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Wild reminiscences of first Thanksgivings.

Have you ever seen pumpkin rind cake or turkey in a flaming bag?

REMEMBER THE FIRST Thanksgiving dinner you made all on your own, without Mom at your side--or rather, without you at her side? If you're like the following group of 20th-century Pilgrims, chances are you could tell a tale or two. Their Thanksgiving adventures are sure to bring memories--and smiles.


"Cookbooks tell you to put the turkey in the oven, but they don't say which way to put it in the oven," remarks self-proclaimed novice cook Sara Reynolds Davi of Chico, California. "So last year, when I roasted my first turkey, I just tied the legs together and put it in there.

"The recipe said to test the temperature in the breast. Well, I didn't know what the breast was, so I kept sticking a thermometer in the part that was up--which was awfully bony. Finally, I decided that the turkey had been in the oven for 4 hours and that it just had to be done. When my husband went to carve it, he looked at it strangely, then ventured, 'Did you know this turkey's the wrong way up?'

"He flipped the bird over. It was white and ugly! My friends still laugh at me--but at least now I can recognize which is the breast and which is the back."


Boning a turkey isn't a project that most cooks take lightly, but Patrick McEvoy of Palo Alto, California, is not easily daunted. When Sunset ran a recipe in 1986 for an "easy-carve" turkey, he knew what to make for his 60 Thanksgiving guests. Two weeks ahead, he held a trial run dinner to practice boning out the carcass, stuffing, and reshaping the bird. His friend Cliff Jenkins attended, and admired the neat, boneless slices of meat and stuffing.

On Thanksgiving, Patrick woke at 6 A.M. to bone two 30-pound turkeys to feed this large group, deploying each on its own barbecue. He then cooked a third turkey that a friend had won in a raffle the night before, but he didn't have time to bone it.

At serving time, pandemonium reigned in the kitchen. Across a sea of people, Patrick yelled to Cliff to please unstuff and carve the turkey on the table. All went well, as this was the raffle bird. But Cliff, being a very helpful sort of guy, proceeded to the next--boneless--turkey.

It wasn't long before Patrick heard Cliff talking to himself. "Hmm. This is strange. What the hell? Pat, there's something wrong with this turkey!"

Like the infamous birds in cartoonist Gary Larson's Boneless Chicken Ranch, the turkey had been reduced to an inelegant floppy mess. The third turkey, saved from Cliff's helpful hands, was most thoroughly admired.


Sunset senior editor David Mahoney remembers well the first time he and his siblings had Thanksgiving on their own. "My youngest brother, Dan, volunteered to prepare seafoam salad, a pale green gelatin concoction made in a ring mold, and a staple at our family Thanksgivings. But he 'improved' on the basic recipe of lime gelatin, cream cheese, and canned pears by collecting crab claws, seaweed, and other tidal detritus at the beach, then artfully arranging them on top."


One novice Thanksgiving host, not liking traditional pumpkin pie but wanting to keep the holiday spirit, decided to make a pumpkin cake. He used a recipe for carrot cake but substituted shredded pumpkin for shredded carrots--not a bad idea, until guests discovered he'd used shredded pumpkin rind instead of flesh. Talk about fiber!


"One year when I was growing up, we spent our first camping Thanksgiving on some friends' property out in the middle of nowhere," recalls Allison Zarem, photo coordinator in Sunset's Los Angeles office. "Mom made a traditional meal, including a new stuffing recipe that she'd received from a neighbor. Everything was delicious--except for the stuffing, which was disgusting.

"After dinner, we took the turkey carcass and stuffing into the woods, thinking the animals might eat them. The next day, my brother and I crept back to the spot to see what had happened to the leftover food. Not a scrap of turkey was left--not even a bone. But the animals--raccoons, wolves, whatever they were--weren't fooled. They hadn't touched the horrible stuffing!

"We really gave our mom a hard time. Later, when our neighbor asked how we liked the stuffing, we told her about the animals' sensitive taste buds. 'That's funny,' she said. 'All our guests ate it.'"


Chef Monique Barbeau of Fullers restaurant in Seattle isn't likely to forget her first attempt at Thanksgiving dinner, which she cooked for a group of friends during her freshman year at college.

"Mom used to wrap the turkey in a brown paper sack to help keep it moist and crisp. What I didn't know was that I was supposed to get the bag wet first. It burst into flames, filling the kitchen with smoke! Everyone thought I'd burned the turkey and that we'd have to order Chinese food, but I was able to remove the paper sack and save the bird, which was dry but edible. I eventually got over my embarrassment and continued in the cooking profession. But now I make ham for Thanksgiving."


Several first-time turkey cooks recall learning the mystery of "that funny little bag" inside the bird. "I didn't even know it was in there," confessed one woman. "You should have seen my look of embarrassment when my new father-in-law discovered it as he was carving!"


"I've always been ambitious, but at 16 I thought I knew a heck of a lot more than I did," says chef Leonard Cohen of the Olde Port Inn in Avila Beach, California. "I volunteered to cook Thanksgiving dinner, and my dad said I could prepare whatever I wanted, so I made a really elaborate meal. Everything came out pretty well except for the sweet potato pie. It looked great--the marshmallows were all melted and gooey. But my little sister took one bite and said, 'There's a problem with this!' I didn't know I was supposed to preboil the sweet potatoes. We scooped the marshmallows off the top and ate those."


For Sunset CEO Robin Wolaner, the best part of the turkey has always been the crunchy skin. You can imagine her interest at her first Thanksgiving with her "almost-in-laws" when from across a counter she watched the family patriarch carefully carve the turkey, then lift off the skin (to another platter, she assumed). Later, her interest turned to dismay when she realized that he had deposited the skin in the garbage disposal! She might have been healthier for the skinless bird, but definitely wasn't happier.


Mary Etta Moose, co-owner of Moose's restaurant in San Francisco, shares a story of Thanksgiving in the days before she could cook.

"Imagine my surprise when my gregarious husband, Ed, with an 'Oh, by the way...' visited my debut as a hostess-cook upon me. So green a cook was I that the authors in the bookstore cookbook section meant nothing to me. But I recognized the name of Michael Field, whose piano concerts I had so enjoyed, and figured that anyone who could play like that could cook.

"His Truffled Roast Turkey with Sausage and Chestnut Stuffing, with black truffle slices slipped under the skin before roasting (described by the French as dindonneau en demi-deuil, or young turkey in half-mourning), looked good. I couldn't have guessed there'd be a typo in such an extravagant recipe. But proofreaders hadn't caught the typesetter's substitution of 1 tablespoon for 1 teaspoon of salt in the stuffing.

"'Twas I who was in half-mourning--sitting at table watching our guests politely push their salt-pickled bird and stuffing around their plates, digging the truffle slices from under the skin to eat with their vegetables. Perhaps my story will save another novice cook from the same embarrassment."


A reader we'll call John had a big crush on a woman with whom he worked. Finally, he mustered enough courage to ask her to dinner. Since it was the Saturday before Thanksgiving, he decided to impress her by preparing a turkey dinner--complete with a 24-pound bird!

But he had never cooked anything other than frozen dinners and didn't know that a large turkey needs more than the hour it takes to cook a chicken. Thinking he would allow about 30 minutes for appetizers and conversation before dinner, he popped the turkey into the oven shortly before his date arrived. Conversation dragged on for an interminable 3 hours until the bird was done. It was their first and last date.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Johnson, Elaine; Bateson, Betsy Reynolds; Hale, Christine Weber
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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