Some cynic once said love is a seed catalogue with beautiful photos of blooming flowers, while marriage is your own back yard, chock full of weeds and wilting plants. In life, often — if not always — there’s a sizable gap between ideals and reality. In my case, it translated to what I wished to serve for dinner versus what I could realistically produce.
At times, bridging that gap called for creativity. In other words, whenever I faced a formidable problem in the kitchen, I would try to solve it in an unorthodox way, and sometimes I got lucky — as I did on one particular Thanksgiving dinner.
A Thanksgiving dinner had to feature a turkey, but roasting that bird was never an easy task for me. Although I had done it for 40 years, I was only called upon to do it once a year. A 20-lb. turkey, after being in the oven for several hours, was going to be pretty tough and dry — no matter how many times I basted it, taking the back-breaking bird in and out of that blasting-hot oven. To be palatable, it had to be eaten with a lot of gravy, like swallowing water to make the pills go down. And I was not particularly fond of the greasy smoke during the roasting process or cleaning the oven afterward.
For God’s sake, I thought, I’m almost 70 years old — I deserve a vacation from this.
So I came up with an easier way.
First I went to the local health food store and chose an organic, fresh, free-range, 11-lb. turkey. Then I bought a large oval-shaped crock-pot. I was mighty proud of myself that the two fit as if they had been made for each other. Since it was years before brining came into vogue, I heated salt with Chinese peppercorn and planned to rub the bird inside and out with the warm mixture and let it sit in the refrigerator for a few days before cooking.
But before I could apply the salt and peppercorn mixture, I had a problem.
If a 20-pounder was considered a mature turkey, an 11-pound one would be a teenager, and this particular youngster was a free-ranger, which meant that it got a lot of exercise in life and built a lot of muscle. The bird fit in the crock-pot all right, but its breast was so impressive that the glass lid wouldn’t close — it kept popping up and down, like a teeter-totter.
A Chinese satiric aphorism says: “Trim the feet to fit the shoes.” In this case, the solution seemed to be obvious and reasonable — knock the breastbone till it caved in.
We often hear that exercising stops bone loss and prevents osteoporosis. That free-range turkey certainly proved the point. With both hands, I held tight to the handle of a heavy kitchen cleaver, summoned all my energy, and dealt several savage blows with the back of the knife. The turkey didn’t yield a whit, but someone behind me began to laugh: “Are you by any chance trying to tickle the turkey?”
Well, since my man of the house thought he was more capable, let him try.
The struggle is real
Slapping and whacking didn’t bring any progress, but my husband was not in the habit of conceding defeat. He went to the garage for a heavy-duty hammer, the one he used years ago for chopping firewood. One strike with that Paul Bunyan implement elicited a deep moan.
Holy Moses! The turkey came alive! All my hair stood on end, and I was ready to flee when I caught a glimpse of our hero’s fiery red face — the moan had not come from the bird.
The Chinese like to ridicule a weakling for not having “the strength to tie up a chicken.” Here’s a man without the strength to beat up a dead turkey. But I recognized the seriousness of the situation immediately — “Stop … please! We’ll think of something else. It’s not worth a heart attack!”
Despite my tugging at his sleeve in a desperate attempt to stop him, he turned a deaf ear, gritted his teeth, and kept pounding. And that poor young turkey! In life, it had to scrounge around for worms; in death, it suffered brutal beatings. The bird was in and out of the crock-pot seven times before Sam finally succeeded in closing the lid.
The Chinese have another saying (the Chinese have a saying for everything under the sun) — “When a child gets beaten on the body, it’s the mother’s heart that suffers the pain.” After the turkey got whipped, the guy who administered the beatings hurt all over his body and had to rest in bed for three whole days.
Three days took us to the day before Thanksgiving. I rinsed off the salt-peppercorn mixture, added water, and simmered the turkey for a night and a day. Voila! Even the white meat was tender, flavorful, and smooth as silk, sliding down my throat like a prayer. And the clear broth … ah … the broth was to die for. (Someone almost did.)
For a more festive touch, I had cooked some shrimp wontons and added them to the broth. Our children and their respective spouses thought it was an interesting and unusual Thanksgiving dinner.
More unorthodox methods
Before I finished gloating over my success, an article appeared in the paper about people employing various creative devices to prepare food.
Riffing off the Polish saying that fish, to taste right, must swim three times — in water, in butter, and in wine — a New York stockbroker made his fish swim a fourth time — in his dishwasher.
To prepare salmon in cilantro sauce, he would tightly wrap the fish in foil with olive oil, wine, cilantro, and various other seasonings and place it in the dishwasher. From the wash cycle to rinse to heat, it took 50 minutes, while he served drinks and relaxed with his guests. When the dishwasher stopped, the fish was ready. The salmon “cooked” in his dishwasher turned out extraordinarily tender and delicious — perfect every time.
The same article reported a lady who tried to up the ante. She invited a group of friends home for “dishwasher lobster.” Unfortunately, when the machine entered the heat cycle, the lobsters started to complain. Their grievances grew to such a pitch that everyone stopped talking and all eyes were fixed on the dishwasher …
The following year, before I had a chance to figure out another easy way to make turkey, our local Chinese supermarket started taking orders for pre-roasted Thanksgiving turkeys. Thank heavens! We never had to beat a dead turkey again.