It was my fault. I had misread the instructions on our frozen turkey, and thought it would take 24 hours — not 24 hours for every four pounds — to thaw. I, of course, didn’t realize the mistake until Thanksgiving morning, and by that point, a panicked online search told me we had two options. We could go buy a fresh turkey, which seemed wasteful, or we could let ours defrost in a cold bath.
But I hate the culinary pressure it carries.
Other holidays give people multiple ways to showcase their strengths. On the Fourth of July, heroes can come in the form of the uncle who buys the best fireworks and that friend who makes that cake that looks like a flag.
On Easter, people have even more ways to shine. They can be that fashionista who walks into a room perfectly coordinated with her picture-ready children. They can be the creative artist whose hands smell slightly of vinegar but whose Easter eggs are Instagram-worthy. The can be the planner who pulls together an adult egg hunt or cascarones chase (because why should kids have all the fun?). Really, even someone who hates the holiday can frown underneath a rabbit costume and still be a rock star.
That’s not the case on Thanksgiving. On that day, it all comes down to your cooking and baking skills. No one cares what you’re wearing. You can snap the elastic waistband on your stretchy pants, and everyone around you will smile. Because they know what that kid who’s sweeping a finger through the pumpkin pie knows: it’s about the food. It’s about toasted marshmallows on yams and perfectly buttered mashed potatoes. It’s about spiced-right turkey and lump-free gravy.
I can make all of those — on separate days. It’s when I try to make them all at once that I stumble. My type of cooking, which I do often and well enough that my kids don’t complain, usually requires one or two pans and takes no longer than 30 minutes from prep to table.
Put another way, if cooking were a dance, I am skilled at the two-step. Making an impressive Thanksgiving meal is a waltz. It requires careful timing, complicated footwork and a level of coordination that I don’t have.
Many of you apparently don’t have it either. I know this because I recently spoke with a woman who has been on the receiving end of Thanksgiving angst for 18 years.
She has talked to some of you in those expletive-filled moments after you realized you forgot to remove that bag of giblets from the turkey before putting it in the oven. And she has counseled at least one of you when you considered using the rinse cycle of your dishwasher to defrost your bird at the last minute.
“But I’m going to leave the wrapping on,” Nicole Johnson remembered that woman telling her. “I said, ‘We really don’t recommend that.’ ”
Johnson is the director of Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line, which is staffed right now by 50 people, most of whom hold other jobs during the year. One is a home ec teacher. Another is a food scientist. A few are chefs. But for now, they are culinary counselors and recipe recommenders and dispute settlers. They are there to tell you why you shouldn’t defrost a turkey with an electric blanket (a real call) and offer alternatives if you are worried about plugging in nine crockpots at the same time (another real call).
Last year, they started getting a lot of inquiries about air frying, Johnson said, so they conducted research and training over the summer to better prepare the team to answer those questions this year.
I spoke to Johnson a few days before Thanksgiving, and her computer showed that 50 people were already waiting to ask a question. The service used to be limited to the phone number 1-800-Butterball. But now, people can funnel their franticness through text, social media, live chat — and if they’re too rushed (or too embarrassed) to talk to a real person, they can ask Alexa.
I didn’t want to keep Johnson too long. I sympathized with those callers. But before I let her go, I had to know one thing: What was she going to eat on Thanksgiving?
The turkey experts, it turns out, don’t eat turkey on that day. They eat it in different dishes in the days leading up to the holiday, but on Thursday, they have pasta, soup and salad.
“It’s our annual tradition,” Johnson said.
Traditions are interesting in that way. There is the magazine version that tells us what they should look like, and then there is the reality of what feels most comfortable to us as individuals.
My grandmother’s Thanksgiving table was always topped with turkey, tamales, tortillas, rolls, mashed potatoes, corn and rice and beans. She was a master of that kitchen waltz. Even so, I can’t remember what her turkey tasted like, or if I ever tried it. The flavor I miss most from her table is the taco I would make by piling rice and beans into one of her homemade flour tortillas.
From my mom’s Thanksgiving spread, the dish that reminds me most of home is one that won’t soon appear in any magazines. It is her cornbread stuffing made from a 99-cent box of Jiffy. I still prepare it every year, even though I know my husband and our two young sons won’t eat it.
I was actually making a batch during another epic Thanksgiving fail. I’m still not sure where the plastic came from, but it somehow got stuck to the bottom of a hot pan. I then, without noticing it, placed that pan back into the oven.
I spent at least an hour that year scraping bits of plastic from an oven rack.
That was about 10 years ago. I have since accepted that I will never cook like my grandmother — and that, although it’s harder to admit, I don’t want to.
I admire people who experiment with spices and make food beautiful. I also know that I am happiest when I spend more of that day outside the kitchen than in it.
This year, as has become our tradition, I will buy a fresh turkey. My husband, who is a much more skilled and patient chef than I am, will cook it. My job will be to take care of the sides. For those, I will focus my energy on a few, but the corn will come from a can, the pie will come from a store, and the cornbread for that stuffing only I will eat will come from a familiar blue box.
Compared with the made-from-scratch dishes others will prepare that day, it may sound like a mediocre meal. To me, it sounds like a reason to feel thankful.