, “Adventures in moving,” certainly applies.) Cooking the Thanksgiving chickens called for enterprise and enthusiasm aplenty, though minus the hazardous part as the potential threat of banishment from the kitchen wasn’t an overt concern. After all, the most effective way of never being asked to do something again is to do it so poorly that nobody in their right mind would ever ask again.

Still, the pressure to perform added an edge to the proceedings. It was our first family Thanksgiving in 40 years and I’d volunteered to cook the turkey. The others had heard me bragging of being able to cook a turkey in 45 minutes and demanded proof. It was only after we settled on the size of the bird that we all agreed that turkey wasn’t our favorite fowl, so we settled on a pair of large chickens, which were.

My first clue that the chickens might be an adventure came when I stripped off their wrappers. The larger chicken tipped the scape at eight-plus pounds, a behemoth of such gargantuan bulk that wondered if it might be radioactive. “Free-range from Chernobyl,” my brother quipped. The second was smaller but no less voluminous. Rather than something to roast in the oven, they seemed more applicable to firing from a catapult.

Nevertheless, I crowded them into a roasting pan, dusted them with Himalayan salt and Tellicherry rainbow peppercorns, and slid them into the oven. Every 20 minutes I basted them with butter and spices. After an hour I added a pound of white mushrooms to the pan. When the skin began to crisp, I basted more frequently. The kitchen was a blizzard of activity. My mother whipped up her famous cornbread stuffing, my sister-in-law creamed the peas, Lori mashed the potatoes and made giblet gravy, my dad put on another pot of coffee. My younger brother anchored the table. 

Forty years is a long time not to spend Thanksgiving together. Somewhere along the line we’d all grown older. My parents were frailer than I’d ever seen them, and my brother’s red hair was graying. There was both more and less of me than before. But for a few blessed hours on a warm New Mexico afternoon it was like old times again, and maybe even better because after all we’d been through in the past year we recognized the fragility of existence and the waning of our days. Life as we knew it shortened with each heartbeat. As my father said, this might well be our last Thanksgiving together.

Two hours into the cooking, I slid the crisp, browned birds from the oven and wiggled the legs for doneness. They wouldn’t budge. I tugged and twisted and pried but the chickens remained impervious to my exhortations. 

Uh-oh, my wife said.

Undaunted, I stuck a meat thermometer into the breast. This involved positioning the sharp tip of the instrument against the skin and pounding the base until the tip broke through. The underlying white meat proved equally resistant. Enthusiastic hammering managed to sink the probe about an inch until the thermometer became intractably lodged. Nor would any amount of enterprise free it.

“Are they done?” my father asked.

According to the thermometer, they were 40 degrees shy of that mark. 
Suddenly, the number took on an ominous symbolism. 

“Almost,” I said, and slid the chickens back into the oven.

As the gravy congealed and the creamed peas gelled into a greenish viscous glob, we made small talk. Not a word was whispered about my culinary skills though I sensed an unspoken questioning in their glances. When nobody was looking I rooted through the trash can until I found the wrappers. Roasting hens, they said. 

What the heck is a roasting hen? I asked myself. 

To my family’s credit, they gave me another 30 minutes. Another 30 fruitless, wasted minutes. If anything, the meat was tougher. After hacking at it for several minutes with a sharp butcher knife, I asked my father if I could borrow his chain saw. 

As I said, 40 years is a long time not to spend Thanksgiving together. We laughed and joked and dredged memories from the archives of our lives, and the green chile wine whetted our appetites for my mother’s cornbread stuffing, my wife’s gravy, my sister-in-law’s pumpkin and apple pies, and we stuffed ourselves until we could hold no more. Off to the side, the two roasting hens solidified into an inedible rubbery concretion that would eventually be dumped into the trash. And it didn’t matter because we had each other, and for that we gave thanks.


Carol said...

This is a fun story, Tom. Glad you had a nice Thanksgiving with your family...with our without birds.

Tom Parker said...

Thanks, Carol. It was my first meatless Thanksgiving but hardly worth worrying about. My family was together and that's all that mattered.

shoreacres said...

Such a fun story, and immediately recognizable to anyone, even if the details differ.

Cherish every minute. If I could have just one hour of a holiday dinner with all the family present again, I wouldn't even gripe about the undone chicken. You're a lucky man.

Tom Parker said...

Lucky, indeed. I heard of a guy who took his father on a road trip to the places of his youth. What an idea! I'll have to talk my parents into that next year. (And I almost said "if I find the time," but considering everything, time is the one thing we don't have. Screw time. What matters is the here and now.)