Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sundays with Steve - Is Thanksgiving a Contest?

Since I’ve started writing “Sundays with Steve”, I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in North Idaho. I realize the town where I grew up and the life I lived with my family is really a classic, all-American story. Perhaps you will recognize some of your childhood in these writings. And perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in along with some of the characters you knew. Mrs. Steve has encouraged me to write these attempts of “creative writing” as opposed to the more factual journalistic style I was trained in and practiced in my early career many years ago. So my apologies if I stumble a bit here and there trying to blend the two styles together.

Is Thanksgiving a Contest

She beat me again last year! Drat, how does she do that? I think that Mrs. Steve (Mrs. Jenny to most of you) is basically evil; she must be stealing my secrets, that is the only way it can happen.

Every Thanksgiving at our house we have two turkeys, one a boring conventional bird cooked slowly in the oven all day long, a good six hours or more, that comes out a with perfect crispy golden-brown skin and slightly dry white meat. Ho-hum and a big yawn, another boring feast.

The other bird, on the other hand, is carefully placed on a rotisserie and roasted over a charcoal fire laced with sweet cherry wood to produce the most amazing, juicy, succulent bird you have ever had the joy to experience, see the picture below.

Or this oven roasted bird:

After the meal we canvas the twenty or so adults who share our Thanksgiving feast each year for their preference in turkey meat: The boring conventional perfectly oven-roasted bird, or the dramatic, succulent sweet meat coming off the charcoal and cherry wood fire.

The conventional boring bird wins of course, every year, and will probably win again this year. Really, what do all of these people know of fine dining and gourmet roasting? Obviously very little, or they are under the hypnosis of the evil Mrs. Steve. Oh my and ho-hum, another perfectly cooked and delicious boring turkey.

Boring perfect turkeys reminds me of my Aunt Eugenia, and of all of those Thanksgiving’s in the 1950’s and 1960’s at her house in our small town in Northern Idaho.

Every year, without exception, every single time, Aunt Eugenia massacred the turkey. She over-cooked it to the dryness and consistency of leather. Year after year the white meat was inedible; the juicy dark meat was not. It was obvious to everyone except her that she was secretly trying to make turkey jerky. In later years she laughed at her inability to cook a bird, but in the 1950’s, she was in fierce competition with her sister – my mother – to cook the best turkey. My mother (my father actually cooked it, but I think that was a secret at the time) would prepare the perfectly oven-roasted turkey to transport the short distance to Eugenia’s house for the late afternoon feast. The contrast of the two turkeys was always stunning.

Eugenia would be seem to be embarrassed and fume ever year that her bird was so dry, and that her sister out-cooked her yet again.

Aunt Eugenia (Genie for short) was kind of a strange duck: She was very prim and very proper, always dressed to the hilt, her house always picked-up and tidy, her language impeccable, her presence one of reserved elegance. But underestimate her or cross her at your own peril: Her glare, when you crossed the line of propriety, was like a death ray. Her pronouncements and judgments – out of the public view – were cutting, sharp, and decisive. You never wondered where Aunt Eugenia stood on anything, on any topic, on any view, and woe be to you if you disagreed with her pronouncement. And by the way, you had better shape up and behave yourself in her presence.

Thanksgiving was always at her house, while a month later Christmas dinner always at the Matlock madhouse. Thanksgiving usually consisted of us three rambunctious brothers and our parents, Aunt Eugenia’s two grown children who both lived still lived with her at the family home (one of whom for many years called us brothers ‘brats’, a term I still don’t like), Eugenia’s mother (my grandmother), and six or eight other adults that included several of Eugenia’s widowed lady friends. Mr. Eugenia had fled life with Eugenia in about 1950.

Eugenia always hired a bit of help for the holiday, usually someone in the kitchen to prepare the side dishes, the desserts, and then to clean-up the kitchen after dinner. For many years the help was a delightful lady named “Coxie”. Ida Cox was entertaining, energetic, and a fountain of local history of our town, most of which she had lived through personally. She stood no more than four-foot eight inches tall, thin as a rail, but with muscular arms. Coxie cooked on a wood burning stove at her small frame home until her death in about 1970 at the age of 95. She was a master of home cooking, she delighted in making cakes and pies for her friends and neighbors, and often, if we were lucky, for the Matlock family. She fried chicken on Sundays, after chopping their heads off with a hatchet on Saturdays. She chopped the wood for her stove, and she never believed that gas or electric ovens did a very good job. She would chase us boys around Eugenia’s house when her cooking chores permitted, to the consternation of my aunt, and she befriended all of us brothers for years. She was a delight, one of those characters you never forget.

Eugenia’s son was Eugene (Cousin Gene) who I have referred to in many of these stories as my father’s partner in the local radio station and the radio news broadcaster for our small town.

It was Cousin Gene, my father, and my grandmother “Grambie” who were most vocal about Aunt Eugenia’s annual destruction of the Thanksgiving turkey --- year-after-year. Grambie would have one of her two cocktails a year (the other was always an eggnog before Christmas dinner) while Cousin Gene and my father would dip into the bourbon for a couple of shots before carving the two turkeys that would be resting at the kitchen table. The men would groan over the destroyed turkey as it crumbled under the carving knife, and they may have had another shot of bourbon in honor of Eugenia’s bird. Coxie would cackle and laugh at the poor bird while preparing the stuffing and green beans, and Grambie would sit on a kitchen step stool out of the way, sipping her drink, going “tisk, tisk, tisk” at the pulled pile of white turkey meat. It was really very funny, even to me at that young age. While that was going on, Brother David and I would steal pieces of dark meat to sample. In later years, when home from college for the annual turkey day massacre, Cousin Gene would sneak glasses of bourbon to David and me as well. He was a good cousin that way.

As a curious youngster, I always found it fascinating that there was a little button under the carpet of the dining room table Eugenia sat at the head of. If she needed help from the kitchen, she could press the button with her foot to activate a buzzer. Coxie would ignore her, of course, with a loud laugh, but in later years when Coxie no long cooked for the family, others came running. It was weird.

My mother was no great cook, although she tried. Her salvation at Thanksgiving was two-fold: i) In the late 1950’s Butterball turkeys came on the market that had the plastic doneness probe that popped-up when the bird was done, thus generally preventing over-cooking (Eugenia never figured that one out, one of those new fangled inventions that made no sense to her), and ii) Coxie in the kitchen preparing everything else.

I wish Coxie were alive today -- I’d invite her to dinner and I would fly her from Idaho to Arizona to join us, not to cook but to experience our modern but traditional Thanksgiving and to enjoy our family. I wish my father and Cousin Gene were alive to join us as well, to sneak a bit of bourbon, and to rightly judge whose turkey this year is best.

I wish you were coming too, because I know that you, along with all of our Thanksgiving day guests this year, are going to appreciate the finesse, the delicacy, the suberb nature of the masterfully prepared cherry-wood smoked turkey that will jointly grace our table on Thursday along with its boring counterpart.

And I am absolutely certain that all of you would vote for the obviously superior bird! And that, of course, will be mine.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
This publication is the exclusive property of Stephen J. Matlock and is protected
under the US Copyright Act of 1976 and all other applicable international, federal, state and local laws. The contents of this post/story may not be reproduced as a whole or in part, by any means whatsoever, without consent of the author, Stephen J. Matlock. All rights reserved.


Anonymous said...

Great story Steve!!!

we are having oven stuffer chicken(s) as we did last year. i will be thinking about that superb delicacy that your are feasting on while i'm chowing down on my drumstick.

i've eaten many holiday meals where the bird was cooked in a wood stove oven; seen my mom scrape her knuckles on the box grater to make the perfect slaw; can't for the life of me get those sweet potatoes to taste like Gram's;

the only consilation is that my grandson Jake tells his Pappy he's a good 'cooker' i guess we're making memories for him to write about in 30+ years!

Happy Thanksgiving~

Deb said...

Steve I love the details of your stories...Don't tell Jenny but I think I will have to vote for your turkey...

Tgoette said...

LOL! I guess not everyone has a refined enough palate to distinguish between absolute joy on a fork and dry, flavorless bird flesh. As the cook in my home I can relate.

Each year for both Turkey Day and Christmas we serve up two turkeys as well. One, the boring conventional one roasted in the oven and the other prepared outdoors in my smoker. Oh, and a Honey baked ham too for those that don't like turkey. And a roast Tofurkey for my vegetarian daughter.

Invariably the smoked turkey is picked clean while the conventional bird, though juicy and delicious as well, is a mere afterthought. I tell people we only cook it for the leftovers.

Thanks for a such an entertaining glimpse into your past Thanksgivings! Excellent job!

Jeanie said...

You have a great talent, Steve, for bringing the characters from your life alive for us and for making us love even the least endearing ones.
I'm not going near the turkey battle.

Anonymous said...

your turkey makes me hungry.
what a delicious post.

I signed in to follow your blog,
welcome following us back.

our potluck is open 8pm tonight,
welcome linking in any old poems,

week 11 theme:
magic, miracle, and wizardry...
welcome writing for us.
keep rocking.

Judie said...

Steve, your beautiful turkey is a sight to behold! I'm sure I would pick it as well.

Our daughter, Allison, used to be a fantastic cook, but has lost interest over the years. Her job takes precedent in her life, unfortunately.

I volunteered to cook the turkey and bring it for my contribution, along with my summer squash casserole which she adores. Rod is very happy with this, because he loves turkey leftovers!!


My husband, Steve, would vote for your turkey in a heart beat. Every Thanksgiving, he smokes brisket and ribs and wants to smoke the turkey. But guess what, the women like it roasted. Sorry about that but I could probably guarantee I would vote with the evil one. However, we discovered fried turkey a few years ago and now....fried turkey all the way. The skin is crispy and the meat is so juicy. We have to cook two of them so everyone can take home leftovers.

I enjoyed your family story of Thanksgiving.


aimee said...

what a wonderful way to make a turkey. im not an oven rosted turkey kind of eater.i bet the smoked one would grab my favor. i love my ham at thanksgiving and any time! i do love fried turkey. my family and i have a new years day turkey fry open house(10th year). it is the best turkey. my parents buy 8 turkeys, and my husband fries them (in two friers. some people bring food and some don't. we now have so many people attend we have to rent chairs! it is a lot of work, but so fun! happy thanksgiving to you both and your family. i do enjoy your stories.

Lourie said...

I am Switzerland. The "superior" bird would be tasty, however, the boring bird provides the necessary juices for gravy making. It's a real toss up.

Coxie sounds like she was an amazing and fun person.

Pondside said...

I've never had a bird such as you describe - it sounds delicious. I hope you had a lot of guests around your Thanksgiving table or else you'd have had an awful lot of leftovers!