I love this time of year when family gets together and memories of past Thanksgivings and Christmases are shared around the dinner table. The end of the year holidays remind me of how grateful I am to have a plate filled with favorite family recipes, the Butterball turkey being the star of the show. Why, you ask? Because over the years many a turkey found itself assuming the starring role for reasons I’m about to share.
Everyone has their own way of cooking a bird. For years my Mom’s secret to a succulent turkey was putting the turkey inside a brown paper bag, tying the end of the bag with string, placing it on a turkey rack inside a large pan, and letting it slowly self-baste for several hours. The house smelled wonderful throughout the afternoon and we couldn’t wait to open that bag and carve into the turkey. This method worked until one famous holiday when my sister’s now husband (then boyfriend) joined us for dinner. Being the engineer he was, he suggested just putting the whole shebang (turkey, turkey rack and entire pan) completely inside the paper bag.
“Wouldn’t that be a lot easier?” he suggested?
It seemed like a good idea at the time. The large pan took 2 paper bags to fill and we actually had to “lock” the oven door because the turkey was so large. We sat that afternoon nibbling appetizers, waiting for the aroma of the turkey to greet our nostrils. That wasn’t happening. Instead what greeted our noses was the smell of smoke; the brown paper bag that held our holiday dinner was on fire inside the locked oven! Note to self: brown paper bags placed directly onto oven shelves light up like a Clarke Griswold Christmas tree when 325 degrees and hot turkey drippings merge.
Perhaps the memory of this experience was running through Bill, my other brother-in-law’s, head the following year. Typically our family of 25 gathers together in Philadelphia for the holiday festivities. This particular year, however, my young nephew was sick with the flu, so Bill volunteered to stay home (in New York) with him while my sister met us in Philly.
We had just sat down to dinner when the call came.
“Are you okay? Is the house okay?” my sister anxiously inquired. “Just what were you thinking?”
Bill had never made a turkey before and was quite proud of himself for having stuffed the turkey and successfully loading it into the oven. It wasn’t long before he realized something amiss. Thick smoke and gooey liquid began pouring out the oven door. He’d done a lovely job of stuffing the turkey, but wasn’t aware that turkeys shouldn’t go into the oven on a flat cookie sheet. The grease ignited into flames and Bill’s hopes for his first turkey dinner went up in smoke along with the turkey.
Turkeys in the oven weren’t the only holiday memories our family laughed about. My mom makes the world’s best Christmas cookies and my 5 brothers and sisters and me are addicted to them. Every year Mom makes a triple batch and brings a large pan filled to the brim with her to our Philadelphia gathering. So it was no surprise when my sister Peggy reached up and tilted the large pan on top of the outside refrigerator to grab a few cookies before heading inside.
All would have been well with the world, had that large pan on top of the refrigerator been filled with cookies. It wasn’t. Rather, it was full of leftover turkey grease from the bird my sister in law had cooked for the next day’s turkey sandwiches. Peggy’s hair, jacket and Thanksgiving sweater were covered in turkey grease. Poor thing. Seeing her walk in the door covered in ‘yuck’ still makes us laugh to this day.
My family is used to ‘interesting items’ showing up on our dinner table. Typically we enjoy a homemade pumpkin pie at holiday time. But the year Mom dropped the pie in the other room while carrying it to the dinner table caused quite a disruption to our family traditions.
Yet if it’s one thing my mother is, it’s resourceful. Without batting an eye, she scooped up the pie (unbeknownst to us until years later), threw it in a dish, covered it with whipped cream and called it Pumpkin Surprise”. Kids are supposed to eat a pound of dirt in their lifetimes, right? One thing is certain, scooped-up-off-the-floor
Pumpkin Surprise certainly put a new twist on the old saying, “everything tastes better with Cool Whip.”
Perhaps Mom’s resourcefulness was passed down to me. My brothers and sisters will be the first to tell you how I used to be quite a mother’s helper. Back in the day, Mom was a school teacher. One time she mindlessly shared with me how clean a dog’s mouth actually is. “A dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human being’s mouth” she declared. So when it was my turn to wash the dishes at the tender age of 8, I enlisted our family dog, Booper, to help with the chore. Every morning after eating my cereal, instead of putting the bowl into the sink or the dishwasher, I simply let my dog lick the bowl clean and proceeded to pick up the bowl and put it back into the cupboard. I was quite proud of myself for being so resourceful. All was well until my sister caught me in the act a few weeks later. To this day my family thinks twice about asking me to help them with the dishes.
What’s your favorite holiday memory? What a gift it is to share your heritage with others. As this year comes to a close, I’m more thankful than ever for the gift of family and holiday traditions. They are the core of our being and ground us in times of uncertainty. Have a wonderful holiday season and take a moment to tell those you grew up with that you love and cherish them. Merry Christmas and have a blessed New Year.