Big Bird

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, December 11, 2005

For Thanksgiving dinner this year, we gave everyone an acetylene blowtorch and a welder's helmet, and passed around hunks of raw meat. It was thrilling! We had the traditional turkey, of course, plus goat, bobcat and some pigeon that I thought tasted exactly like squirrel. Some of the guests never quite mastered their torches, and at one point the curtains caught fire, but it was all enchantingly dramatic.

That's everyone's goal when designing a holiday meal these days: Drama. Excitement. The wow factor. It's not a meal -- it's a performance. You don't have dinner guests, you have witnesses. Everyone who leaves the table at the end of the feast must be not only satiated, but also emotionally spent. You want your holiday dinner guests to say, "I can't remember when I've had such an intense, weird and utterly harrowing meal."

Simply roasting a large turkey in the oven and serving 150 or 200 side dishes isn't going to cut it in today's highly competitive culinary culture. We're past the point where repulsive gluttony by itself will make a holiday meal memorable. You need an actual sense of danger. This is the appeal of those turkey deep-fryers. Why roast a turkey in a conventional oven when you can lower it into a giant spattering vat of extremely hazardous billion-degree oil and have your own near-Chernobyl experience?

It's hard to believe how much holiday meals have changed since the 1960s and 1970s, when everyone served the same few things: turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, maybe some sweet potatoes and green beans, and definitely some jellied cranberry sauce from a can. An experimental, risk-taking chef would switch to whole-berry cranberry sauce from a can. Only two things mattered: People had to be able to eat themselves into a coma, and the white meat had to be moist.

The baseline against which "moist" was measured was basically cardboard. This period in history is known as the Dry Meat Era. Turkeys didn't have such large breasts back then, and it took a lot of cooking savvy and intercessory prayer to keep them from drying out. This caused chronic anxiety among mothers, who in those days were led to think that their entire value to society depended upon retaining moisture in the white meat of a turkey. They tried all kinds of cockamamie schemes -- cooking the bird upside down, using a syringe to inject butter and lard and bacon grease and cream rinse and whatnot directly into the breast, and so on -- and when the bird was served, these mothers would have a hopeful, but fundamentally pained, expression. This was the big moment.

There you'd be, hoping to please your mom, and you'd put a forkful in your mouth, and start to pay a compliment, but all the fluid in your mouth would have vanished. Your mom, agonized, would say, "Is the white meat . . . overdone?" Finally, heroically, you'd manage to utter a single, barely audible word: "Powder."

Then, circa 1984, the turkeys got breastier, and people also discovered that they could obtain turkeys that hadn't been frozen since the Paleolithic age. In the 1990s the economy took off, and folks started buying ovens the size of a toolshed. The typical 14-pound holiday turkey looked miniature in those huge ovens, so people began preparing 20-pound monsters, then 26 pounds, then 48 pounds, and then finally the standard holiday bird became something you had to wheel around on a dolly.

Then there was a shift to nonturkey main courses. Venison had its moment. Then bear. Then moose, often with the antlers propped up as a dramatic centerpiece. Many times my Republican friends have invited my family to dine on whatever they can find that's on the Endangered Species List. Often I've found myself eating what the host describes as "mystery meat, for legal reasons."

Last year at Christmas, not realizing the potential for a disaster, I prepared an ordinary, store-bought 124-pound turkey in an industrial pressure cooker normally used in scientific experiments to mimic conditions at the bottom of the sea. I thought it was an ingenious idea, but I misread the instructions, dialed it to 4250 "atmospheres" rather than 4.25, and when the turkey came out it was denser than lead and literally the size of a peanut.

What's the moral of the story? That food doesn't have to be edible so long as it is unforgettable. And that you should always have, as a backup, plenty of mashed potatoes.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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