Monday, November 24, 2008
Last year was supposed to be the year of "Ten-and-out" for the turkey-in-a-hole-in-the-ground Thanksgiving at my brother-in-law's house in Vermont. This year, his house is on the market, so we decided that we'd go "Eleven-and-out", even though there is a very real possibility that we could see "Twelve-and-out" next year with real estate in its current slump, but no matter. As my husband's niece (and, yes, therefore my niece though there are only about 8 years between us) said when surveyed about quitting the turkey-in-a-hole-in-the-ground, "Well, what else would we do? Where would we go?" Though it has only been a tradition for a short time, it is a tradition that none of us are willing to give up easily.
The first turkey-in-a-hole-in-the-ground Thanksgiving was conceived of in a barroom. Or, more accurately, JR, my brother-in-law, and I learned of it over a few bottles of beer in a barroom. The friend describing it said that his family had done it just once, but the turkey was the best they had ever had, and though they had stood out in a freezing rain to dig it up, they all remembered it fondly. Not so fondly that they would dig another two-foot by two-foot by two-and-a-half foot hole in which to burn a bonfire and bury the bird again, mind you, but they did have fabulous stories as a result of their one foray into firepit cooking the bird.
We explained the plan to the other members of JR's family. Most were skeptical. Plans were made to have plenty of side dishes in the event there was no turkey on Thanksgiving Day. JR's mother was incredulous. Everyone expected dirt in their dark meat. We trekked to Vermont, and on the eve of Thanksgiving, all of us stood around the hole in the ground, anxious about the outcome, as JR and his brother built the fire. And the fire was warming. And the beers were thirst-quenching. And we all enjoyed the fire and hoped for the best when the turkey, stuffed with ice cubes and butter in its cavity, then wrapped in eight layers of heavy-duty foil, was interred under layers of glowing-hot embers. Suddenly, all was black and cold where there had been merriment and frivolity around the fire. Our beers only added to the complete-body chill, so the end of the fire was the end of the night, and off we went to our respective rooms, tossing and turning with alcohol-induced fits of poor slumber.
In the morning - which is to say, around noon, for we had drunk our fill the night before and were a bit slow-moving on the day itself - a crowd gathered to unearth the turkey. Fortunately, noon was the preordained time for turkey excavation as it had gone into the hot coals at midnight and required twelve hours of cooking time. They stood outside in parkas and ski caps with shovels in hand and discarded beer cans in small piles on the ground (I never said we were classy, now, did I?). I say "they" for JR and I were at a friend's house cooking side dishes galore as insurance. While they were poised to dig, a Vermont State Trooper happened by. He drove past, and then, moments later, returned. "We're trained to be curious," he said, "and when I see a bunch of people standing outside with shovels in their hand and no snow, I have to wonder what's going on."
He left amused at our little experiment and with a possible crush on JR's niece, Buffy, and that day, we had much to be thankful for, for the turkey, though quite flat from the pressure of the earth atop it and lacking a crisp skin, was juicy throughout, tasty as any turkey I had ever had, and no one had been arrested for being a public intoxicant in the process.
Over the years, we've acquired many memories from our bonfire celebration, some good, some not so good at the time, but mildly amusing now. JR's brother's English Setter fell in the turkey hole one year; luckily a match hadn't been taken to the kindling just yet. There have been a few wipe-outs which we attribute to snow and ice, though there is a possibility that cocktails have played a role in the occasional loss of balance. One year, JR sliced his foot in the bathtub of the hotel where we were staying, and the hotel owner called the health center where JR and I sat while his foot drained blood into a warm basin of water below his body, and, thinking I was a nurse, instructed me to "have them bring back that hand towel, please. We need that hand-towel back." Thirteen stitches in his foot and eight dollars for dry cleaning the hand towel later, we decided to stay in a different location the following year. We chose a motel that looked fairly clean. Alas, it was not. I wore socks the entire time as my feet had stuck to the carpet when I walked barefoot to the bathroom on our first night. We decided then that it was worth springing for a nice hotel in order to be able to shower for the holiday. I think the entire family appreciates that. We've had nights that we've danced to Michael Jackson's Greatest Hits (yes, he's gross. We still like to dance like idiots to his music, however.) in my brother-n-law's small sculpture studio next to the turkey hole until two in the morning. This Dance Party USA session revealed that JR's sister dances approximately well as Elaine on Seinfeld. Elaine could be a touch better, in fact. I've been reprimanded by JR for signing, "the roof! The roof! The roof is on FI-ERRR! We don't need no water..." with Buffy while her eighty year-old grandmother stood across the fire, me taking the blame for egging Buffy on. I like to think that grandmother Helen was ok with it, and perhaps her one Manhattan for the evening helped dull the noise of our song. And if not, hopefully it dulled the pain of knowing her granddaughter uses cuss words.
We've made improvements to the process, and the second year saw the introduction of a turkey-cooking cage with a handle that JR's brother fashioned at their sheet-metal shop. It serves the dual purpose of keeping the bird from being crushed and also allowing it to be easily located as the handle is over three feet long and protrudes from the dirt covering the hole. We all drink less on the night before now, because we realize that the dinner is much more enjoyable when your head isn't throbbing. And ok, perhaps this pertains most to me - I just get so excited reliving my teen years drinking around a bonfire - so I'll take responsibility for it now, lest I be mocked when I arrive in Vermont this week. I drink less around the fire than I did eleven years ago.
After ten years of putting it on, as JR's mother would say, we all know who's responsible for what part of the meal, and are almost as efficient as a kitchen crew who've been working together for years. Which, of course, we have been. But for only one day per year.
JR's family make traditional dishes that have been part of the holiday since JR and his siblings were children: welsh rabbit, carrot casserole, broccoli pierre, and green bean casserole. My other nieces, also not much younger than me, make some of them, and my sister-in-law makes her specialties. The Thanksgivings of my youth involved more of a simple approach to vegetables, and very few items were ever gratineed or served in cream-and-cheese sauce. A few years into the turkey-in-a-hole-in-the-ground, my sister-in-law said to me, "My family doesn't eat the kind of food you make. I know it's good and all, but we just don't eat like that." Now, in addition to the stuffing I make from scratch, she makes Stove Top to accommodate her family's taste. And I bring a can of jellied cranberry sauce in addition to the cranberry sauce I make. And everyone is happy and thankful for our family and all of its traditions.
Cranberry sauce with honey and orange:
(1) 12-ounce bottle cranberry juice cocktail
3/4 cup honey
zest from one navel orange
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
(1) 12-ounce bag cranberries
Pulp from the one navel orange you zested - (meaning you have to peel the membrane off of the individual sections of orange. This is a bit of a pain, so if you want to avoid this step and have a similar result, use 1/4 cup orange juice with pulp.)
In a large sauce pan over medium heat, bring the cranberry juice, honey, and orange zest to a simmer, stirring frequently. Once honey has dissolved, approximately 3 minutes, add cinnamon stick, pepper, and salt, and simmer for 2 minutes. Add cranberries, and simmer until cranberries have all burst, stirring frequently, approximately 10-15 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in the orange pulp, stirring until pulp is well-incorporated. Allow to cool, and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. If you are using orange juice instead, still remove from the heat and then stir the juice into the cranberry mixture. I make mine on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and there have never been any food safety issues, but it's so easy to make, you could certainly make it a day or two before the festivities and all would be good. Heck, you could probably even make it on the morning of if you're looking for something more to do that day.
Dinner tonight: It is 5:55pm as I write this, and JR is still on Martha's Vineyard where he has been working today, having left home at 4:30 this morning. It's easy to see that my planned meal of pasta with ricotta and prunes (yes, I am completely serious) might not be quite as satisfying as something with some meat, so I am going to use leftover pancetta to make a second round of pancetta and peas with orecchiette. Estimated cost for two: $7.41. The pancetta was $2.84 for about a third of a pound at Venda Ravioli, my favorite Italian market in Providence. We'll use about half, so that's $1.42. The orecchiette cost $1.79 for a one-pound box, we'll use half of that, so 90-cents. The peas were $1.29 for a bag, we'll use less than half of that, but let's call it 65-cents just the same. I don't have any shallot in the house, so I will use some of the millions of leeks I harvested on the last day of my garden, but I'll estimate 50-cents just the same, and the oil was about twenty cents. The big splurge in this meal is the very fancy Red Cow Parmigiano-Reggiano, which was $3.74 for two ounces. However, I did just buy pre-grated parmigiano at Venda Ravioli for $12.99 a pound. I needed a shortcut for the meatballs I'm making for the bonfire night, and $12.99 for a pound of actual parmigiano-reggiano is pretty darned good. I'm going to take advantage of this more often when in need of parmigiano. At 81-cents per ounce, you can be more lavish in your sprinkling of cheese over your spaghetti and meatballs, and you have to admit, sometimes you like them to look like a snow-covered mountain, now then, don't you?