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Hold the turducken

At Thanksgiving, it's the simple things that matter.

November 24, 2011|By Michelle Slatalla

In my household, passions run high every year when we discuss the Thanksgiving menu. My husband favors dishes with bacon, pork sausage or lard. One year he suggested altering the lineup to eliminate mashed potatoes ("bland prison food"), which prompted threats from the kitchen staff to retaliate by withholding their father's favorite dessert (angel pie, with shaved bacon).

The one dish that rises above controversy is the turkey, the centerpiece of that glorious meal. But it is also the biggest challenge of all. Over the years, we have tried many different approaches to cooking it, including brining, barbecuing, grilling it on a rotisserie, slow-roasting, tenting, un-tenting, butter basting, bouillon basting or rubbing it in exotic spices, such as bacon. Every Thanksgiving, we have tried to go even further.

Our high ambitions have created a crisis of sorts, however, because this year we are living in a modest-sized Manhattan apartment. I don't mean to complain, because by New York City standards, it's enormous. We have a closet, for instance, and a hallway, and the kitchen is a room you can actually eat in, if you don't mind leaning against the radiator. But our move here from California has added a degree of difficulty. We were spoiled by having things like counters and enough space for more than one cook at a time to work with a knife without deboning the person standing next to him.

This isn't the kind of kitchen, in other words, where you want to go all Tyler Florence on your bird.

"What about a turducken?" my husband asked the other day, looking up from a fancy grocery's website. "I've always liked the idea of stuffing myself with a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken."

"At $7.59 a pound?" I asked. "In this economy?"

Like many Americans, we aren't feeling reflexively thankful this year, what with all the bad economic news. "We're Dumpies," I added. "Downwardly mobile urban professionals."

"You mean d-muppies," my husducken said. "To be Dumpies, we'd have to be downwardly urban mobile professionals."

Must we always bicker?

"Get into the spirit of the holiday," I urged.

We are expecting 15 people for dinner, including our three daughters (we hope — the oldest is taking a redeye from California, arriving Thursday morning) and at least three of their college friends. Also coming are my husband's mother, his three brothers and their families. Actually, one brother, a Hasidic Jew, will arrive after the meal with his family of seven, making the celebration seem even more festive and, some might say, given the size of our apartment, more like a scene from "A Night at the Opera." Perhaps we should hire roving jugglers.

I am of course deeply grateful for all of this, despite the gloom and doom in the world: the Occupy Wall Streeters, the partisan gridlock in Washington, the possible collapse of the European Union, the Iranians feverishly working on their atomic bomb and the mysterious black flicker that periodically appears when I'm streaming Netflix.

Let's face it, the world has always been a tough place. But at least it's been getting progressively better since the Middle Ages, when lancing your buboes was at the top of most people's to-do lists.

I am lucky. In fact, most of us still have a lot to be grateful for (certainly as much as the Pilgrims, who had to touch smelly dead fish whenever they wanted to fertilize corn). I read recently that scientists calculate the odds of being born at 1 in 400 trillion, and most days it seems that beating those numbers is luck enough. It occurs to me that the chances against my being born must have been even greater, given that my mother met my father at a lunch counter in a Rexall drugstore, where she slopped a dollop of egg salad onto the toe of his new shoe one day in 1959.

I will feel even more grateful if my good luck continues to hold and the redeye gets to town before dinnertime; if my youngest daughter vacuums her bedroom — as has been suggested many times this past week — before her grandmother arrives to occupy it; if nobody burns a finger making bacon gravy or chews up a guest's shoes (here I pause to glance down at the dogs).

"Maybe I should deep-fry the turkey," my husband mused, combing recipe websites. "I could set up a staging area across the street in the park, get a big metal drum, 10 gallons of peanut oil, a winch."

I rejected that idea, as well as recipes involving a Coca-Cola braise and air drying the turkey in front of an electric fan, in the style of Peking duck. In the end, we decided this was the year to make a Simple Turkey, a good, honest American bird rubbed with sage and thyme and Bell's, with just a touch of Old Bay seasoning. And today as I look around the table at the people I love, eating Brussels sprouts sautéed in bacon grease, it will be miracle enough that we all are here.

Michelle Slatalla writes an etiquette column for Real Simple magazine.

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