I'm cooking the turkey again this year, and I hope I don't screw it up. I have a checkered history with the holiday bird, so it wouldn't be the first time things have gone awry. I blame my father.
Joseph John Andrews, my dad, was a Roman-nosed womanizer and an ill-tempered drunk. He grew up dirt-poor, the son of a Czech-born coal miner, in the Pocono Mountains. My father just wanted to get the heck out of there, and he did it by way of war. He got himself all shot up in Korea and earned a Purple Heart. The shrapnel remained in the form of dark, hard splotches beneath the skin on his thighs and neck. Occasionally, it fell out in the shower.
The experiences of going to war and growing up impoverished and ashamed spilled out of him all the time, though, ping-ponging him from self-aggrandizement to rage. He married my mother, a pretty girl in his math class at Penn State, where he went on the G.I. Bill. He wore combat boots to the ceremony because he couldn't afford shoes.
My father became an engineer and made a good life for himself while acting very, very bad. He wasn't home much, but when he was, he wreaked havoc in every corner of the house, starting with the kitchen, where he fancied himself a gourmet cook.
Rocks glass in hand at the yellow enamel stove, he would order me around, intermittently hollering his guts out. "Get me a spatula!" he would yell. "Quickly! QUICKLY!" My father would extract collusion in his conceit. "Betsy, your daddy makes the best turkey ever! Doesn't your daddy make the best turkey ever? Tell me your daddy makes the best turkey ever." Then, a beat later: "Your daddy is a millionaire!"
Eager to prove himself on both counts, he spent far too much money stocking the holiday bar with Almaden, Mateus Rosé, Crown Royal, and Canadian Club, and got too early a start on the booze and the cooking. The turkey was invariably over-roasted, and it was my mother's extended Philadelphia family's duty to eat the desiccated bird. Some years they indulged my father's boasting, other years they comforted my mother after my father had, say, chased her around the yard with a tire iron. But, either way, the cousins all agreed that, yes, his turkey was the best.
I was having none of it. At 16 years old, I became a vegetarian. At 27, I came out. The first turkey I ever roasted was for a lesbian Thanksgiving party in Brooklyn. I was so worried that it would end up like my father's dry bird that I basted the bejeezus out of it. To my surprise, it turned out amazingly moist and, so I was told, amazingly good—so good, in fact, that it landed me in bed with a woman I had, up until then, been fruitlessly pursuing. Yes, we were drunk, but it wasn't the booze that persuaded her. "I think it was the bird," she said.
The following Thanksgiving, at my mother's house—the first for which my father wasn't cooking, a ritual that had outlasted my parents' marriage, until we finally decided we'd had enough of him showing up from his man-apartment with 25 pounds of dry poultry—I volunteered to cook the turkey. The plan was to repeat the previous year's method, but I started too early, and I was drinking too much. Who knew you could over-baste it? The whole thing fell apart when my brother tried to carve it. It was like turkey soup.
After dinner, my father, older now, slightly deflated, stopped by en route to the country club bar. I sat drinking with him in the living room. I was a writer by then, and my father had been bugging me to write about him. Okay, I thought, he's asking for it. I turned on the tape.
"You know, Dad," I said, "it was brutal growing up with you."
"Really?" he said. "I don't remember." His mismatched eyes—one blue, one hazel—bulged slightly over a spreading smile. "I don't remember a thing. Maybe it's a gift to me. Maybe it's a gift from the gods."
"I think," I said, "it's the alcohol."
"Could be!" he said cheerfully, and took another sip.
Of all my father's bad behaviors I had repeated—cheating on girlfriends, crashing about in a drunken rage, tooting my own battered horn—I hadn't overestimated my own cooking. Or at least I thought I hadn't until then; it was years before I made the holiday bird again. But eventually, I got a job writing about food and drink. It was inevitable—a coming-to-terms for a daughter whose sense of survival was tied to how quickly she could fetch a spatula. Because I had to write about meat, I started eating and cooking it anew, and last year, again, I offered to roast the Thanksgiving turkey. Maybe I'd bring some leftovers the next day when I made my brief visit to my father's nursing-home bed—if the bird turned out well. If I were to feed him, it would have to be better than what he had fed me.
I bought a beautiful organic turkey from my local food co-op and trundled it to Philadelphia, where I was planning a magnificent sage- and butter-basted roast. Wine glass in one hand, already tipsy, I reached into the cavity of the turkey with the other hand, fishing around for the giblets bag, and came up empty.
"Huh," I thought. "Where is it?" I shrugged, stuffed the bird, and shoved it into my sister's oven. I switched from wine to Scotch. Hours passed. The cousins arrived. The turkey's skin was nearing charcoal-black, but it was still dripping red juice. Finally, I carved the thing; the meat was dry as dust. The cousins all agreed it was the best they had eaten in years. In its overheated cavity, surrounded by stuffing, I found the source of all that dark juice: the cooked giblets bag.
My father yelled his guts out while preparing his Thanksgiving turkey. I, in turn, had left the guts inside—a metaphor, I suppose, for all the ways he had gotten under my skin. The next day, I stood at his bed, empty-handed, aching to get the heck out of there; aching, too, with guilt because of it. I couldn't bring myself to express any of my feelings. He managed one of the few words remaining in his stroke-damaged brain to describe his. "Embarrassed," he said.
This week, when I try to roast my next turkey, it will have been six months since my father died. I imagine that his drunken spirit will be in the kitchen, Canadian Club on ice in hand, hollering at me in a way so unnerving that I'll over-roast the bird (or over-baste it, or undercook it, or just throw it out the window in a middle-aged act of rebellion). No matter what happens, I have told myself, I'll make the damned thing on my own terms, keeping the wine glasses and the rocks glasses at bay until the skin is nicely burnished and the juices run almost clear. The cousins will say it's the best turkey they have ever eaten, really. As I cook, I'll ask little of my kid; I'll be gentle with my girlfriend. I will feel, I swear, like a million bucks.
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