Turkeys terrify me.
I’m not talking about the live ones, slowly colonizing Brookline as they plot their coup, though they’re bad enough. No, it’s the deceased ones I fear most. They’re the stuff(ing) of my nightmares this time of year.
I like to think I’m a good cook. And I’m not generally the squeamish type. But I find the turkey’s extreme turkeyness offputting. I loathe handling it, its skeevy skin all bumpy and undeniably animal-like. Its massiveness just begs for a mishap that ends with its wan pinkness splayed on the floor, or on the cat. Fear grips me as I reach apologetically into the cavity to pull out its innards. Sorry . . . sorry . . . what the heck is this . . . gah!
But these frights pale once I’ve wrestled the unfortunate creature into the oven. Then I begin to fret in earnest, about Evil Spores. Will this be the year I poison somebody?
To guard against lawsuits, I usually cook my bird to a texture reminiscent of kiln-dried sawdust. Oh, to see my expectant guests jawing away at the flesh, eyes widening with panic, until they finally give up and wash down their mouthfuls of sheetrock with giant slugs of chardonnay. Such a beautiful tradition!
Every year I swear I’ll never cook another, but then, inexorably, there I am, pulling a behemoth from a supermarket freezer, memories of last year’s labors distant and gauzy as those of childbirth. Until the big day looms, and the familiar dread descends.
I’m not alone, says Mary Clingman. She oversees the kind souls who work the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line over the holidays. On Thanksgiving Day, they hear from 12,000 people doing battle with big birds all over the country. Legions of the lost dial 1-800-BUTTERBALL from stores, from noisy kitchens, and from closets (some people can’t admit they have a problem).
There is a lot of angst out there. “Sometimes, people get overwhelmed . . . and they need to talk to somebody who is calm, who can say ‘Yeah, you’re doing fine, don’t worry about it,’ ” Clingman says.
Others need a little more than that. Like the man who used a chain saw to cut his turkey in half, then called for advice on how to get the grease off the bird (cut it away). Or the woman who abruptly ended a call about thawing time because she had been keeping her turkey in a snowbank, and realized she hadn’t marked its exact location.
You learn a lot working the turkey line, Clingman says: Which areas of the country are having awful weather, making guests alarmingly late; where there are power outages (no gas grill, no joy), how much tension is in a home (there is sometimes shouting in the background).
You get little snapshots of people’s lives, too. There was the recently-widowed man from Atlanta who was cooking a turkey for the first time, and kept calling to make sure he got it just right for his four children. And a besotted gentleman who called to ask if he could hide an engagement ring in the stuffing. The chances of inadvertent ingestion were way too high, his adviser told him. Best to tie it to a drumstick instead.
It’s satisfying work, helping people pull off these fowl feats. “They have now accomplished something they never thought they could,’’ Clingman says.
Could she do the same for me? I asked Clingman to talk me through my turkey neuroses. She was very encouraging, and almost convinced me everything would be just fine.
“You’ve got something really good here,” she said, her voice soothing, therapist-like. And for a minute, I really believed her. I went to the fridge to make friends with this year’s turkey. I gave it a gentle poke through the plastic.
I love you Mary, but never again. Again.