The Impossible Turkey

A certain magazine's cover-worthy birds have me all riled up. This year, I'm calling party foul.
Rick Bragg

I am going to write a letter to the editor of this magazine. I am going to type with ill intent, use all the wicked prepositions and strident punctuation I know, and give these people a piece of my mind. If gas were not $19 a gallon, I'd drive to corporate headquarters and get ugly. I mean it–somebody hold me back.

I would not be this upset on my own behalf. But these people have hurt my mama's feelings. And not just this year. This has been going on for decades, right about this time every holiday season.

It has to do with turkeys. My people cook the best turkey in the whole turkey-eating world. "It's tender, and it tastes good," said my mama, who, with my Aunt Jo and Uncle John, have cooked 99% of the turkeys I have consumed. That should be enough. It is enough.

I start to think about it around this time of year, every year. I start to visualize it. For about four decades, they used the same pan, the one Aunt Jo won in a raffle at Coleman's Service Station in Jacksonville, Alabama. The bird, usually furnished by someone's employer in lieu of an actual cash bonus during the holidays, came from the oven half submerged in butter and juices, and cooked–because we country people are terrified of half-done poultry–through and through. And then cooked maybe a few minutes longer, just to be sure. That bird naturally tended to fall apart, but since it fell into butter, no one really cared.

I never even thought about what they looked like. To me, to us, they were beautiful. Then, it happened. Two years ago, Mama stood looking at another thoroughly cooked, wonderfully seasoned, heavenly aromatic bird, and sighed. "Well," she said, "it don't look like the ones on the magazine." She meant the almost annual spread of an immaculate turkey in Southern Living.

Those turkeys were, to be honest, things of beauty. They were luscious, plump, and cosmetically perfect. They were not just browned, they were golden brown. The skin was unbroken, wing to wing, leg to leg, gizzard to...well, where they hide the giblets. Sometimes, they even wore little white turkey booties on the end of drumsticks. (I am sure those things have a name, but danged if I know what it is, and I wouldn't admit it if I did.)

It was as if the turkey was actually posing, posing on an impeccable tabletop, with real cranberries sprinkled around. I told my mama her turkey was beautiful, because it was, and always will be. I told her not to give those tarted-up show turkeys another thought.

Then, we feasted. There was cornbread dressing, the best I have ever had–my Aunt Jo always says she ruined it with this mistake or that mistake, but it is always perfect, dense, the kind of thing you can cut a slice from at one o'clock in the morning two days later and eat cold, all by itself. There were the best mashed potatoes in the universe, and pinto beans, seasoned with big chunks of ham. There were hot biscuits and cabbage and carrot slaw–because country people do not celebrate anything worth celebrating without slaw–and cranberry sauce, the kind that makes a sucking sound as it slides out of the can. (We do not abide any cranberry sauce that does not make a noise.) There were green beans, pulled from the garden and canned by my mama months before, and my favorite thing of all, a kind of creamed onion, cooked slowly in an iron skillet in bacon grease, softened by adding water. And, in case we were a tad short of carbohydrates, there was a big pot of macaroni and cheese.

My Uncle John said grace, with the diginity of ages. My mother's beautiful turkey always falls off the bone. I eat a leg, and then a wing, unless my shirt buttons start to pop off. It will be that way this year. It will be that way forever, because it has to be.

Now forgive me. I have a letter to write.