It all started in July at a grocery store promotion.
"How large is this turkey?" the local grocery store asked
Guesses ran to 30 pounds or so, but actually it was 42 pounds. This was, needless to say, a large turkey. But in July, no one wanted the turkey, and it was put in the freezer till a more auspicious time. And, so it came to pass that Mom was in the store just before the holidays in 1994, and since she is a naturally talkative person, she struck up a conversation with the butcher at the counter.
"I need a kind of big turkey for my family coming," said Mom.
To which the butcher replied, "Well, if you are looking for a big turkey, I may have just the thing."
And he hauled out the 42-pound bird for Mom.
"Nice big bird," said Mom, "but it would cost far too much for my fixed income budget."
"Here's the deal," said the friendly butcher. "I can't move this bird at all at the usual price. No one wants a bird this big, so tell you what I'll do. I'll sell you this turkey for 49 cents a pound."
Mom, being nobody's fool, thought that such a purchase would be entirely reasonable. After all, $20 for a really BIG turkey would be a reasonable price. And besides, of such stuff are Really Neat Family Legends made. (Little did she know.)
"Sold," said Mom.
It took four days to thaw out.
I showed up in Fargo two days before, and Mom was all a-twitter with ideas for how to put on a family dinner tour-de-force. We are talking major stuffing here. And so, off we went to the various stores to purchase dinner-making stuff.
Let me point out something important here. No one makes a roasting bag to handle a 42-pound turkey. And, few roasters can handle it either. So, we bought one of those nifty open aluminum roasting pans, figuring to cover it with, oh, an acre or two of aluminum foil. But there were some other interesting engineering problems to deal with. Like how to lift it.
"No problem," said Mom, "we'll just get some cheesecloth, wrap the bird in a kind of sling, and lift it that way. Elegant solution. Mom, methinks, has missed her true calling of engineer.
And so, the night before the big day, figuring we'd need a really long cooking time, we stuffed, slung, positioned, covered, vented the bird, and popped it in the oven at about 1:30 a.m. And so to bed, for a long winter's nap. Wrong.
At 3:15 a.m., I heard my Mom calling my name. Now you have to understand, when things are going well, I am "Don" to everyone, including Mom. But when that is not the case, I become "Donald." And Mom has a special way of saying Donald.
"Donald," she said, "Oh, Donald!"
I responded groggily. "What? Whatsamatter?" I know Mom, and waking folks at 3:15 a.m. is just not her style.
"Donald," she said, "we have a problem."
"What," I responded, "problem do we have?"
"Our turkey is running over," said Mom. The shift from the turkey to our turkey was subtly done, in retrospect. At the time, it was effective. This was now a joint crisis.
For those who do not see such things clearly, it turns out that turkeys, in the process of cooking, release large quantities of juices, which for normal birds often later becomes gravy. For this bird, it had become a flood, and had overflowed the all-too-shallow roasting pan into the bottom of a hot oven.
Smoke. Small apartment. Smoke detectors at 3:16 a.m., roughly corresponding to opening the oven door. And cleaning turkey juices from the bottom of a hot oven at 3:19 a.m. is no easy thing, I can assure you. Many towels, not of the paper variety; even some other cloth materials I still do not recognize were used. (Mom is ready for any crisis of spill, it seems.)
And, so it got cleaned up. The towels got put in the washer at about 3:30 a.m., the fans blew the smoke out of the apartment. The smoke detectors got reset, and so to bed, for an altogether shorter winter's nap. Wrong again.
The turkey overflowed again at 5:20 a.m. Same scenario, in all relevant ways. This time, we tried to suck up some of the juices from the roaster, but the turkey-baster bulb was bad, and wouldn't create a vacuum. Smoke alarms, much general good-natured grousing, and Mom standing around saying gratuitous things like:
"If I had known this would happen, I never would have bought that darned turkey."
There is no way an eldest son can respond to that appropriately, other than with variations on a theme of,
"Oh, it's all right, Mom. This is just Another Neat Adventure on the Road of Life, and Someday We'll All Laugh At This Together."
So we each played our preordained roles in the crisis, and by that time, it was time to shower and shave and get ready for the siblings, grandchildren, etc., and just hang out.
By about 11:30 a.m., the tiny kitchen was crowded with sisters, each moving in a mysterious choreography, getting in each other's way, using the Very Dish That I Needed for things like glorified rice and other holiday dishes, and the general buzz of Big Holiday Meal Preparation.
When the time came to lift the bird, out it came in Mom's cheesecloth sling, just as nice as you please, and if I do say so myself, it looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting on its platter.
Much frenetic activity followed, including the required Making of the Gravy from what remained of the copious turkey juices in the bottom of the pan. Mom is not one of your cornstarch gravy people. She does a flour paste, mixing it thoroughly and putting it in a bowl, thereafter to be stirred into the gravy juices for several minutes, and it really is quite wonderful.
Now I have to tell you, I was standing right there, and I don't know how it happened. But somehow, the white glass bowl with the flour/water mixture in it ended up on top of the stove. On a burner. Which was on. The bowl was opaque white glass, not Pyrex, and not made for this kind of insult. And the bowl exploded. I don't mean cracked and fell apart, I mean "exploded," with a loud bang, and the throwing waist-high of glass splinters mixed with flour and water all around the kitchen, including onto the aforementioned hot burner, which promptly gave off a cloud of smoke, setting off the aforementioned smoke alarms yet again, which caused the smallest children to panic and cry -- well, you get the idea. Rising (well, stooping actually) to the occasion, I:
turned off the burner,
threw everyone out of the kitchen,
disconnected the smoke alarm,
opened the windows,
started to clean up the mess,
Mom had been standing there all this time, watching this happen with an air of almost mystic detachment. I was looking directly at her when she recovered her equanimity.
"Darn!," said Mom, "That was my last flour. I'll have to go to the store and get some more."
And she put her coat on and out the door she went. Leaving yours truly once again to reorganize the scene. And when she got back with flour, about 15 minutes later, all was again in order, and the day progressed more or less uneventfully.
The dinner was magnificent. The quantity and quality of the leftovers was astonishing. It was, in every possible way, An Event of Significance. But (you may already have surmised) it was Not Yet Over.
Afterwards, the sisters took over the kitchen, cleaning everything up and generally fulfilling the role of Dutiful Daughters (no sexism implied, as I had already fulfilled the role of Dutiful Son for most of the previous long winter's night), packing the dishwasher, putting stuff away, etc. And, as it turned out, Turning On the Self-Cleaning Oven.
Now, for those not familiar with the technology, SCOs heat themselves up to a relatively high temperature, lock themselves (this is important) with a solenoid so that no one can open it again, then heat way up and literally burn the stuff off the inside, reducing it to a fine ash that can easily be wiped out or even sucked out with a small vacuum cleaner.
Remember the turkey juice that had overflowed? Well, there was still a fair amount of it left on the bottom of the oven. We had not gotten around to sponging it out, and the late-arriving sister didn't know that needed to be done. So, oven really hot and locked, turkey juice on the bottom, and a vent for excess heat. Smoke….
Not just a little smoke; we are talking SMOKE here -- billows of smoke, clouds of acrid smoke, really serious smoke. And the aforementioned smoke alarms, causing little children to panic and cry.
Open windows, and smoke billows out. Open doors to hallway, and smoke fills the entire apartment complex. Which, of course, has its own smoke alarms and automatic fire department call relays. And we can't open the oven, which takes a while to cool down, and still pours smoke out the vents.
So, smoke, alarms, neighbors, fire department folks. We gave them all some fudge, put fans in the windows, and assured everyone that The Situation is Temporary and Really Under Control. Mom moved wraith-like through it all, and kept saying:
"Boy, we're going to remember this one for a long time."