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23.11.11

A Far Side Turkey

Ah, the familiar wail of the Ghost of Thanksgiving Past.  If Dickens were alive today, he would still completely ignore this holiday.  It is uniquely American in every way, from the ancillary parades of gross consumption, to the absurd game of football, in which steroid abusers put on pads and pretend to get tough (rugby is a man's game, thank you), to the celebration with obscene amounts of food and beverage...emphasis on the beverage.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday.  There's something about the ritual of preparing the exact same meal the exact same way year after year.  It really has nothing to do with the Macy's parade.  I've probably watched all of two of them in my lifetime.  It certainly has nothing to do with football, since I've watched even less of it.  It's definitely the ritual part and the fact that I never really eat turkey any other time of the year.

My first experience with a Far Side Thanksgiving was in Dublin, Ireland.  My father, in his strange, internally consistent but otherwise unfathomable reasoning, had moved my whole family to Dublin for a year to find our roots.

Mom had hunted down a turkey, not very large by our standards, what with six kids and assorted Catholic clergy hanging around.  It was obviously not the plump Butterball that was the ritual beast, either.  It was a scrawny thing, pale and lifeless, and sans giblets.  I don't know about you, but Thanksgiving is the only time of my life that I purposely eat internal organs.  I'm a flesh kind of guy, and I don't much like livers and hearts and other guts.  But, it's part of the stuffing ritual, so I do it and I like it.

At any rate, that Irish turkey came out dry, almost like eating a picture of a turkey, rather than the bird.  Mom cursed the Irish electric oven and the shipping for what is still one of the family legends: Mom is not an infallible cook despite all indications to the contrary.

My sister and I are the only ones who know the recipe and secret to the famous Mom Turkey.  For several years, she and I would meet at Mom's house on Wednesday evening for 'chopping night.'  Mom, in semi-retirement, had passed on all the prep to my sister and I, while she still performed the necessary magic on Thursday morning.

Sis and I would pop a bottle of wine and proceed to shuck and jive, building the stuffing, washing the bird and prepping the bird, paring the Brussels sprouts, on so on.  I was the knife man, Sis did all the stir-fry and mix-mastering.  Then I would take the results and shove them in a carefully predetermined pattern into the bird and place it in the pan for the mystical treatment the next day.

Later, when I had my own kids and family, we carried on the ritual, with Dad doing all the magic while each kid had their assigned task.  The hardest part of Thursday was waking up at the crack of dawn to start the magic show at 7am sharp.  The rest was simply overseeing the magic chemistry of heat + time = dinner.  If done right, it all comes out at the same time so that it's still hot and juicy when the serving line begins.

Now, one of the major controversies regarding Thanksgiving is sage or cornbread.  Some folks swear by, and the family Bible requires under pain of death, cornbread stuffing, and even (gasp) not stuffing the bird but cooking it separately!  My family is in the sage camp, and the stuffing must absolutely be done inside the carcass, or it ain't right.  Besides, that's an integral part of the gravy seasoning, not to mention the table-side battles for the burn end of the stuffing.  And frankly, it's just not stuffing if it ain't stuffed.

Now, I've had dozens of requests for the stuffing recipe.  Frankly, I don't have one.  I learned from Mom, who didn't have one.  It's a matter of knowing what to put in it, and the rest is smell and texture.  That's it.  The only way you can learn it is by doing it under close supervision of a Craft Master.  The other part of that is the careful placement of stuffing inside the bird.  It's a learn-by-doing operation.  No amount of recipe can teach you the Secret.

As for cooking time, my grandfather did several experiments and came up with the perfect formula, which I can't divilge, since it's a family secret and the patent doesn't run out for another 10 years.  But it produces a flawless bird, and it gets surrounded with boiled Brussels sprounts in butter with lots of pepper, cauliflower with Welsh cheese sauce, broccoli with butter, sour cream and cheese carefully arranged in medley, dinner rolls, pies (pecan, of course...weeze Texians), and the always untouched cranberry sauce that everyone hates.  But it's there, just in case.

So, flash forward to Indonesia.  I can count the number of Indonesians who have eaten turkey on one hand with four fingers tied behind my back.  Being a North American bird, there's no reason why Indonesians should have any knowledge of it.  Last year, my search turned up a lone bird, deep frozen, for $100.  This year, I turned up three of them, and the one I brought home was $40.  An improvement.  Last year, I gave up and cooked four chickens in the same style, which was pretty good, really.  This year, I'm going whole hog, except I can't find cauliflower anywhere, for love nor money.

If you read Thanksgiving on the Far Side last year, then you know that I bought an oven for the occasion.  Now understand that ovens just aren't a standard part of an Indonesian kitchen.  Here, everything is done on the grill or stove top.  So to say I have an oven is to say I have a breadbox with a heating element that will cook single slices of bread in 21.3 minutes flat.  Being a closet masochist, I'm going to attempt to cook a turkey in it this year.

This will be the first experience my Indonesian family has ever had with turkey.  They aren't prepared properly for the triptophan crash afterwards, because I don't know how to explain triptophan in Indonesian.  Oh well, they'll just have to discover it themselves.  At any rate, the blossoming guest list is up to about 30, and in the Indonesian style, free food usually draws a 100% inflation rate, so I'm figuring on 60 people raping a 12-pound bird.

The problem is, the bird will not fit in the oven.  Unless I can figure out a way to turn the oven into a TARDIS, the normal Laws of Physics won't allow it.  So, this week, my big ponder has been how to cook a 12-pound turkey in an oven that will only hold a 1-pound chicken.  What I've decided is that I will butcher the bird and cook the breast in the oven with the stuffing, which I won't be able to stuff.  The legs and wings and assorted other bits I'll throw on the barbie and grill with coconut shell fuel.  The remaining carcass will get boiled down into soup stock, which is usually reserved for the week after Thanksgiving, when the sandwich gods have had their way with the left-overs.

It remains to be seen how all this will work out.  I'd hate to introduce an entire country to a traditional meal that is boned beyond all recognition.  Also, I'm determined to add a new ingredient to the stuffing...green apple.  My apple tree is just finishing up its season, and I have about 20 apples the size of large plums that are a nice combination of sweet and sour, so what the heck.  Toss 'em in!

I may end up causing an international incident here if it ain't just right.  Also, I made such a big deal out of finding a turkey, with two-week hunt across Jakarta to boot, that it had better be worth it, or my wife will ban me from the kitchen forever.

In place of cauliflower, I am making my now-world famous spaghetti bolognaise (from scratch...no cans of anything).  And to make sure the Indonesians have something to eat, if they find the turkey unpalatable, there'll be black pepper beef, meatball soup and spicy chicken in sauce.  I've invited about 10 bule, only one of whom is American, in the sense that he is Hawaiian, but I think it's safe to say few if any have ever experienced Thanksgiving, much less on the Far Side.  If all else fails, at least there's a case of Carlsberg beer, or at least what will be left of it after chopping night on Friday.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that.  Needless to say, there's no holiday here for Thanksgiving, so I'll do the feed on Saturday, which ties in nicely with the Muslim New Year on Sunday...the year 1433, if memory serves me right.

All of this brings up one great mystery.  Since turkey is a North American bird, and it's more rare than argon around here, why is there a word for it in Indonesian?  I mean, if you don't have something locally, and the import of it is incredibly rare, why would a language bother to name it?  It's called ayam kalkun, which only translates as turkey, no two ways about it.  An alternative, but rare name is ayam belanda, or Dutch chicken, which makes even less sense.

Hi Ho!...in the immortal words of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Enjoy your holiday, and blessings for all of us.  Let's hope for the best as we prepare for the worst, and be thankful that we slid though another year relatively intact.

From the Far Side to you, Happy Thanksgiving!

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