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Thanksgiving… and my recipe for Turkey a la Pompeii

Thanksgiving is both the simultaneously the simplest and most fraught of major American holidays. On the one hand, it’s a very straightforward holiday. You get together with friends and/or family and eat a (surprisingly ritualized) meal. Easy.

And yet, it’s not.

For some, the complication is the family. For others, it’s the food.

I’m lucky enough to have a (mostly) uncomplicated family situation, so it’s the food that’s sometimes the problem. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year, and a few years back, I seized control of it in a bloodless coup, wrangling agreement from my sister and parents that Rachel and I could be the default hosts for Thanksgiving. As I love to cook, this is generally a good deal, as far as I’m concerned.

But Thanksgiving is notorious for throwing one a culinary curveball. Everyone who cooks for guests knows that the menu doesn’t always turn out the way you expect. You throw dishes out and pretend you intended to serve whatever it is you actually put on the table.

This doesn’t work at Thanksgiving. If you don’t have a turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie, people grumble. Blow any one of those dishes and you’ve got problems.

My mother tells the story, every year, of the first Thanksgiving she cooked as a married woman. In a small apartment in Chicago, she cooked a turkey for her mother-in-law, brother-in-law and husband, using careful instructions from her mother, an accomplished cook. An hour into roasting, the turkey was an ugly shade of black, and my mother called her mother to figure out what had gone wrong:

“What temperature is the oven?”

“350 degrees, just where you told me to set it.”

“Yes, but what temperature is it actually in the oven?”

Turns out the oven was miscalibrated and had “flash-baked” her turkey at 600 degrees. For reasons she finds hard to explain, she soldiered on and tried to bake a pie in a 600 degree oven, hoping she might complete it in 15 minutes… Needless to say, this did roughly as well as the bird did.

I don’t face this problem, as I generally smoke my Thanksgiving turkey over a wood fire on the back porch of the house. While the turkey tends to turn an ugly shade of black, it ends up extremely juicy and flavorful. Last year, smoking the turkeys also saved my Thanksgiving dinner from a power failure. While the electric stove was offline, I was able to finish cooking the potatoes, squash and brussels sprouts over an open fire, letting me feel extremely competent and macho.

This year, however, the fire was more problematic. One of our guests this year keeps kosher, so Rachel had purchased two kosher turkeys. I woke up early, split some wood and made a roaring fire despite a minor snowstorm dumping a foot of snow on the porch as I worked. I put two lovely birds over the fire around 8am, assuming they’d be done around 2pm, when guests would arrive. And I went on to prepare the pies, the veggies, the rest of the meal.

Around 11am, I checked on the birds – browning nicely – and ran out to the local market to pick up a few more things for the meal. I was gone twenty minutes in total, and came back, slipping and sliding up our snow covered driveway. As I got out of the truck, I smelled the unmistakeable odor of burning meat.

I ran through the kitchen and out to the porch. Flames two feet high were leaping out of the smoker. I threw the lid open and discovered that the smaller of the two birds was actively on fire, flames shooting from the body cavity (which I’d stuffed with pears and sage). As I grabbed it with tongs to take it off the fire, it split into pieces – I rolled the biggest of them in the snow to put the fire out. Then I took the burnt – but not actively on-fire – larger bird and rolled it in the snow as well. I poured snow on the flames in the smoker and came back into the house, smouldering bird in hand.

“None of you noticed the turkeys were on fire?”

Blank stares from my mother, my wife and my father. To be fair, Mom just had a root canal and is in pain; Rachel’s fighting off a cold. Dad was clearly distracted by his eighth time watching “The Natural”.

“The two-foot high flames? The scent of burning flesh? None of that caught your attention?”

Evidently not. I’ve smoked countless birds before – and a number of turkeys – and no one thought to watch the smoker very closely, as it usually takes five or six hours before the birds are in danger of being done. But the kosher birds, as it turns out, are very fatty. The melted fat from the bird dripped onto the hot coals and created a grease fire hot enough to peel heatproof paint from the outside of the grill. Had I been out another five minutes, I suspect the flames would have spread from the smoker to the siding of the house. Perhaps this would have caught my family’s attention. Or not.

It’s now noon on Thanksgiving. Twelve people are expecting Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings in about three hours. The local market – which doesn’t carry turkeys and rarely even has fresh chickens – has just closed. I find four kosher chicken breasts in a freezer, put them in the oven to bake, and hop in the truck, frantically driving on unplowed roads to cosmopolitan Pittsfield, MA… and discover the two 24 hour supermarkets in town are both closed.

My friend Doone shows off my new signature dish, Turkey a la Pompeii. She’s holding the drumstick.

My mother has called my sister on her cellphone and dispatched her to drive east before driving west and pick up a few chickens from Boston Market before driving to my house. In the meantime, she and I start picking through the two birds, which have been christened “The Pompeii Turkey” and “The Boy Who Lived”. Pompeii yields a cup or two of edible meat, the other a pound or two of unharmed breast meat under a crunchy outer shell. As we offer each other incinerated drumsticks and start knocking back glasses of wine before 1pm, laughing like hyenas, it’s clear to me that I’m living through a story my mother will be telling for the next 40 years, immediately after the 600-degree oven story.

It all worked out. It always does on Thanksgiving. Liz, her girlfriend and family brough four small – but very much unburnt – chickens. Alongside some very dry turkey and some kosher chicken breasts, we had a table groaning with garlic potatoes, spicy collard greens, butternut squash, creamed onions, brussel sprouts with pancetta, and half a dozen other good distractions from the firey destruction earlier in the day. Good food, good people, good reasons to be thankful.

And next year, a good reason for serving hamburgers.

Recipe: Turkey a la Pompeii

Take one 14 pound turkey. Remove neck, giblets, innards. Soak overnight in salt water.

In barbeque pit or smoker, light a large hardwood fire.

Stuff turkey with fresh sage, whole apples or pears and rub the skin with salt.

When hardwood has burned down to coals, place bird over fire to cook in the resulting smoke.

Mix a half gallon of 180 proof alcohol and corn oil in a one to one mixture. When no one is looking, open grill and pour mixture over coals. (Warning – this will likely cause an explosion and possible grievious injury. Don’t actually do this.)

When two foot high flames leap out of the firepit, check to see if your family or any invited guests notice.

Once the turkey is actively on fire, seize it firmly with fireplace tongs. Roll it in snow until the flames are extinguished.

Place turkey on platter. Don’t eat it. Go out for dinner instead.

Serves: none.

Anyone who knows Rachel as well as they know me will be unsurprised to discover she has a divergent, but equally valid, take on this year’s holiday, seeing the bright side of the smoking wreckage that was this year’s turkey.

5 thoughts on “Thanksgiving… and my recipe for Turkey a la Pompeii”

  1. Ethan,

    If you hit a disaster situation next year – call me. We had a 15 pounder done up nicely (in the traditional I only stick it in the over way) and, being vegetarians (but good hosts) we had quite a lot in the way of excess. I have also found that copious quantities of wine tends to soften the blows of ruined food.

  2. oh my, that was great. I have such a long string of funny disaster stories around thanksgiving, it’s got a very special place in my heart. This year, it turned out the oven thermostat was 50 off, leaving the oven on the cool side. fortunately this was discovered after the disposal of 11 creme brulee custard… uh, soups, rather than, say, a salmonella turkey.

  3. Ha! I was reading along and said to Joey, “ooh, they smoked their turkey” as we know how good your smoked chicken is, drool. And then I finished the story. Hehehehehe. Sorry about that. Happy Thanksgiving to you, hope to see you soon.

  4. If you don’t have a turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie, people grumble.

    Heh. I was a Thanksgiving apostate this year. New house + parents just back from three weeks in central Europe + father who doesn’t really like turkey all that much anyway = lasagna & meatballs (and not even turkey meatballs neither). Quick, easy, and The Kid was able to help me make the meatballs, so there was even opportunity for family culinary bonding along the way. No grumbling, although when I mentioned my plan to one of my aunts (who was not joining us for dinner), she was silent for about seven seconds while she tried to adjust her worldview, after which she said a tremendously loaded “…oh.”

    My only regret was that the lack of a “traditional” dinner resulted in a concomitant lack of traditional desserts. Doing away with turkey and stuffing and gravy meant doing away with the highly ritualized “little piece of apple, little piece of pumpkin/sweet potato, little piece of pecan, massive ladleful of whipped cream” that customarily signals the end of the holiday graze.

  5. Hi Ethan,
    I am headed to Africa in a few weeks to cook thanksgiving dinner for my friend who has been in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso. I am an avid cook but my culinary skills have all been developed in a kitchen and now I am faced with cooking a full Thanksgiving dinner without electricity (me and my big mouth). :o) Since you are also a cook that has been to Africa (and apparently does well cooking without electricity) I was hoping you would have some suggestions for how to muscle through my thanksgiving adventure. I understand if you don’t have time to respond but any help (as detailed as you can make it) would be great!
    Thanks so much

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