Turkey, n. A large bird whose flesh when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude. Incidentally, it is pretty good eating. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
An impasse had been reached. David and his father, Robert, are both obdurate men, with opinions as flexible as stone. Their eyes glistened, their jaws clenched in fortitude. The debate carried on in the absence of statistics, reaching a desperate crescendo of unfounded statements along the lines of, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” I was certain that Satan would suffer from frostbite before these two would ever agree on how to cook the goddamn turkey. It was an ancient argument, with few permutations: David — a foodie to his core — suggests a way to improve upon the bird, and Robert — a patriarch of tradition — insists there is nothing wrong with the way he has been grilling the gobbler for the past 30 years. The year David wanted his father to try brining the bird we arrived prepared with Alton Brown’s first cookbook (riddled with scientific food facts) and a DVD of the famous chef’s “Good Eats” episode about turkey. David’s determination was as endearing as it was wearying; after three exhausting days of instructional handouts and video animations of the process, he wondered if all the effort had been worth it. As with most of David’s attempts, the brining was allowed, later deemed unnecessary, and abandoned the following year.
Last year, my adorable chef took a stance on stuffing. He’d read an article about the dangers of bacteria-soaked bread crumbs and set out to convince his parents to bake the Hungarian-herbed, mushroomy mixture separately. The resistance was fierce until David resorted to fear tactics — he managed to convince Ency (his mother and eternal mistress of the kitchen) and me (a neurotic freak) that stuffing cooked inside the bird could turn lethal and result in our family being the subject of tragic post-Thanksgiving headlines. In the end, Robert declared stuffing a non-issue, as he was prepared to, and did, cook every last microbe to death.
This turkey day — on what was my fourth consecutive Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws’ cozy home on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard — David decided to tackle temperature. On David’s list of gastronomical gaffes, dried-out meat is right up there with mashed potatoes from a box. The first time he heard me order my filet mignon “well-done,” David reacted with shock and disgust, as though I’d slapped him in the face. After many lectures and bouts of pleading, he now has me ordering “medium,” though I usually whisper an aside to our servers, “on the well side of medium.”
I was raised to fear partially cooked food — pink is evil and will hurt you. “Better overcooked than undercooked” is a phrase I live by. This time, I was rooting for Robert, who said the turkey wasn’t done cooking until a thermometer plunged into its breast read 180 degrees. David maintained that the thermometer should be aimed at the “innermost part of the thigh,” and that the meat should be yanked from the grill once it hit 165.
After a few hours of turkey tug-of-war, the guys started busting out evidentiary exhibits to support their claims. David pulled up a handful of websites to corroborate his number, none of which impressed Robert, who clutched in his hands the guidebook that had come with his grill, and the Weber Company was unambiguous about the number 180. I sat nearby, trying to read, as the two men emphatically rebuffed each other’s sources by insisting their own were more reliable.
“You might not be cooking that turkey at all,” said Judith from the doorway. Ency’s sister glided into the room, her teacup Yorkshire terrier and constant companion, Nicholas Alexander, circling her ankles. In answer to our unasked question, Judith swept the air with her arm in an elaborate gesture to indicate the room from which she had just emerged. Judith reminds me of old Hollywood, or what would have happened if Eva Gabor and Katherine Hepburn were merged into one actress and then given the role of Blanche DuBois. She speaks in an unhurried manner, which is disarming in the way of snake venom, and seems to anesthetize victims with her electric wit, so that they cannot immediately detect the burn of her jolting humor. One morning, when I thought everyone had gone to the store, I ran downstairs, burst into the kitchen, and stopped just short of smacking into Judith. Before I could explain myself, Judith remarked nonchalantly, “Oh, hi, you must have heard me calling you.” Her eyes remained on mine, the barest hint of a devilish smile tugging at the corner of her lips, as she again pressed the little device she held in her hand — a clicker she uses to call Nicholas.
Now standing at the head of the table, Judith again had that impish gleam in her eyes. “Ency-kaem is checking the newspaper to see if hunting season has begun. I think she wants to send you boys out with guns.” David and Robert shared a confused look, but I knew what Judith was talking about. The day before, while traipsing through the woods on a damp and colorful carpet of leaves, Ency and I heard gunshots. Ency halted, turned to me, and said, “My friend Nancy eats wild turkey every year. I wonder what it tastes like.” The island is rampant with wild turkeys. One gang likes to hang out at the base of a local jungle gym, with their leader (it turns out turkeys can fly) perched six feet off the ground on the topmost monkey bar.
“They can’t go hunting now,” I said. “First of all, David would never consider holding a gun. But even more importantly, where are we supposed to get bright orange vests at this hour?”
“I guess you’re right,” said Judith with a sigh. “Orange wouldn’t suit David’s complexion.”
“And, anyway,” I added, “They can’t even decide on how to cook the bird we have.” I returned to my reading and blocked out the sound of the ongoing turkey dispute. When Robert said, “Okay, 170 it is,” I dropped my book. Before that moment, the possibility of Robert giving in to an argument fell shortly behind that of Paris Hilton making it through Harvard Law School. With the aid of his laptop and Google, David had finally located a page his father found persuasive. Robert stepped into the frigid air to fire up the grill, and David’s sister, Michelle, entered the room. “Your dad just said he’d cook the turkey to 170,” I informed her.
“Really?” Michelle said. Then, to David, she said, “You must be happy. That’s closer to your number than his. How did you convince him?”
“I just had to find a source he trusted,” David said. Smiling triumphantly, he turned his laptop so that Michelle and I could see the screen.
“Is that a joke or is there really a ‘meat and poultry hotline?'” I asked, pointing to the 800-number at the bottom of the Web page. Michelle laughed, but David was all seriousness. Summarizing his find, a gem that put all his other attempts to shame, he said, “It’s a government source — the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods, or NACMCF. I showed Dad that 180 used to be the right number, but that the government recently changed it to 165. He’s still cooking it more than it needs to be cooked, but there’s always next year,” David said cheerfully. “Look how many years it took me to get you to order your steak ‘medium’ instead of ‘incinerated.’ Baby steps, baby. Baby steps.”