Many Christmases ago, I was a relatively newly married young woman, not well-schooled in the domestic arts but eager to climb that most daunting of culinary mountains - cooking a Christmas turkey. This single phrase can strike terror into even the most fearless of cooks, neophyte and epicurean alike.
It was our second or third Christmas together and we were living in Vancouver, both away from our families. My new husband had recently moved to Canada from Europe with me after our marriage. He had his own set of holiday traditions, including a six-course Christmas Eve meal that spanned hours of eating with drinks served in correctly shaped stemware to accompany each course. I would later witness this gargantuan and gourmand eating marathon, but for now, I was anxious to share my more modest family traditions.
I had consulted with my mother numerous times before beginning the turkey preparations and had studied several books on the subject. My mother's culinary wisdom had been passed down from a long maternal lineage of successful Christmas dinners past. Going in I knew that the preparation and cooking involved endless hours, perhaps beginning before dawn, and that one of the important indications of doneness was when the wings threw themselves from the body in a peak of perfection.
The turkey tomes took on a much more scientific and mathematical model than my mother's preparations, portraying the subject as one of the greatest cooking challenges of all. The books used obscure terms such as "body cavity" and "giblets," called for cooking tools obviously missing from my spartan collection, such as a cooking thermometer and turkey baster, and made dire threats of disease and death if one failed to keep turkey blood away from all other food and utensils.
The actual cooking of the bird involved such intricate and complex mathematical calculations regarding kilos, temperatures and time that Einstein's theory of relativity began to look relatively simple. My math phobia reared up as I calculated and double-checked my calculations.
Now I should mention that we were living in one of the many strange accommodations we would share over the years. This was the time before we lived in the top floor of an old house with Greg, who would steal into our side of the fridge to scarf our food at night while we slept.
This time, we were what is euphemistically termed "mortgage helpers," living in the basement of a wealthy woman's house. Our unit was self-contained except for the kitchen, which we shared with her and her daughter. It was upstairs, an awkward situation both physically and socially. We had to negotiate times for kitchen use around her needs, and this was no exception.
I had reserved the oven and prep time, and on Christmas Day got down to the business of fishing out small bags of innards from various cavities and preparing my mother's stuffing, to which I'd added some personal, and I thought highly creative, innovations such as fruit and nuts. I put the bird in at the correctly calculated hour and descended back down to our little love nest in the basement.
During the turkey roasting hours, we camped near our spindly Charlie Brown tree, which we'd hiked under the power lines and rescued from clear-cutting the previous weekend. We played that game from childhood where you squint your eyes and bob your head to make the tiny Christmas lights twinkle.
There were few packages under the tree that year as we were struggling students. We excitedly began to open them in a burst of Christmas cheer, far from our families but warm in the glow of our early couplehood.
I happily shredded the first package to reveal a decidedly pedestrian but much-needed desk lamp. Not quite the romantic token of my true love's affections I'd envisioned. But there were still two small packages nestled under the tree that conjured images of jewellery, lingerie and other sensuous delights.
I opened the first. A 60-watt light bulb lay wrapped under layers of tissue.
With rising hopes, I tore into the second package. It yielded yet another light bulb for the new lamp.
Oh well, there was still my masterful and magnificent gift of the traditional Christmas dinner to anticipate.
After several hours, I went upstairs to the kitchen to begin the mashed potatoes and other vegetables, along with my own homemade cranberry sauce, sure to impress. I finished whipping the potatoes, fluffy as cumulus clouds, and remembered that in the last hour of turkey cooking, basting to achieve the perfect crispy skin was part of the ritual, along with using the drippings to make the gravy.
I opened the oven and there sat a cold, mottled, faintly purple, totally raw turkey. For some obscure reason, and I do blame the turkey gods for this, the oven had never been turned on. I absolutely recall setting the correct temperature on the dial, but it is possible I had forgotten to push the start button, which I now hastened to do.
It was well after midnight when we began that memorable meal. The potatoes had hardened and were slightly cold, the vegetables were pale and mushy, but the bird was luminously golden and moist, with its wings lying in the bottom of the pan like little sentries saluting the perfectly cooked Christmas turkey.
Susan Declerck lives in Vancouver.