84. No Need for Carving

84. No Need for Carving

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

No Need for Carving

One of the things that binds us as a family is a shared sense of humor.

~Ralph Fiennes

Soon after we married, I told my husband, “I’d like to host the family Christmas dinner.”

Well aware of my limited cooking experience, he paused before he asked, “Seriously?”

“If I organize and plan it to a T, it’ll be the perfect day.”

To ensure success, I called my mother for her traditional holiday recipes. With pen and paper in hand, I dialed her number. Eager to end the initial chitchat, I blurted out my plan. “I’m cooking Christmas dinner for my in-laws.” I thought the phone line had been disconnected.

Then I heard her chuckle. “Are you sure?”

When she realized I meant it, she suggested we compile a menu. After we made a list of what to serve, she dictated a detailed grocery list. Pumpkin spice? I had to ask where to find it. Extra cans of turkey broth? I thought it came from the turkey pan. She explained each item to me and after she hung up, I stared at the five pages in my hand. What had I gotten myself into?

When I braved the jam-packed grocery store, the items piled up. At the checkout, my cart looked like a dump truck — filled to the brim and ready to tip.

At home, I arranged ingredients according to each dish. Marshmallows, Karo syrup and brown sugar sat by the canned yams. Rosemary and sage lay by the package of cornbread dressing mix. Flour and cornstarch were ready for milk and turkey broth. Even the refrigerated items sat in groups.

I’m a detailed person—especially in uncharted territory. My method guaranteed there would be no chaos. And, I certainly needed a plan for this day.

I taped my mother’s recipes to the kitchen cabinet doors and assessed what I could prepare ahead of time. I’ve never enjoyed dinners where the hostess serves the meat at room temperature, the veggies lukewarm and the rolls ten minutes later. Most assuredly, mine wouldn’t be one of those. Everything would be ready at exactly the right time.

On Christmas Eve our house buzzed with activity. The smell of pumpkin pie hung in the air. My centerpiece complemented the red-berried holly leaves on the china; my festive mulberry candles waited to be lit, and my evergreen crystal goblets were shiny and bright. I placed the pristine sterling silverware on the just-bought linen napkins that matched the rich maroon tablecloth.

I instructed my husband, “No nibbling the appetizers on the lower refrigerator shelf. You can have the not-so-pretty ones on the top.”

Eager for the perfect day, I slept little that night.

Christmas morning arrived with the sound of “Jingle Bells” from the radio alarm. I hit the off button and bounced out of bed… all ready to execute the plan.

“Need help?” My husband opened one eye.

“Nope. I’ve got it under control. Go back to sleep.”

He rolled over and snored before I even shut the bedroom door.

In the hub of activity, I wrapped the seasoned turkey in foil and placed it on its assigned oven rack. A checkmark went on my to-do list. I added torn pieces of dried bread to the crumbled cornbread dressing. Check. Peeled and diced Idaho potatoes. Check. I scooped green and black olives into crystal serving bowls. Stuffed celery sticks lined a crystal dish. Check, check.

At the assigned times, I added the broth to the dressing and placed the pan below the already-cooked turkey. The yams had enough brown sugar to zap us into a sugar high. Every dish adhered to my schedule.

As guests arrived, I calculated where their food items fit into my plan. In the last thirty minutes before mealtime, I hummed as I finished the final tasks. Whipped potatoes steamed from their pan. Toasty brown marshmallows melted over the yams. I removed the foil from the roasting pan and slid the turkey back in the oven to turn it golden brown. My table would look like the delicious dinner pictured in the Poultry section of the Betty Crocker Cookbook.

I sighed and stepped away from the kitchen cabinet and then went to the living room to chat with guests while the turkey browned. From across the room, my husband winked at me. Everything was right with the world.

Then it happened.

A loud bang from the direction of the kitchen made everyone jump. My mother-in-law paled. Had she been shot? No, no, there was no blood.

“Sounded like a gunshot to me.” My brother-in-law offered his two cents as he looked out of the street-side windows.

Nervous laughter and murmurs filled the room.

In the dining room, I surveyed the candles. Had a votive glass become too hot and burst? No, there was no evidence.

My husband took a few steps toward me. “I think it came from the kitchen.”

We headed to the kitchen with a gaggle of relatives trailing behind.

Every dish looked exactly as I’d left it a few minutes earlier. I raised the lid on the stovetop items to take a peek. No one saw anything amiss.

“Who knows what it was.” I shrugged my shoulders and erased my worry.

As we stood in front of the oven, I decided to baste the turkey once more. Ready for my in-laws to be awed, I reached for the hot pads and opened the oven door. Like synchronized swimmers, each of us leaned back as an extraordinary amount of steam rose.

And the source of explosion made itself known.

Pieces of turkey greeted me — on the inside of the door, on the sides of the oven, and… in the dressing. The marshmallow-topped yams were dotted with brown turkey pieces. The legs hung by thin sinews. More skin draped over the edge of the roasting pan. Parts unknown dripped from the oven ceiling and turkey skin sizzled on the bottom burner.

There was absolute silence—until I couldn’t help myself. I laughed. Everyone joined in. Once the cackling subsided, I placed the roasting pan on a trivet. My mother-in-law peered at the bird’s remains, patted my back and sighed.

My shoulders drooped as I bit my lip. Now they all knew my cooking skills were limited. My husband stopped laughing and wiped tears from his eyes. Then, he noticed the look on my face.

He kissed my cheek and returned the electric knife to its box. “Folks, let’s head back to the living area and give my wife some space.” As he herded the chuckling clan toward the living room, I mouthed a “thank you.” Tears stung my eyes.

I surveyed the damage. Pieces of turkey were everywhere. I grabbed a fork and popped a piece in my mouth. Hmm… tasty. A strutting Tom turkey decorated a large platter, a gift from my mother-in-law. I smirked as I covered it with salvaged pieces from the exploded bird. The veggies were scooped to bowls, the gravy bowl filled to the brim, and rolls nestled in a basket.

When I announced “time to eat” wide eyes greeted me. Although hesitant, everyone gathered at the table and devoured the dinner. We all agreed exploded turkey tasted as good as well-carved slices.

The upside of the explosion? Whenever there’s a family gathering, no one lets me near the oven.

~Gail Molsbee Morris

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