Thanksgivings to Remember, and Forget

We recently attended a pot-luck Thanksgiving dinner here in Costa Rica. It was full of great food and interesting people and, best yet, there was no fire.

Thanksgiving hasn’t always been such a pleasant, accident-free event. Many years ago, when our marriage was still green with youth, I received a call from my mother-in-law. Would I, she asked, be able to help my father-in-law fry a turkey for the Thanksgiving feast that would take place at their house?

In this era—the mid-90’s—deep frying was typically reserved for things like french fries and—if you went to the state fair—Snickers bars. Could I fry a turkey? Sure, I thought. Probably. A turkey though, was a large, thick hunk of meat. People had a hard enough time producing an edible turkey in an oven. An undercooked, but yet over-fried turkey was a very real outcome.

Curiosity eventually won out over discretion and a week later my father-in-law and I stood next to a huge pot parked under the overhang of their garage roof. There had been some concern about rain, but I suspected the placement had more to do with my mother-in-law’s not-very-secret-desire for a new garage.

My father-in-law was born without fear, a personality trait that’s quite cool in many ways, but made even those generally considered risk-takers (me, for example) a bit nervous. The prior Christmas I’d been tasked to hold the bottom of his extension ladder, which was just barely long enough to touch the bottom side of a tree limb overhead. While he wrapped the limb with Christmas lights, I tried to dodge the cars whizzing by within inches of me, honking. The ladder was, of course, in the middle of their busy street, during rush-hour, backing up holiday traffic in either direction.

With this as a backdrop I nervously watched the gallons of peanut oil in the giant pot in front of us. We were joined in our vigil by my father-in-law’s dog, Rodney, who was better known as “Dammit Rodney!” or “Rodney No!” for his perpetual disregard of my father-in-law’s wishes. Rodney took offense about as much as he took direction, and preferred to spend his time chewing on pieces of concrete he pried up from the old driveway.

My father-in-law bent down to check the temperature of the oil via the thermometer perched on the side. Rodney extended his nose into the pot to join in the inquiry, which inspired yet another “Dammit Rodney!” Rodney barely noticed the exclamation, took a deep sniff of the hot oil, and then walked over and urinated on my father-in-law’s Surburban. Theirs was an interesting, dysfunctional relationship.

My mother-in-law opened the door and yelled out, “It’s going to be more like 3:00 now.” The door then shut behind her. My father-in-law turned back from yelling at Rodney and we both contemplated the vat of oil in front of us that we’d carefully, slowly raised to 350 degrees in preparation of cooking the turkey. It was 11:30 a.m. We’d been told that the feast was scheduled for 12:30.

“I guess that’s it for now then,” I said as I reached down to cut-off the gas feeding the flames of the cooker. We sat there for a few moments, watching the steady temperature reading of 350 degrees.

We both made a move towards the house, which inspired Rodney to get up and come stick his head in the pot again. As we pushed him back I thought of the odds that a huge vat of oil would go unmolested at a large family gathering. I also remembered another recent dinner when my mother-in-law had decided to water the backyard, and the smoker containing dinner, with a giant sprinkler an hour before dinner was to be served. I sighed and sat down on a nearby folding chair. “I’ll take first shift watching the pot.”

My father-in-law nodded, promised to spell me at some point, and went back in to find out what had happened with the timing of the feast. The hours passed and the 3:00 timeframe initially held, which caused me to start reheating the oil at 2:00. This plan was then scrapped at 2:45 in favor of a 5:00 deadline, which eventually became 6:00.

Around 6:15, as we used the end of a shovel to try and extend the cover over the six-foot tall flames roaring out of the pot, I thought back on everything that had ever gone wrong with my life, which included volunteering to fry a turkey. White-hot foam oozed out of the pot, pouring over the long-turned-off cooker, and onto the ground. Kitty litter was then shoveled over the foam, which combined with the water from the hose that was being used in a vain attempt to cool the oil by spraying the outside of the pot. Rodney No dashed in and around the scene, feverishly licking at the oily gumbo we’d created on the ground.

The late arriving guests—who’d inspired all of the many time changes—said the flames were visible from the street. From their perspective the scene appeared tribal, with dark figures dancing around a roaring fire. They even took video footage with the camera they’d brought with them — and would gladly share this footage for years to come.

Our dinner that night was not turkey but instead Dominos, and I’d never been more tired than I was when I eventually crawled into bed. I’d taken three showers but still felt like I’d gone swimming behind the Exxon Valdez. When I closed my eyes I gave silent thanks to the fact that it was over. Thanksgiving would get no worse.

The next morning my wife came in with a strange look on her face. She needed to tell me something, but you could tell that she wasn’t at all convinced that I’d be happy to hear the news. If she could have lobbed this news over a tall wall and then run the other direction she would have done so.

The news was that Thanksgiving was not over. Her father had declared that the turkey, which had never made it into the pot, still needed to be cooked. Further, he refused to believe that all of that expensive peanut oil that had burned for many, many hours was not reusable. The culprit behind all of the issues we’d experienced was identified: it was a combination of a dubious son-in-law (which was fair) and a faulty thermometer, which had seized up somewhere between the second and third reheatings and encouraged us to turn up the heat on oil apparently already hot enough to vaporize.

I didn’t want to get divorced, but I also didn’t want to spend another day in the oily, smokey confines of my in-laws’ driveway. My bride gave me the “do this one for the team” look, and I eventually caved, with caveats—the first of which was that I’d have nothing to do with the frying of the turkey; the second, related item was that I refused to eat anything that was cooked in the rancid oil.

That afternoon, seated at the large dining table, I bore witness to the triumphant return of the turkey. My father-in-law beamed as he carried it in to the dining table. I almost dove even further into my already deep pool of self-pity before I caught a whiff of the bird. The turkey was indeed cooked to a golden, crispy perfection, but since my father-in-law and grandfather-in-law had insisted upon reusing the sludgy remains of the burned oil the turkey smelled like a old, burned shoe.

It was agreed that calling Dominos two days in a row for holiday dinner was poor form, so the meal consisted of leftover pizza combined with hearty servings of what was originally meant to be side dishes—all except for Dammit Rodney, who happily dined on the stinky carcass of the poor turkey.

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