The turkey pan was even older than me, and I have lived a bit. I played checkers with men who beat back the Hun in the Hurtgen forest and sang “Uncloudy Day” with old women who would trade all the shiny automobiles on this earth for one well-tempered mule. I guess what I am trying to say is: I have not been shiny and new for quite some time, and neither has that pan. But, like most things with magic in them, the older it got, the stronger and more wonderful that vessel seemed.
It did not belong to us but was lent to us by kinfolk on my momma’s side, season after season. It materialized on our kitchen table as the last sugar highs of Halloween had dwindled into an uneasy calm and just before the construction-paper cutouts of pilgrims began to appear in the windows of the public schools.
The pan was roughly the size of a No. 2 washtub and, in time, was burnished almost gold by the rendering fat of so many slowly roasting, lovely birds. It was a rich folks’ pan, we believed, because it had an aluminum shine, an adjustable vent, and it would fit in our tiny, secondhand General Electric only if you took out one of the oven racks and leaned it against the wall. Rich folks, we figured, had big, walk-in ovens in which you could roast a pterodactyl and needed an extra-large pan for something called soirees.
It was a lucky pan almost from the beginning. My Aunt Jo and Uncle John won it in a raffle at Newsome’s Service Station on Highway 21 just north of Jacksonville, Ala., in a time of tail fins. I remember that the man who sold them the ticket was called Popcorn, because he liked to eat popcorn, but this is unimportant to our story, I suppose. Still, he remains the only man in my experience named for grain.
The pan would always be lucky, or, as my Pentecostal relations believed, blessed. Across half of the past century and 17 years into the new one, its scorched and battered lid had never been lifted to reveal a poor result, at Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or the odd new year. There was never a dry turkey, or a tough one, or one of bland or questionable flavor, or — and I hate to even mention it — one that was underdone. As a culture, we have a horror of undercooked poultry and believe that if we consume it, we would curl up in a tight little ball and die. We cook our turkeys like we are mad at them and snatch them from the heat at the last possible second. I guess, in a way, that is a lot like getting saved.
I was not in attendance at the pan’s first Thanksgiving, its inauguration, so am forced to take the word of its early legacy from kinfolk who were there — my maternal uncles, mostly, who were prone to lie for profit, when trading cars, guns, knives and dogs, but sometimes just for sport. But no one in my family would ever be so evil as to give voice to a lie about the magic pan. It might bring bad luck, and break the spell, or possibly even anger God.
Because here, in this place surrounded by the foothills of the Appalachians, where people toiled in the cotton mills and steel mills and endless fields, Thanksgiving was the most magical day of the year, the day we looked forward to perhaps more than any other. Yes, Christmas was more holy, but also more complicated. Christmas, no matter how much genuine cheer we drummed up, no matter how many times we sang out, lustily, “Rump-a-pum-pum,” often just went bad, like the time one of my relations bailed himself out of the county prison with an unsolicited Visa card on Christmas. He also procured a case of beer, and he said he was on his way home, to ruin Christmas. I am not making this up. But I saved Christmas by heading him off in the little town of Jacksonville, getting him a second case of beer and getting him a room at the Gamecock Motel.
But Thanksgiving was seldom so complicated. There was no ceremony beyond an interminable congregational holiness prayer. It was all about the food. And my God, what food we had.
The second-most anticipated dish was a huge pot of pinto beans, cooked all morning with a hambone and slabs of ham, fat and skin, so that a clear broth — I call it the elixir — formed on top when they were ready to eat. We had a slab of corn bread dressing as big as a desktop, crispy and shining with fat and butter on top, smooth and creamy underneath, redolent with onion and celery and the perfect amount of sage. There were hot biscuits and mounds of mashed potatoes, colored yellow by butter and cream; and cranberry sauce shaken from a can, as God intended; coleslaw made from orange carrots and red cabbage and just enough mayonnaise; and creamy macaroni and cheese; and green beans from the dirt right outside, canned in my momma’s kitchen. There were creamed sweet onions, and hot green tomato pickles, and sweet bread-and-butter pickles, and pickled cayenne pepper, and . . .
I cannot go on without hurting myself.
But mostly, there was the turkey.
It began as a marble-hard bowling ball of poultry procured from the A&P, or Piggly Wiggly, or Johnson’s Giant Food, and took much of the month of November to thaw. Preparation, after the defrosting, was relatively simple. There was never, ever, stuffing. The very notion of thrusting one’s hand and a fistful of uncooked dressing into the business end of an uncooked fowl was considered uncouth and probably unchristian, and few people in my family have ever even spoken of it aloud.
The insides of our turkey were pristine, except for sometimes a lemon, or onion, or the liver, or gizzard, or other precious things my mother placed there, depending on her mood, before foisting it into the magic pan. The seasonings atop the bird were simple — just a lot of butter, salt and sometimes a little more — and then she placed the magic lid on the magic pan so the alchemy could begin.
My mother, who is 81 now, does not believe she has ever roasted a fine turkey. She apologizes, year by year, even as we lift that lid and the steam and aroma waft out, and the golden skin shines in the dim light of the small kitchen. You reach for the little pointy part of the wing, to taste, and the meat falls off the bone into the lake of melted butter.
“May not be fit to eat,” my mother says.
So it is the pan, then.
The pan, I suppose.
Bragg is the best-selling author of “The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Momma’s Table” (Knopf, 2018) and many other books.
12 servings, plus leftovers
You’ll need a roasting pan with a vented lid, or you can use aluminum foil.
Adapted from “The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Momma’s Table,” by Rick Bragg (Knopf, 2018).
One 16-to-18-pound turkey, giblet packet removed
⅓ cup vegetable oil or extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 pound unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1½ cups water
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven (remove upper racks); preheat to 350 degrees. Have a lidded, shallow roasting pan at hand (or foil if the pan does not have a lid).
Use paper towels to pat the turkey dry, inside and out. Rub it with the oil, inside and out, then rub it with the salt (use the full 3 tablespoons on an 18-pounder), inside and out. Tuck the wings under the bird and place the turkey in the pan.
Rinse the neck and gizzard, then place them in the bird or in the pan. Place all the butter inside the turkey cavity. Pour the water into the bottom of the pan. Cover with the lid so it is slightly ajar, or cover tightly with foil; poke a few holes in the foil so steam can escape.
Roast (lower rack) for 3 to 3½ hours, removing the lid or foil halfway through just long enough to baste the bird with pan juices. Re-cover before returning to the oven. Uncover the turkey during the last 25 minutes of oven time to let it pick up a bit of golden color, if desired.
The bird is done when the internal temperature of the breast meat registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer and the thigh meat registers 165 to 175 degrees (taken away from the bone).
Let the turkey rest for at least 30 minutes before carving. Strain the pan juices and serve as is, or use them to make a pan gravy.
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