Dailies, Holidays

Good Gravy

What better way to begin than with Thanksgiving? This is one of our favorite holidays for many reasons. I love to cook, so it’s right up my alley, and we get to spend the day with our families all at once since Brandi and I usually host. It’s our largest gathering of the year, and this year was a big one, since the pandemic robbed of the holiday last year, and we have a big, new, remodeled kitchen this year, so a lot was riding on us to get it right!

Our Thanksgiving always starts the night before, as soon as we’re home from work, and it doesn’t end until around 10pm, Thanksgiving Day. It’s feet-murdering, body-bloating marathon, and I love every minute of it.

This year, we did a lot more prep on Wednesday night than usual. I got home from work a little early, and immediately got the Turkey into the brine to allow it enough time to do its thing. For the uninitiated, to brine a turkey is to submerge it in a heavily-iced saltwater bath for 12-24 hours before roasting it. I usually include brown sugar, garlic, turkey & veggie stocks, and some secret seasonings. The idea is that the brine tenderizes and seasons the bird, a bit like a marinade, and the result is a super juicy, flavorful turkey. In the words of the Mandalorian, this is the way.

Don’t worry. This is our dedicated Turkey Brining cooler. We rarely get mixed up with the drink cooler.

Next up, was stuffing prep—chopping and sweating an S-load of veggies and apples. I have this thing about chopping onions, where I tend to cry a lot. Like. A LOT. I once chopped off the tip of my thumb cutting onions because I could barely see through the tears. So, the prospect of cutting up five onions for the stuffing was a little daunting. Nevertheless, I had plan.

One of the few benefits of living through an airborne respiratory pandemic, is that there is no shortage of masks in our house. I quickly found an unopened package of KN95s I had purchased for a work trip in October. I threw one on with a pair of safety glasses from my toolbox and got to work. I’d like to tell you that it worked very well, but all I can really say is that it worked. I still cried my eyes out like I was watching Rose pry Jack’s frozen fingers from that floating door for the first time (never let go, Rose), but it wasn’t quite as bad as it would have been without the gear.

By the time I finished the stuffing stuff, Brandi was home from work, so I ceded the kitchen to her to make the rolls. I cook, and Brandi bakes. Brandi loves baking for the very reason that I hate it: science. Don’t get me wrong, I dig science, but I love the freedom of improvisation. When you cook, for the most part, you get to figure it out as you go—season to taste, add a random ingredient last minute because your instincts say it will work, adjust ratios, etc… Baking is much more precise. Only these ingredients, combined in this order, in these ratios, using this method, at this exact temperature, for no more and no less than this amount of time will give you this particular result. I think that Brandi is a big fan the structure of baking—having a recipe and a process. I am not. I love to wing it and see how it comes out. Sometimes that sucks for me, because I don’t keep recipes anywhere outside of my head, which is a faulty storage system, but it also makes cooking a great adventure since I’m always setting off without a map. I guess the point here is that Brandi’s rolls came out stellar, as usual.

Ariel came by to hang out and spend the night around 7, and we wrapped up the prep work with Pumpkin Pies. Years ago, I found a recipe by Alton Brown that suggested using gingersnaps for the crust instead of graham crackers, and it was an absolute revelation, so we’ve been using that method ever since. I’d like to say that I make these pies with fresh pumpkin, but I’ve done that in the past, and honestly, I don’t taste a difference between fresh and canned pumpkin, so all it really does to go fresh is to add an extra hour of cooking and prep time.

River is a funny little guy. He made a big scene when Ariel arrived, and then didn’t leave her side for the duration of her visit. We tell him all the time, “you can’t bark at people and then insist they cuddle you,” but somehow he makes it work. He even spent the night in the guest room with Ariel when we all went to bed.

Finally, Thanksgiving Morning was upon us. One of our favorite Thanksgiving traditions is to do a turkey trot first thing in the morning. The hospital where Brandi works holds an annual five-mile run / two-mile walk to raise money and take food donations for a local pantry, which we’ve done for quite a few years now. In the past, we’ve always done the run, but this time around we decided to just do the walk. We met up with a few friends who always join us for the run/walk followed by coffee in the parking lot afterwards. You’ll see them below, they’re great. What you won’t see is the middle-aged woman on roller skates who took a tumble rolling backwards down a steep hill halfway through the walk just as I was thinking certainly, she’s going to fall. Don’t worry, she survived with little worse than a bruised ego.

Back home, it was time to get cooking, so we put on a record and got to work! Long ago, an old friend gave me his family recipe for a delightful turkey, and I follow it to this day. It’s a little unconventional, but it makes a damn fine bird. Basically, you melt some butter into some orange marmalade (you heard me), mix in some sage & thyme, and rub the glaze between the skin and the breast meat. This requires me to do something I call Turkey Glove. Vegetarians and vegans, avert your eyes.

My brother, Vinny, arrived shortly after I got the bird in the oven. I had insisted that he come up early so that he, Ariel, and I could record a… special holiday message of thanks to share online with our friends. We tried to rope Brandi into this, but she’s a little camera shy. Good thing too, because she can actually sing, and would have completely upstaged us all.

While I took a break to upload our foolishness to the internet, River got comfortable with Vinny and Brandi got to work on the cranberry sauce. I don’t usually like the stuff, but Brandi crushes it every year. She makes it with fresh cranberries, orange juice, and probably something highly addictive, because it’s the only cranberry sauce I’ll eat. It’s bonkers-good, and it’s even better the next day atop a turkey sandwich.

I had told everyone to plan on dinner at about five, so our families started to arrive around four. What I hadn’t counted on was what a filthy liar the internet would be. Our kitchen remodel included all new appliances, including a new oven with a convection setting. I had never cooked a turkey on convection, so I did quick google to see what kind of a difference to expect in cooking time. The internet (dirty liar) told me that a 23 lb bird should cook in about three and half hours on convection at 350 degrees. I had planned on having ample time for the bird to rest and the stuffing and potatoes to cook before 5pm. But that damn bird took nearly five and half hours to get up to a safe internal temperature of 160 degrees. The turkey didn’t end up coming out of the oven until a little after 4:30, and I still needed to cook the stuffing, make the mashed potatoes, whip up some gravy, and get everything on serving dishes. Suffice to say, I was desperately hoping that the food would be worth the wait.

This is where Brandi deserves a million percent of the credit for Thanksgiving EVERY year. I do the bulk of the cooking, but she handles nearly 100% of the chaos as our guests arrive. It always feels like a sudden explosion of people—like a clown car just unloaded into our house. One moment, it’s just us, and the next, the house is bustling with activity. And River, the anxious wonder, certainly doesn’t make it any easier. But Brandi gets everyone situated, handles the dogs, and gets the space ready for dinner. It’s remarkable, and I don’t envy her that duty.

We had the house packed. Close to twenty people, including ourselves. By the time everything was finally ready, it was nearly 6:30. Ooof. Dinner was an hour and a half late. BUT! The food was a hit! The gravy, in particular, got rave reviews. I like to say that the gravy is the quickest thing to whip up, if you’ve got twenty-four hours to spare. Once the drippings are ready, it only takes about three minutes to make a gravy. The trouble is, that deep, rich, remarkable flavor comes from the brine and the glaze and the aromatics and the time it takes to slow roast them out the bird. The gravy might be a minor player, but it contains the pure essence of the meal.

So, we shared a lovely meal, we all ate way too much, the kids played some classic Nintento games on little 8-bit handhelds, and the adults talked late into the evening about our lives, current events, politics, religion, and a few other Thanksgiving Bingo topics, and before we knew it, the night was through. I wish I had gotten more pictures while everyone was here, but I was too occupied getting everything squared away and trying to stay on top of the dinner mess before it got too out of hand. Fortunately for us, Brandi’s cousin Michelle kept sneaking into the kitchen to do dishes while I finished cooking, so the mess wasn’t too bad by the time everyone headed home. I was bloated, I had the meat sweats, and my feet were killing me. But good gravy, I was overjoyed.

This holiday is so important to me. When I was little, my grandma on my dad’s side would host a big Thanksgiving dinner every year. All of the aunts and uncles and cousins and many of their friends would show up hungry and leave full of food and full-hearted. It was such a joyful experience each year, and I adored it. My grandmother died while I was still in high school, and the Thanksgiving gatherings ended after that. For years, it was just my dad, my siblings, and me. When I got old enough, I decided that if I ever wanted to have that big, joyful family experience again, it was up to me to create it, so I started hosting a combined Thanksgiving—Brandi’s family and mine all under one roof—something we had never done in my childhood. And when I’m asked if someone can bring a friend, the answer is always “YES! The more, the merrier!” It’s expensive and exhausting each year, and even though it makes me sad that my grandmother and my father are no longer here to take part, I never want to stop doing it, and I hope that our families are able to draw as much joy out of the day as I do.

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