3 Things I Learned After My Thanksgiving Dinner Disaster

Thanksgiving and I don't get along. It's a long, complicated family drama that's a million miles from the warm and fuzzy feelings that food-centric holiday is supposed to stir up. Despite the many bad memories, I keep trying to hit the reset button on the fourth Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving Dinner in Progress
Photo by Allrecipes. Allrecipes

Part of my issue with the meal is that -- gasp -- I'm not wild about turkey. How do you properly roast it without drying out the white meat? I've tried brining, injecting, massaging it with artisan butter. I once forced a friend to fire up a massive kettle of oil to deep fry the bird, and it was mostly just a hot mess. And, yes, I've spent a ton of dough on heritage breed turkey, same thing happens. Failure.

What my love/hate relationship with Thanksgiving means is that turkey has become my frenemy, one of the foods I want to like, but just don't. I was determined to change all that. And it was going so well... until the smoke alarm started screeching.

I thought I'd give turkey another try after I stumbled across Michael Symon's recipe for beer can turkey. Same method as the beer can chicken, just need a bigger can of brewski. How hard could it be? I've had lots of wins when cooking chicken that way. Still, before I trotted it out to family and friends on the actual day, I decided to do a dry run a few weeks ahead of Turkey Day. Great plan, right? Well, not so much.

Bet you didn't know that it's really hard to find a turkey a month before Thanksgiving. Not even in the frozen food section. There's all sorts of parts available, breasts and legs, but a whole bird is as rare as a rancor-free political debate. I went to three stores before finding a supermarket that had an itty-bitty 8-pounder deep in the recesses of its walk-in freezer.

It probably would have been ideal to cook my beer can turkey outside on the grill, but my Q was kicked to the curb a couple of seasons ago and I've never replaced it. (Thank goodness for my trusty Lodge Cast Iron Grill Pan!) Surely, I could fit the bird in my oven if I moved the rack to the lowest level. I even cleaned the oven, knowing that it might get a little smoky. Unfortunately, that didn't really help.

I slipped the bird into a pre-heated oven two hours before I planned to take it to the Hot Stove Society, so Bridget Charters, the chef-instructor at that Tom Douglas Cooking School, was going to demo a quick, easy way to carve turkey. Then I went upstairs to get ready. And 20 minutes later, the smoke alarm was screaming, as dark plumes drifted out of the oven. Oh. No.

In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. Standing up, on top of that 24-ounce can of Rainier, the turkey flew too close to the sun. And by sun, I mean the blue flames on the top element of the gas oven. I pulled the smoldering beast out, hoping that it wasn't a total loss.

Standing up, on top of that 24-ounce can of Rainier, the turkey flew too close to the sun. And by sun, I mean the blue flames on the top element of the gas oven.

The pan looked like black lava, the evaporating beer and seasonings proved to be the main source of the smoke. I moved the turkey to another roasting pan and laid it down, pouring the rest of the contents of the beer can into the cavity and reset the timer. Then I opened every window in the house. Such a bummer, but no huge surprise. My Thanksgiving curse seemed destined to continue.

And how could I possibly take a blistered bird to a professional chef and ask her to break it down while I shot a video? I held off cancelling the date until the turkey finished cooking.

Then, guess what? The turkey looked presentable enough. For that prescribing "resting" time, I slipped Tom into a oven roasting bag and hit the road, heading to Hot Stove. About 30 minutes later, when chef Bridget carved the turkey, the breast meat was succulent and the thighs and legs looking like the dark meat I've always dreamed about. Let's call it a holiday miracle. This experience taught me three very important lessons:

  • Always test drive a recipe if you're planning on making it for a special occasion. If roasting a whole turkey seems like too much, try your technique on a chicken.
  • If disaster strikes, have a back-up plan. Don't freak out. The point of Thanksgiving is spending time with family, even if it means making grilled cheese as the bird smolders. A misfire means there will be stories to tell for years to come.
  • Sometimes, you've got to give up and move on from trying to perfect that turkey. There are plenty of good alternatives to the bird.

Some awesome Thanksgiving recipes, right this way.

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