My mother always told me that I was quite possibly the greatest cook in the world.
I should warn you that my mother’s cooking skills leave a little to be desired. Once, when she boiled water and utterly forgot about it. It took a massive cracking sound from the kitchen to remind us that she was boiling water. When my sister went into the kitchen to see what was happening, she found the pot half on the range, the other half on the floor. The floor had become a minefield of red-hot shrapnel while the bulk of the pot, itself was slowly oozing into itself.
I blame her utter lack of culinary expertise to my career as a chef. So when she says I’m a good cook, there might be some truth to it. I worked pretty damn hard to get a job at a Marriot. In fact, I’m good enough to have been able to get married, have three kids, and stay with the company for about 20 years, and am now proud to say that I’m the head chef there.
So out comes Thanksgiving, 2015. My rule was simple: No mothers allowed in the kitchen. The one time my mother tried preparing a turkey for us all was thankfully not as bad as the infamous “Boiling Incident” (as it has come to be called), but it did give us something drier than jerky while surprisingly less cooked than tartar. My mother, ladies and gentlemen.
No Mothers Allowed Thanksgiving was designed to ensure that such a ruinous heartbreak of a meal would never come again. With all the delicacies planned, we needed our centerpiece – our masterpiece – our 25 pounder. If it were not moist all the way through, basted to the point where it was sweating, with its stuffing overflowing out of it with just the edge of its overflow slightly crisp – if all these were lacking, then it would be a disappointment. One of the secrets I’ve learned when cooking turkey is to set the temperature high – really high – for an hour or so. This helps to sear the skin into a waterproof layer that traps moisture in, and once you reduce the heat, it’s a thick seal of protection that produces the juiciest meat one could hope for.
I’m not even going to go into the other dishes – the beef brisket, the French onion soup with two types of cheese, the maple bacon-covered shrimp, the cranberry walnut arugula salad, the homemade olive bread. Not going to mention any of that. I’m just going to focus on what parenthood is all about.
See, whenever we talk about the Boiling Incident, we always leave out an important factor: I’m one of five kids, spread out over only nine years. That made for a certain degree of chaos in the house. Three boys, two girls. If a day went by without a fight, we wondered what was wrong, and then immediately set out on course correction, usually resulting in a scream of agony or of some creative insult like “Barf-belly.”
Thanksgiving 2015 was the first time all five kids came together with all their own kids. My generation and our kids together made a group of just over twenty. Plus two grandparents (Mom and Dad), and something like eight dogs. How we managed to overlook the chaos was beyond me. Yet we did.
Half the number went for a late morning walk – one that included the bulk of the adults, leaving me alone with six children, one of whom had gotten his hands on a candlestick and was racing around the house, swinging it at one of the others. I know that Gash-Face (as he will forever be known henceforth) wasn’t any of my three, because if he was, I would have clobbered him over the head, stashed him in his rooms and gone about to the preparations of the meal. Nope. These were two of my older brothers’ kids. And they were unruly little brats.
I had just garnished the salad, when I heard it. THUNK!
Then came the Freddie Mercury of a scream. Sighing, I left the kitchen for the living room. One kid was inside the fireplace, the other was passed out cold, with a big ugly cut across her head. Mother mode kicked in high gear. All I could think of was getting the kid’s head cleaned up, getting the ash off the other, and somehow managing to finish the meal.
I tried everything I could to get the blood to stop, but nothing worked, and I knew that there was only one course on my plate: the hospital. After a very brief lecture to the ash-covered kid about the dangers of chasing a sibling with a candlestick, I gathered up the bloody kid, wrapped his head in a towel and sped off to the hospital. Thank God it was open.
We waited about an hour, during which time, the orderlies told us that this was par for the course of a Thanksgiving, and that the holiday was one of the most accident-prone. It didn’t surprise me. After finally reaching Gash-Face’s father, we still had to wait while all the other injuries were attended to. When it was finally Gash-Face’s turn, he clung to me like I was his mother. Considering the severity of his injury – self-inflicted, I might add – it was probably the concussion confusing him.
Nonetheless, I was still in mothering mode. Pandering to his needs, trying to ease him through the thirty stitches in his forehead, and all while trying to organize the rest of the meal, these were consuming me.
By the time my brother, Gash-Face and I finally made it back to the house, darkness had long fallen, and we were greeted by a mob of worried people, kids jostling to see Gash-Face’s bandages, and barking dogs. I noticed none of these things. All I could think about was the fact that I semlt smoke.At first, I thought it was my father, whose pack-a-day habit still had (thankfully) not killed him. But then I noticed the traces of spices that had not yet evaporated in charcoal.
“The turkey!” I screamed, shoving my way through the throng.
The oven was a smoldering mess of darkness. The turkey had gone and decked itself in full mourning black, seared to the bone in death and overheating. Gash-Face’s injury could not have come at a worse time. I had just set the oven to the high heat to perfect the moisture-lock seal, and in the intervening hours, I had completely forgotten about it.
I looked around at the kitchen, at the empty dishes, and realized that Gash-Face, my brother and I had missed the meal. Worse, because I was the brains behind the turkey, nobody else had bothered to check the beast’s progress. They just assumed that this was how it was supposed to roast.
I wanted to cry. It was the most hideous culinary failure that I had ever seen. That is when my mother wrapped her arm around me.
She hugged me proudly. “No worries, Dorothy, I couldn’t have done it any better, myself.”