How the Turducken Stole Thanksgiving
Ellen Goldberg recalls a holiday meal in London nearly ruined by a four-bird roast, but salvaged by carrying on a sweet tradition of her late father's.
“Darling!” My friend Tiddles swept through the front door of my flat and into the sitting room in a swirl of wool and chiffon layers, her neck draped with ropes of large costume pearls, toting a counterfeit Birkin bag purchased in Chinatown on a recent trip to New York.
“I’ve brought you holiday crackers, Darling — luxury crackers from Fortnum’s, in an ironic nod to the celebration of your colonial rebellion.” In real life, Tiddles was Genevieve, and she was a quintessentially English eccentric and brilliant corporate lawyer. We nicknamed her Tiddles for her propensity to tiddle (and titter) after too many glasses of Taittinger.
She arrived for Thanksgiving in 2004, when I was in my mid 30s and living in London for work, just as I was tossing the salad and heating up the chestnut soup and sweet potato gratin I had made the night before. As I puttered in the kitchen, she proceeded to lay one cracker at each place setting, but I had installed another object in the position of honor normally reserved for the cracker. “Darling,” Tiddles demanded as she stomped into the kitchen holding a brightly-colored foil-wrapped object in her hand. “What on earth is this?”
“It’s a chocolate turkey,” I replied. “Dad sent them from New York for our party.”
Thanksgiving was my late father’s favorite holiday, the perfect blend of food and togetherness, without the side helping of dogma. He’d always sneak a foil-wrapped chocolate turkey onto the formal English china plate Mom had placed at each child’s place setting. We had to wait for dessert to open the chocolate turkeys, and I would always bite off the head first, as instructed by my two older brothers.
I am now 57. As an adult, I have celebrated wherever I am, and before he passed last year at 93, Dad always flew in the chocolate birds by airmail for my big kid celebrations. It was his way of sending love and letting me know I was missed at the family table. For our first Thanksgiving without Dad, I bought the chocolate turkeys and slipped them onto the table so we would all feel like he was there.
Thanksgiving was my late father’s favorite holiday, the perfect blend of food and togetherness, without the side helping of dogma. He’d always sneak a foil-wrapped chocolate turkey onto the formal English china plate Mom had placed at each child’s place setting.
I have been a skilled chef all my adult life and can adapt the meal to wherever I am. When I taught English in Beijing after college in the 1980’s, I cooked a full holiday feast using a single gas burner, a wok and a toaster oven I borrowed from the missionary family who lived downstairs. I am fearless in the kitchen, but I met my biggest challenge in England, the year I took on the turducken.
In my mid-30s, I lived in London for three years in a flat inside a converted spice warehouse named Cayenne Court. I called that my Spice Girl era. My friends and I always made Thanksgiving dinner in England, but it was difficult to procure turkeys other than at Christmas, and large birds did not fit easily into tiny European ovens, so we generally improvised.
My British sojourn coincided with the onset of the turducken trend. A turducken is an engastration — a deboned chicken, stuffed inside a deboned duck, stuffed inside a deboned turkey like an avian matryoshka doll. The combination sounded divine, but when I read the recipes I was a bit put off by having to actually debone the meat and nest the birds one inside the other. Luckily, I found a posh butcher who sold pre-made four-bird roasts, in which the outer layer is goose, and pheasant is substituted for turkey. I guess it was technically a goophucken, but I digress.
The day before Thanksgiving, the butcher delivered the masterpiece, but they had neglected to tell me it was frozen when I ordered it. “Just put it in your refrigerator, love,” the delivery man assured me. “It’ll be scrummy,” Cockney for yummy, which was appropriate, as it was the size and shape of a rugby ball but weighed as much as a bowling ball.
The next morning, I took it out of the refrigerator. As directed, I preheated the oven to 160 degrees Celsius (325 Fahrenheit) and slid the roast in four hours before my guests arrived. At thirty minutes per pound it was supposed to take about five hours. After Tiddles, my college friend Finn—an Irish-American Russian speaking expat lawyer (whose far-flung travels made us suspect he was also a secret agent)—arrived with his folding bike in one hand and a home-baked gingerbread Guinness cake in the other. He deposited the cake on the counter, kissed me once on each cheek, and pulled two bottles of Prosecco out of his knapsack.
My childhood friend Rosie and her partner Roberto arrived shortly after that, with two bottles of Pinot Noir and a lovely runny Stinking Bishop cheese.
I have been a skilled chef all my adult life and can adapt the meal to wherever I am…but I met my biggest challenge in England, the year I took on the turducken.
During high school, when her parents went through a messy divorce, Rosie subsisted on a diet of takeout Chinese and many meals at my family’s apartment in Manhattan, where Mom considered Rosie her fourth child. When she moved to London, she met Roberto, a British-Italian wine importer. Rosie learned to cook over the course of their relationship, and she became a Master of Wine and food writer. She also became an extremely finicky eater. She and Roberto had been badgering me about the turducken for a month.
My surrogate siblings in place, we popped open a bottle of Prosecco, and I went to check the turducken, champagne flute in hand. I poked in a thermometer to see if it was done and the thermometer went in about an inch and stopped dead. It was still frozen. Oy gevalt! I downed the Prosecco in one gulp.
In the other room, Roberto opened the second bottle of bubbly, and Tiddles regaled the others with her tale of having seen Princess Diana years before at the waxing salon. Finn stuck his head in to check on me and I relayed the still frozen status of the main course.
“Just turn up the heat,” Finn said. “It will be fine.”
By this point I was tipsy and having trouble converting Celsius to Fahrenheit. I turned up the heat to 220 degrees Celsius (425 Fahrenheit) and returned to the sitting room to listen to Rosie pontificate on Portugese cork. We yanked open the crackers and sat around the coffee table in our paper crowns, while Finn regaled us with the story of his recent business trip to Tashkent. After demolishing the stinky cheese, and draining the second bottle of Prosecco, we moved on to the Pinot Noir, as Tiddles schooled us on the proper pronunciation of water (“Wawtuh, Darling”). (See Tiddles’ demonstration here:)
And then I smelled the smoke. As I sprang from the couch, I heard the screech of the smoke detector, and when I opened the oven, a small cloud of black smoke poured out. The fat from the outer layer of goose had caught fire. And that bloody turducken was still frozen inside. In my paper crown, queen of my tiny kitchen, I turned off the oven and drank another glass of wine, and then I peeled the foil off my chocolate turkey and bit off its head.
That year I learned three lessons: Thanksgiving is about being with the people you love. A chocolate turkey makes anything better. And Pinot Noir pairs beautifully with chestnut soup and scrambled eggs.
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