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My grandfather has carved the Thanksgiving turkey for 70 years. Here’s what he taught me.

There are many tutorials on carving a turkey, but the author says her grandfather’s tips beat them all. (iStock)

The kitchen smells like warm orange peels and rosemary. Surrounded by the lanky bodies of great-grandchildren, my grandfather’s slight, 5-foot frame hunches over the turkey, a flowered apron tied around his waist to shield his sweater from grease splatters. “Who wants a taste?” he asks his adoring fans, as he spears a dripping piece of skin.

I marvel as my 6-year-old daughter, a strict noodletarian, pops the glistening turkey in her mouth. As picky as she is, she knows the family secret: Nothing tastes better than the first bite, straight from The Carver himself.

“How are you feeling, Poppa?” I ask him as I pinch some grease-drowned turkey left stranded in the cutting board’s shallow moat and pop it in my mouth. “I feel 95,” he answers with a grin, or maybe it’s a grimace. Considering he is, in fact, 95, there is no irony in his response. Yet even as his back aches, and his knees are bent from standing too long, he carves our family’s Thanksgiving turkey, just as he has for more than 70 years. His cuts are skilled and precise as he lovingly fans the meat onto the platter — dark meat to the right, white meat to the left.

How to carve a turkey

I realize not every family is as lucky as we are to have such an experienced carver at the helm. In fact, I’m convinced turkey carving is a lost art, and Poppa is one of the last great masters. This revelation hit me last Thanksgiving: We had two large birds that needed carving. (Why two? Not because we had a big, growing family that needed to be fed. It is because Aunt Mindy and Aunt Heidi both think the other’s turkey is too dry, so they each make their own. Turns out they both needed copious amounts of gravy.)

When my well-intended husband noticed Poppa’s fatigue as he started carving Turkey No. 2, he took over the knife — and proceeded to tenderly hack the beautiful bird to ugly pieces. Clearly, my 42-year-old husband wasn’t prepared for the task, because presentably slicing a 20-pound turkey isn’t anything like slicing bread, or even roast beef. Even with an electric knife, which my Poppa sometimes uses for some extra muscle, carving takes skill and practice. If you don’t believe me, check one of the more than 5 million YouTube videos explaining how to do it correctly. And a quick Google search shows that pros from Alton Brown to Geoffrey Zakarian have an opinion on the right technique. (They both recommend removing the wishbone before cooking to make it easier to carve the breast meat. But Poppa has never done this, so I’m not sure I trust them.)

For the juiciest roast turkey around, coat it with something familiar

I decided that this Thanksgiving, when Poppa starts to tire, the birds that were so carefully braised for hours (and hours, maybe too many hours? Is that why they are dry?) should not suffer in turn. I decided it was time for my Poppa to divulge his great secret of turkey carving so that generations of family to come can continue in The Carver’s plucky shadow. So I called him.

“Poppa?” I say when he answers. “It’s Sara.”

“Sara! It’s so nice to hear your voice!” he responds, as always.

“I have a random question for you,” I say, getting right to the point. Our conversations are always short and sweet. “You’ve been carving the Thanksgiving turkey ever since my mom was little — at least for 70 years now. How’d you learn to do it, and what’s the trick?”

I guess I expected a bit of Yoda-like advice, such as “Decide you must how to serve them best,” or at least some detailed instructions. Instead I got something equally as ponderous, for the opposite reason: “You cut through the legs and the breast, and you always save the wing.” He responded as if there was nothing more. Nearly a century of experience, and that was it?

“Save the wing?” I repeated, baffled.

“Grandma always liked the fligl,” he clarifies, using the Yiddish word.

My grandparents were married for 73 years, until my grandma passed away two years ago. Until the end, he was her devoted servant, climbing to the tops of trees to pick her the biggest, shiniest apple — both metaphorically and literally — until he couldn’t climb anymore.

“Yes, I know. But . . .” I said, trying to grasp at something that didn’t seem to be there.

“If I was in charge of carving the turkey, I could make sure she got her fligl,” he told me. “Well, it’s always nice talking to you! Thanks for calling.” And he hung up. I was left staring at my phone’s screen saver. All these years he had been carving the turkey just so he could be sure my grandma got the piece she wanted? It seemed astounding. Comical. Romantic.

Since I’ve had some time to chew on this revelation, I’m going to make sure that my husband will be properly prepared to be the relief carver this Thanksgiving. I know Poppa will tie on the apron and carve the turkey like always. His slices will be beautiful. The great-grandchildren will gather around taking first bites and giggling as they pull with greasy hands at the wishbone (which will have been left in the turkey — sorry, Alton). And when Poppa’s knees finally give and my husband takes over the knife, he’ll make great ugly cuts.

“Save me the skin,” I’ll whisper to him, my stomach gurgling just thinking of my favorite part of the turkey. Because if I learned anything, it’s that tradition doesn’t lie in the precision of the slices. It’s in the love that’s put into carving them. And I’m lucky to be the carver’s wife.

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How to carve a turkey

For the juiciest roast turkey around, coat it with something familiar

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