For their Thanksgiving feast, they buried the birds

By Candy Sagon
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Here's the secret to a moist, tender turkey:

A shovel.

Oh, and a fire -- and a giant hole in the ground.

For 20 years, that was the way they cooked the turkeys for a George Mason University staff Thanksgiving at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park in Clifton. The Turkey in the Hole potluck feast would draw about 100 current and former employees and their families. Some would bring a shovel, others a covered dish.

It's not hard to figure out why: The main course (several foil-wrapped turkeys) was cooked in a hand-dug hole in the forest. Lowered into the 4-foot-deep, 3-foot-wide pit, the turkeys were surrounded by hot coals, then covered with dirt and allowed to cook for nearly nine hours. It was like a big underground slow-cooker, with the dirt helping to seal in the moisture and maintain the low, even heat.

When the time was right, helpers would carefully shovel off the dirt. After the turkeys were finally unearthed amid great clouds of smoke, the meat would be moist and tender enough to cut with a spoon. It literally would fall off the softened bones. When I visited the park for the event last year, the aroma alone was enough to drive guests crazy as they impatiently waited for the hot layers of foil to be peeled away from the golden birds. Little did the hungry horde know that it would be the last hurrah for the annual celebration.

The school's Center for Team and Organizational Learning, which teaches outdoor team-building skills, had used the Hemlock Overlook park for two decades to host its programs and its turkey feast. This fall, however, the school moved the program to its Prince William campus in Manassas. "We're at a suburban campus now, and we haven't quite figured out if we can do it here," says center spokeswoman Sue Czarnetzky, sounding regretful. [Letter to the Editor: The tradition will live on at Hemlock Overlook park.]

The tradition started with Daniel Nellis, 56, who had joined GMU as a facilities manager in 1989. What better team-building skill than getting employees involved in a holiday meal, Nellis figured.

Tall and lean, with pale blue eyes, a gray beard and an unflappable demeanor, Nellis originally learned the technique while working with teen groups in other states. "I've cooked about 150 turkeys this way," he says. "It's an awful lot of work for one person to do, but with a group it's fun. And everyone loves the result."

It's a technique that's heavy on the shoveling but refreshingly light on the culinary minutiae. "We get four turkeys from the supermarket, rub the skin with butter, salt and pepper, put some chopped fruit, chopped onions and a handful of ice inside each cavity, then tightly wrap each one in six layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil," Nellis explains. The fruit was apple or canned pineapple; the ice was added to provide moisture.

He claims it isn't an exact science, except for one thing: There must be at least six layers of heavy foil. Fewer, and the dirt gets too close to the meat. Most years they used 18-pound turkeys, which took about nine hours to cook, according to the formula of 30 minutes per pound of turkey.

But first, they had to dig the hole. Twenty years ago, when Nellis and a handful of other muscular helpers started excavating in the forested area near the park's dining hall, they found an 18th-century musket ball. It took them a couple of hours to create a hole large enough to hold all of the turkeys plus several cubic feet of hot coals. "It's easier when you can use the same hole every year," Nellis says. When they were able to re-excavate a filled-in hole, "we could do it in 45 minutes."

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