Confessions of a turkey underachiever

Why does this ideal elude me?

Next Thursday, four of us will enjoy Thanksgiving dinner at a local country inn. I can’t tell you how relieved I am.

Despite a general confidence in the kitchen, roasted turkey has been my stumbling block, year after overcooked year. I’ve tried everything: buying $70 organic turkeys, pickling it beforehand in brine, slathering it in butter and cheesecloth, draping it in tinfoil, cooking it at high temperatures a la Alton Brown, cooking it low and slow, cooking it upside down, cooking it sideways, asphyxiating it in a plastic bag, praying over it.

The result is the same: dry breast meat and rubbery, red-tinged thigh meat.

Is it my oven? Is it the fact that I only roast a turkey once a year and never get the chance to really hone my skills – like some people have to re-learn to ski every year because they go only once? Or is it because deep down inside I can take or leave turkey and have no desire to become accomplished at cooking it?

I’ve stopped torturing myself and just faced the truth: I’m bad at turkeys. And it’s very freeing to punt when called upon to produce one.

As I did a few weeks ago, when we had a wonderful, traditional Thanksgiving dinner for Bob’s folks, our kids and their guests, Bob’s brother Tom, cousin Joe and nephew Harper. It was a great family feast, complete with stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted squash, two cranberry dishes, green beans amandine, sautéed greens, fresh apple crisp…and a juicy turkey that somebody else made.

About 10 minutes from our house, in Holliston, Mass., is a wonderful turkey farm called Out Post. For a very handsome fee they’ll slaughter one of their turkeys and stuff and roast it for you just in time for your event. Bob, Joe and I picked up the bird, still steaming hot, beautifully golden and fully stuffed, about 45 minutes before dinner. Best money we ever spent. Unfortunately the only day they won’t cook your turkey is Thanksgiving. So in the days beforehand people wait in line at Out Post, freezing their butts off as they wait to pick up their pre-ordered fresh turkeys to cook at home.

The Boston Globe did a great story last year in which they asked local chefs – who cook for the restaurant crowds on Thanksgiving – for their secrets of getting a moist, flavorful bird. Their answer was pretty grisly. Forget that Norman Rockwell ideal of a big honkin’ whole turkey in the middle of a table full of beaming relatives. Instead, hack up the turkey’s torso and limbs, sauté in a huge pan, then put them in the roasting pan with some wine and aromatics and cook gently til fork tender. Keep some broth handy to pour over the slices if they dry out.

Does anybody else have a hard time with this? Don’t we need that iconic whole turkey as the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving table? This seems almost sacrilegious, almost as bad as not having stuffing.

I asked my mom, who is visiting us, about whether she’d mind going out instead of doing the traditional thing. She was thrilled…and she confessed that she might order fish or prime rib instead of the turkey.