Turkey is not the most common of edible birds here, so I asked around if anyone knew where I could get one. Some stores sold frozen ones, but Tomáš suggested he might have a neighbor who raised turkeys. After a phone call he found out that the man indeed was selling fresh turkeys and that I had the option of buying a male or a female. The females weighed between 16 and 20 pounds, the males between 20 and 30 pounds. I asked for a female.
The bird arrived the morning of November 25th, the day of our Thanksgiving dinner. It was gigantic and wrapped in a clear bag. I stood on the scale with it; it weighed 22 pounds. I am not an unaccomplished chef—I have cooked a few birds in my day, but never a turkey, let alone one that weighs 22 pounds—so, needless to say I was feeling a little trepidatious. Thankfully Tomáš also offered a large pan to roast the bird so I didn’t have to worry about buying a large enough roasting pan.
All week long I researched how to dress and cook the bird, and thankfully my family Skyped me on Thursday so I could ask my mother, my sister Miriam, and my grandmother advice on how to prepare a few things. I was responsible for the turkey, gravy, and stuffing. (Kristina and Andrew graciously offered to make pumpkin pie, apple crisp, green bean casserole, squash soup, and cranberry sauce. I thought that seemed like an unfair balance in responsibilities, but they reminded me that there were two of them and one of me.)
It took some time to wrangle the bird from its plastic bag. Then I removed the neck and giblets (thankfully put in their own bag inside the bird). After staring at the huge turkey, I started to get it ready to cook. I was told that you could expect to cook the turkey for twenty minutes per pound. That meant the bird would be in the oven for seven hours and twenty minutes. I thought, “There’s no way the bird will be cooked, rested, and carved by dinner time,” but another chart suggested that four to four-and-a-half hours was closer to the time required.
I slipped butter under the breast skin and put some parsley, rosemary, and chopped onions, garlic and celery in the cavity. Mom recommended roasting the turkey on its belly, so I set the bird breast-side-down in the pan. Then, it went in the oven. It literally filled the entire oven. After the bird browned a bit, I put some rosemary and bacon on its back (another recommendation from home) and then let it cook. I was so concerned about that turkey that I must have just opened the oven and looked at it every 30 minutes, just to make sure it was still there.
Meanwhile I made broth for the stuffing with the neck and giblets (not including the liver). As time passed, some familiar odors filled my apartment. I did not have one of those thermometers that you stick in the bird to see how hot it is inside, and of course the thing didn’t come with the little popper that says its done. So I ran to a nearby store that sells kitchen stuff, but found nothing. They did not sell the right kind of thermometer. I asked a neighbor, Katka Valčova, if she had one and she said no. Tomáš said, “Just cook it for an extra hour.” In my head rang those words all big-meat-cookers fear: “But what if it dries out?” I decided that if people were able to eat turkey without that thermometer for hundreds of years, we could do it too. “I’ll just have to cook it old school,” I said. “We call it ‘cooking conservatively’,” Katka said.
It was time to make the stuffing. The day before, I had purchased some loaves of seed-laden bread that I liked from the store and began cutting them into little pieces. Eventually I got sick of cutting day-old bread and just started tearing it into little pieces with my hands. I toasted the bread pieces in a butter-laden pan and then chopped the onions and celery. I mixed it all up, poured in the giblets-broth, and let it sit for a while, stirring constantly since the pot I was using heated fairly unevenly. Meanwhile the turkey sizzled away in the oven. (I made a tent of foil for it after it browned.)
After some time I thought, “Oh, it’s time to take the turkey out and see if the juices run clear.” I kept piercing the turkey, but no juices ever dripped out of it. I started to get a little concerned, but eventually I figured out a way to poke the meat and make it drip. The juices were clear so I figured it was okay. I stood back and did some mental calculations and realized I had miscounted the time and left the turkey in the oven for 5 hours. “Well,” I thought, “Tomáš got his extra hour.”
I let the turkey rest for 20 minutes and then it was time to carve the thing. I have only once carved a bird, and that was a modest chicken 8 years ago at a friend’s house. I found a series of photos from a 1970 issue of Life magazine on the internet and was all ready to try my hand at it when there was a knock at the door. It was Tomáš saying his afternoon plans were cancelled so he would like to help. He volunteered his meat-carving expertise and went at the bird with a pair of knives. The bird literally fell apart, it was so tender from being in the oven so long. It looked great. “This is cooked!” Tomáš announced. We followed the Life magazine instructions for a while, then Tomáš just improvised while I set out to make the drippings into gravy.
Miriam had given me instructions on gravy-making the night before and I brought out my little slip of paper and followed them, mixing flour into cold water and then adding that to the drippings, whisking everything all the while. Then I let it boil and simmer for a few minutes and tasted it. When I tasted it, the gravy’s flavor was so familiar I laughed. Fairly pleased with myself, I cried out, “Hey! I made gravy!” As soon as I knew that gravy was perfect, I was certain I was going to enjoy the meal, no matter what happened.
Michal and Marek Valčo, Katka’s husband and son, helped me carry the food from my apartment to the other building. Andrew and Kristina were super diligent and were setting up the cafeteria already, getting the food set up buffet style, putting out plates and silverware. Others arrived with their contributions to the meal: mashed potatoes, baked potato wedges, salad, a spiced boiled bread, cake, beer, wine, Slovak cola, fruit, vegetables, and more. Everyone gathered in the school cafeteria at 6.
There were about 20 adults and a dozen children. Tomáš played a little on a tiny guitar while we got our food, prayed, and ate and ate and ate and ate. When I saw people going for seconds and even thirds,
I knew we did okay. (“Benjamin,” Michal said, “You are causing me to sin: gluttony.” Slávka Gulánová jokingly asked, “So, is Thanksgiving just about eating too much?”) All three of us Americans got lots of compliments and for several of the Slovaks, it was their first Thanksgiving meal. Iťa Bodnarova told me she had never had turkey before and was curious about how it tasted. It was also her first pumpkin pie. Afterwards she said the meal was “gorgeous”. And it was.