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Thanksgiving Dinner Reviewed

Wild Turkeys snapshot
by John Raven, Ph.B.

Ah, yes. Thanksgiving is rolling around again. Time to haul out the pavo or gobbler (turkey) and make that great traditional family feast.

For the past several years a big topic of conversation around Texas Cooking at Thanksgiving time is deep-frying a turkey. A lot of people really like the fried turkey. That is fine. I just think a turkey from the smoker or the oven is more traditional. But if you insist on frying a turkey, be sure you know what you are doing before you start. Read and understand all the directions that came with your deep fryer. Best thing would be to enlist the assistance of a veteran turkey fryer.

Two places you really do not want to use your turkey fryer are inside any building or on a wooden deck. Best would be in the yard away from dry hedges and on a bed of sand. You want a large fire extinguisher of the proper type on hand, and you and yourn must know how to operate it. Kids, pets and persons with impaired equilibrium will be kept at least 100 feet away from the fryer while it is in operation. I'm not kidding about all this.

A turkey from the smoker can be a thing of joy. Again, you need someone with some experience to walk you through the routine. You can get a pretty good idea of what is going on by reading some of my smoking articles on Traditional Texas Food.

You do not want to put stuffing into a turkey you are going to smoke. It just works better without it.

The traditional method of baking the turkey in the oven is my favorite. The most important preparation here is being sure the turkey is completely thawed if it was bought frozen. It takes a good two days and two nights in the bottom of the icebox to thaw the bird properly. Read the instructions on the package.

The body cavity of the bird will contain the giblets. That is the neck, the gizzard and the liver. The giblets are used in the giblet gravy that is so good. I prefer to leave the liver out, but that is just my opinion. When you cook the giblets, you want to make a stock while at it. The stock will later go into the dressing. (See Taking Stock.)

A very important part of the Thanksgiving meal is the dressing or stuffing. Texas-style dressing has cornbread as a base. My mama always included a couple of slices of toasted stale bread and some crushed saltines in her dressing. Seasoning for the dressing includes onion, celery and black pepper. I really don't care for the poultry seasoning that has thyme in it. I just don't have time for thyme.

The onion and celery is sautéed in butter until it is nearly browning. You save the stock from boiling the giblets to moisten the dressing. Mama would often use the neck meat in her dressing.

Our Thanksgiving meal always included mashed potatoes. Technically they were creamed potatoes, but we called them mashed potatoes. Just peel and boil some potatoes in salted water until they are tender. Mash them up and add butter and milk or cream. Mix 'em up and keep warm.

Another staple was the green beans. Most times they were just warmed from the can. Then someone came up with that green bean casserole with the canned onion rings on top. That was not to my liking. The only reason people ate it was that they were too polite to spit it out. Fresh green beans are available year round now. They are best just boiled with a bit of bacon. You want to drain them before putting them in the serving bowl. It just works better that way. There are a lot of frozen green beans on the market that are good, too. Just pick a name brand and follow instructions.

Candied sweet potatoes were also a must-have on the table. You can use canned sweet potatoes with good results. If you are using fresh, boil them rather than bake them. They get too mushy when you bake them. They are arranged in a baking dish, drizzled with just a little Karo syrup and topped with marshmallows. The dish gets baked until the marshmallows are slightly browned on top. You can really fancy them up with a good sprinkle of pecan pieces.

The carrot, pineapple and lemon Jell-O salad showed up a lot. I never cared for it. To me carrots do not belong in a congealed salad.

Along with the mashed potatoes, there was always a large bowl of potato salad. My mama was the family potato salad specialist. Her Tater salad included onion, pickle and pimento. It was dressed with mayonnaise and a bit of mustard. As with the dressing, the final seasoning ratio was decided from the "Here, taste this and tell me what it needs" method. I think you can figure that one out. Just get a couple of tasters.

The desserts were capped with a pecan pie or two. And there was always Devil's food cake. A lot more desserts were always included.

For drinks, there was red Kool-Aid for the kids, and the adults had ice tea or coffee.

Our family parties were segregated by sex. The men stayed together. (If there was beer, the men were consigned to the garage.) The women stayed together. The kids were not restricted in their associations. When it was time to eat, the children were rounded up and their plates filled. They had a table or two set up just for them. Then the men were seated at the table and had their fill. When the men left the table, the women took over and their session lasted until it was time to clean stuff up. Then a couple of hours later there was an integrated buffet for all in attendance.

I suppose the segregated-by-gender ritual came from Europe and had some religious origins. There was a time in the Catholic Church where the men sat on one side of the aisle and the women sat on the other. The men and women began getting together gradually beginning in the late 50's. I think my generation started it. I remember when, just before I was designated a "man", that I liked to sit in on the women's conversations, as they had more humor than the men.

Before we integrated, I recall the first time I got to sit at the tabled with the men. It was scary. Until that day I had been a kid, and then it was time to eat and I became a man.

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