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, local station. Two-plus years removed from high school and in my second small-town radio gig, I knew I was going to be working on Thanksgiving, but that was no big deal. What was cool was that my 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 life in Minnesota.
This was to be my second Thanksgiving on my own but my first with an actual guest – a real opportunity to make a full-fledged Thanksgiving dinner. Having gleaned a fair amount of knowledge from family gatherings through the years and having assisted my mother on large feasts, I had this thing nailed. A couple of cookbooks supplemented with phone calls home to mom in Denver to help iron out some nuances and I was ready to go. For a nineteen-year old guy, I knew my way around a kitchen.
Knowing I had to work from 10 -2 on Thanksgiving, and with Rick scheduled to arrive sometime Wednesday, I figured I could get a lot of stuff done on Tuesday and just have it ready to go. Phone call number one with Mom had confirmed my planning in this regard, but she also added a key point that I hadn’t remembered: thawing the bird. My initial plan was to pick up the turkey on Wednesday and be ready to go, but mom cautioned that thawing was a time-consuming process, that should start on Tuesday at the latest.
Ahh. The bird.
As a 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, up-to- twenty-pound frozen turkey. Perfect.
The gift certificate covered the bulk of the non-poultry Thanksgiving essentials for two wild and single college-aged guys: cans of cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, green beans and gravy. Plus, marshmallows, a box of instant mashed potatoes, 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 and (for appetizers) some cheese, sausage and crackers. I also picked up a bulbous turkey baster, a six pack of Coca-Cola, a 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 sausage stuffing.
Fifteen bucks went a hell of a lot farther in 1979 than it does today, I think my out-of-pocket was less than three bucks – not including the bottle of white wine. White-with-poultry, of course. I was on it.
As with a lot of things to that point in my young radio career, getting a free turkey was kind of big deal for a couple of reasons: one, small market radio was not exactly a lucrative gig; two was popping into a store with a gift certificate from the local radio station was a (minor) sign of small town prestige and celebrity, at least back then. The dang certificates were huge, printed with a neat border like some sort of stock certificate, so people at the store knew who you were.
The bird. Free bird. Insert Lynyrd Skynyrd joke here.
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, no – screamed, ‘Hey dude, free twenty pound turkey!’
Never look a gift bird in the mouth.
I picked out a prime, nineteen pound, ten-ounce turkey, the twenty pounders all gone by the time I showed up at the store Tuesday afternoon. Arriving home as pleased hunter-gatherer, my next order of business was to get that rock-solid bird thawed.
Dilemma number one.
My apartment was on the third floor of an old, former bread factory in downtown Marshalltown, where new owners had turned the former executive offices into two apartments. The rooms were spacious, with high ceilings, funky old moldings, and big water pipes snaking their way through the place. But in redeveloping the place into apartments they furnished the kitchen like an efficiency apartment; the gas stove was one of those old, narrow jobs with burners so close together, that if you were cooking more than one stove-top item at a time, you could only use small saucepans and angle the handles oddly so they would stay on the stove. The single compartment porcelain-sink-on-legs was also smaller than usual – the plastic dish drainer I got when I first moved in barely fit in it.
Where to thaw a 19-10 bird?
The refrigerator was on the same lines as the stove, plus was filled with other stuff. A gallon of milk and some butter, if I recall. I had a cheap, Styrofoam cooler the turkey dwarfed, so that left me with the option of the bathtub. What they 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.
Dilemma number one solved. Provided I didn’t need to bathe anytime soon.
I kept the bird floating in the tub, periodically refreshing the water level. The rubber drain stopper being cracked and not very efficient, and the large, cast iron radiator next to the tub accelerating evaporation, I ran a lot of water the next day or so. The first couple of times I used the bathroom after being home, I was startled when I flicked on the light and saw that bird bobbing in the tub full of water. But I got used to it.
Tuesday night, the turkey all Club Med in my 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?” (Mom and dad had not visited yet; the old, white Crosley refrigerator in my kitchen had no room at all for this bird from a width standpoint and the wire 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!?”
“Oh, Mark!” She was trying to be cross, but couldn’t totally – totally – pull it off. She was snickering (sort of) as I heard her turn away from the phone and exasperatedly tell my father, “Mark has a twenty pound turkey for he and Rick.”
After another pause, I 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. I ended up needing two full rolls of ReynoldsWrap.
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 and hang with Rick, and then feast.
As noted above, my oven was 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. without incident. Remember, I know my way around a kitchen. Then Rick awoke, joined me in the kitchen, observed the scenario and said, matter-of-factly, “Is that thing going to fit?”
Well, wasn’t that spatial.
It didn’t fit – 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 – that would’ve been bad) 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 and pan bending, but we got the bird into the oven without getting ourselves burned.
That oven was wall-to-wall turkey. This could have been a problem, but I know my way around a kitchen.
Knowing that a good turkey needs to get its moisture regularly, I had devised a plan that would benefit 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 ala Jack LaLane with the mantra, “And baste, one…two…three! Baste! One…two…three…once more now, Baste! One…two…three…” repeated two or three times as I then smoothly segued into the next record. Sometimes we basted on the beat of the next record.
It was a public service and programming success to the extent that, much to his bewilderment, Paul, 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 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 leather-tough burns on the outside of each drumstick, where they had spent their roasting time shoved up against the walls of the oven. The neck area shared the same scortching from the back of the stove.
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 lightly-freezer-burned consumption on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, 1980.
My best advice for a successful Thanksgiving feast? Its pretty simple, kids: “Baste! One…two…three…once more now, Baste! One…two…three…”
Trust me. I know my way around a kitchen. Always have.