Thanksgiving 1979 found me in living in on my own in Marshalltown, Iowa. I had moved there late that summer, having accepted a job at KDAO radio, a small radio station. I was two-plus years removed from high school and in my second small-town radio gig. As the new guy on staff, I knew I was going to be working on Thanksgiving, but that was no big deal. What was cool was that my old friend Rick Hunter was going to be joining me, making it the first stop on his holiday break journey home to Colorado from his college in Minnesota.
This was to be my second Thanksgiving on my own, in a small town, but my first with an actual guest – a real opportunity to make a full Thanksgiving dinner. I figured I was up for that, having gleaned a fair amount of knowledge hanging around numerous family gatherings through the years and having assisted my mother numerous times on large feasts. I had a couple of cookbooks, and supplemented with few phone calls home to mom in Denver to help iron out some nuances I wasn’t finding in the cookbooks, by Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, I was ready to go.
Knowing I had to work from 10 -2 on Thanksgiving, and with Rick scheduled to arrive sometime on Wednesday, I figured I could get a lot of stuff done on Tuesday and just have it ready to go. A phone call with Mom over the weekend had confirmed my planning in this regard, but she also added a key point that wasn’t in the cookbooks and that I hadn’t thought of: thawing the bird. My initial plan was to pick up the turkey on Wednesday and be ready to go. Mom cautioned that this was a time consuming process, and that should start thawing the turkey on Tuesday. Fair enough.
Oh yeah – the bird.
Adding to the ease with which my Thanksgiving with honored guest was coming together was my Thanksgiving gift from the radio station management: every staff member got a fifteen dollar gift certificate to the local Fareway grocery store, AND a gift certificate for a free, twenty-pound frozen turkey.
The gift certificate covered the bulk of the non-poultry Thanksgiving essentials for two wild and single college aged guys: can of cranberry sauce, can of sweet potatoes, marshmallows, box of instant mashed potatoes, can of green beans, a pumpkin pie, an apple pie, a package of a dozen bakery chocolate chip cookies (the big ones), rolls, a jar of olives, a jar of pickles, some cheese, sausage and crackers, bulbous turkey baster, a six pack of Coca-Cola, disposable aluminum turkey roaster – and a bag of Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing and a pound of Jimmy Dean Pork Sausage so I could duplicate my mom’s fabulous turkey stuffing. Keep in mind, fifteen bucks went a hell of a lot farther in 1979 than it does today. (I needed my own cash to add in a bottle of wine – white wine with poultry, of course.)
Oh yeah – the bird.
As with a lot of things to that point in my young radio career, getting a free turkey was kind of a big deal for a couple of reasons: one, small market radio was not exactly a lucrative gig, and two, popping into a store with a gift certificate from the local radio station was a (minor) sign of small town prestige and celebrity. There was also the management angle, which I was to understand much better as my radio career progressed; they could pay you less, then dole out free stuff from advertisers that they got in trade for advertising, which made the freebies seem like a much bigger deal to the young, naïve employee at no real cost to them. Mission accomplished here on all counts. But I digress.
There was one phrase on the gift certificate that I interpreted a bit differently at the time than I would now: ‘up to 20 lbs.’ This of course meant I could have chosen pretty much any turkey in the freezer case, but in my 20 year old mind, the gift certificate stated ‘I get a free twenty pound turkey’.
Which is exactly what I got – well, a nineteen pound, ten-ounce turkey, to be exact. The twenty pounders were all gone by the time I showed up at the store Tuesday afternoon. Such is life. Arriving home with my bounty after shopping, I knew that my first order of business was to get that rock-solid bird to roastable condition.
Another digression: the apartment I was renting was on the thid floor of an old bread factory in downtown Marshalltown. After the bread factory had closed, new owners had turned the former executive offices upstairs into two apartments, one of which I inhabited. The rooms in the place were spacious enough, with high ceilings, funky old moldings, and big water pipes snaking their way through the place. While the rooms (including the kitchen) were big, in redeveloping the place into apartments they furnished the kitchen like an efficiency apartment; the gas stove was one of those old, narrow jobs and the burners on top were so close together, that if you were cooking more than one stove-top item at a time, you could only use small saucepans or they wouldn’t fit. The single compartment porcelain sink was also smaller than usual, and the plastic dish drainer I got when I first moved in barely fit in it.
Where to thaw the bird?
I had a cheap, Styrofoam cooler, but the turkey was too big for that, so that left me with the option of the bathtub. What the folks who turned this place into apartments skimped on in the kitchen, they made up for in the bathroom; a Chester Arthur-sized, cast iron, claw foot tub with single spigot that took roughly 20 minutes to fill to take a bath in…or to get enough water to cover a twenty pound turkey to thaw. As I was good at following cookbook and turkey label instructions, I kept the bird floating in the tub, periodically refreshing the water level. (Rubber drain stopper not totally efficient, the large, cast iron radiator next to tub accelerating evaporation.)
It was Tuesday night, the turkey was bobbing/thawing in the tub. I called mom to update her on my progress to date, and did so –commenting about the hassle of filling the tub to thaw the bird. This puzzled her; “Couldn’t you just put it in the refrigerator or a cooler?” (The old, white Crosley refrigerator in my kitchen had no room at all for this bird; the shelves were not adjustable.) “Nope” I replied, “It wouldn’t fit.” There was a pause.
“Well, how big is the turkey?” mom inquired – warily. I told her about my free, nineteen-pound, ten-ounce bird. There was another pause.
“What the hell are you doing with a twenty pound turkey!?” I knew that tone of exasperation.
“It’s what the station gave me.”
“For two people!? I thought it was a gift certificate. Couldn’t you pick out your own turkey!?”
“Yeah, I did. It was a gift certificate for a twenty pound turkey – so that’s what I got.”
“Oh, Mark!” She was trying to be cross, but couldn’t totally pull it off. She was snickering (sort of) as I heard her turn away from the phone and tell my father, “Mark has a twenty pound turkey for he and Rick.” After another pause, I also heard my father reply, dryly, “I hope they like turkey sandwiches.”
My mother then calmly tried to explain to me that even for the six guests she was expecting on Thursday, she did not have a twenty-pound bird, and that I had better make sure I had plenty of aluminum foil to wrap leftovers in. Extra foil had not been on my list, so it was a good, prescient reminder.
Wednesday arrived, as did Rick. The bird continued bobbing and thawing, a grand time was being had by all. I also had a strong Thursday plan; wake up early enough to get the turkey in the oven, prep whatever else I could, get to the station for my 10-to-2 shift, come home, watch some football with Rick, and then feast.
The only true glitch came in the part where we ‘get the turkey in the oven’.
As noted earlier, my oven was small, and narrow – very narrow. Thursday morning, I plucked the bird from the tub, and began prepping it by cleaning it, taking out the gizzards, buttering it, seasoning it, stuffing it, etc. Rick awoke, joined me in the kitchen, observed the scenario and said, matter-of-factly, “Is that thing going to fit?”
It didn’t…at least not at first shove. By the time I got around to sliding the over-loaded roasting pan into the preheated oven I realized Rick had asked a really good question. Fortunately, I had a disposable roaster – not the blue-with-white-specks, rigid porcelain one of my mother’s kitchen – and the aluminum sides were pliable enough to be bent up on both sides, plus get scrunched up against the back of the stove. It took some extended shoving, but we got the bird into the oven without getting ourselves burned.
By the time I got ready to head to the station, everything was under control, food wise.
Knowing that a good turkey needs to get its moisture regularly, I had devised a plan that benefitted both me and my listening audience – especially Rick: the first (and presumably last)’ KDAO Bird Watch’. Every twenty minutes during my shift, I would announce “It’s KDAO Bird Watch time!” and remind people that it was time to ‘baste those birds’, leading them through the process with the mantra, “And baste, one…two…three…! Baste! One…two…three…” repeated three or four times as I then smoothly segued into the next record, commercial or news update.
It was a public service and programming success to the extent that, much to his bewilderment, the guy on the air after me got phone calls of complaint when he failed to announce the bird watch every twenty minutes, and was also later (jokingly?) blamed by listeners for some dried out birds. I don’t know how religiously Rick followed the bird watch, but he must have stuck with it pretty well; that was one fine, juicy bird we indulged in that afternoon….save for the burns on the outside of each drumstick, where they had spent their roasting time shoved up against the walls of the oven.
Rick and I enjoyed quite the feast that evening. We ate, watched football, called high school friends in Colorado, ate some more, drank some wine, ate some more. On Friday, Rick hit the road for Colorado with a load of turkey sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies and I can’t remember what else. If memory serves, he took the offered sandwiches grudgingly, as he appeared to be turkeyed out. Me? I had no such qualms…until about mid-December. Still, to this day, I enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers almost more than the initial meal.
Mom was on target about the foil, dad about the sandwiches. Every last nook and cranny of my meager freezer was stuffed with turkey (pun intended) and the last frozen pack made its way out for consumption on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, 1980. Hey, it was a free turkey, right?
My best advice for a successful Thanksgiving feast? Pretty simple, kids; “BASTE, one…two…three…! BASTE! One…two…three…”