Instead of Thanksgiving, my family and I opt to celebrate Fakesgiving. My older children and my grandchildren live more than halfway across the country and flying to New Mexico during the Thanksgiving holiday is not only exorbitantly expensive, but with the crowds and weather, it’s a tremendous pain the ass. So, instead, we celebrate the holiday on another weekend in November, or like this year, in October.
That’s right, this year we had Fakesgiving-o-ween.
And this wasn’t an ordinary Fakesgiving-o-ween! Not only did I have all of my children and my grandchildren coming, but also my parents, and my brother, and my ex, and my ex’s parents. The table had to be moved to the living room – the only place large enough to accommodate it with both leaves in place. Even then, with 13 people, it was a little cramped. I would have set up a kid’s table – but as my grandson is only three-months-old, my nearly four-year-old granddaughter would have been the only one sitting there and that just seemed mean. As it was, she spent most of the time playing under the table instead of eating.
I was a little stressed about Fakesgiving-o-ween. It was probably the biggest, most complicated meal I had ever cooked – plus, I was worried about family dynamics. It was the first time my parents had seen Doc since he left me – I knew they would be cool, but I was apprehensive about any possible tension. I wanted everything to be perfect, and delicious, and for everyone to have a good time. So, I started researching the menu online – and that’s when I discovered spatchcocking.
Have you ever heard of spatchcocking? I hadn’t – but apparently (at least according to the internet) it’s the best way to cook a turkey. Long story short, spatchcocking is when you cut out the backbone of the turkey, plop it breast side up on a rack that sits over the biggest rimmed baking sheet you can find, splay the legs out to the side, and then you give the bird a bit of CPR to crack the breastbone and flatten the whole thing out.
You see, when you roast a turkey the traditional way, the dark meat is at the bottom of the roasting pan, shielded from the direct heat and sitting in the drippings. The breasts, which would really love to take a bath in those drippings, sit up high – exposed to the heating elements and destined to dry out. In addition, the fattier dark meat of the turkey should be cooked to 165 degrees, while the leaner breast starts to desiccate at a temperature of much more than 150.
When you spatchcock a turkey, it solves this problem because the bird is flattened, so the legs and thighs are exposed to direct heat and they cook faster – so the dark and light meat get to their proper (yet different) temperatures about the same time! That means all of the meat of the bird is deliciously moist. Also when spatchcocking, none of the turkey’s skin is hiding in the dark, wet recesses of the roasting pan. Instead all of that skin is exposed to the heat and it gets all lovely and golden and crispy as it cooks. The best thing about spatchcocking (in my humble opinion) is that it takes about half the time (or less) than traditional roasting.
I was intrigued. I had purchased a huge, 25-pound bird to feed the hungry masses – to be able to cook it in less than two hours and (if reports were to believed) have the best tasting turkey ever sounded terrific. My only concern was that I did not own a massive rimmed baking sheet. I had a couple of good size cookie sheets with rims, but neither was big enough for a spatchcocked monster like my turkey. I decided that I could put my cookie sheets side-by-side and cover them with foil, which would help hold them together (in theory) and then place a wire rack on each side.
Two and a half hours before dinner time, I hauled my turkey out of the fridge and over to the sink. I cut it out of its wrapper, fished out the neck and neatly packaged innards, and grabbed my kitchen shears – and then realized I was woefully unprepared. A 25-pound turkey has a massive, thick backbone. There was no way my kitchen shears, no matter how sturdy, could cut through the skin, tissue, and bone. I surreptitiously consulted my computer and saw that many people used poultry shears (duh!) or even tin snips. I didn’t have either of those – but I did have pruning shears. I don’t mean little pruning shears – I owned pruning shears with handles that are more than two-feet long – suitable for cutting good size, unruly limbs from trees in my yard.
I fetched my pruning shears from the garage, gave them a quick wash, and then set to work. It was a little difficult to keep the turkey from slipping and sliding while I attempted to mutilate it. It was also difficult to get enough leverage to open and close those huge handles – because I am rather short, the kitchen sink is rather high, and the pruning shears were massive. My son-in-law offered to help, but I shooed him away – I wanted to spatchcock my bird all by myself!
As I slowly worked my way up the turkey’s backbone, I noticed some dark smudging along the skin. When I looked closer, I realized that while I had washed the pruning shears before I started, there must have been lubricating grease in the fulcrum – which was now being evenly distributed along the ragged edges of my freshly cut bird. I furtively glanced at nearby family members and saw they had not noticed – and then I quickly grabbed a paper towel and wiped most of the evidence away. No one would be eating the back of the turkey anyway, right?
About twenty minutes later, I triumphantly held the excised backbone aloft – kind of like Sub-Zero when he ripped out the spine of his opponents in Mortal Kombat. Fatality, motherfucker!
I arranged the turkey on the wire racks on my jury-rigged cookie sheets and romped on the breastbone until it gave a satisfying crack and the bird assumed the position. Then, with a little help from Doc, I carefully maneuvered the turkey into the waiting oven.
After the bird was safely in the oven, I made a quick trip upstairs to change into clothes that were not covered with turkey bits and lubricating grease. By the time I made it back down, less than 15 minutes later, the kitchen and attached family room was hazy with smoke. Now, the comments I had read online mentioned that there might be a little smoking – and if that happened, just to add some water or chicken stock to the bottom of the pan to prevent the vegetables there (for aromatic purposes) from burning. I immediately grabbed a carton of chicken stock and poured a good amount into the cookie sheets – the smoking did not abate. After another 15 minutes, I decided that perhaps the skin was popping grease up onto the heating elements. I got some aluminum foil and tented it over the top of the turkey, thinking this would contain any splattering. I also poured another cup of chicken stock into the pans. It didn’t work – the smoking was just getting worse. I then decided the oven might be too hot, so I turned it down 25 degrees and added another cup of stock. By this time we were more than an hour in – and the first floor of my house was like a casino filled with a thousand chain-smoking, oxygen-tank dependent senior citizens. I was seriously starting to worry about my daughter’s asthma and my mother-in-law’s COPD. We went around the house, opening windows and doors to try to clear some of the smoke, despite the cold temperatures.
I opened the oven door to pour some more chicken stock in the pans, lamenting to Doc, “Why is it smoking so much?” My son, who had entered the kitchen and was watching the show, observed in a dispassionate voice, “The oven is on fire.” I looked over my shoulder at him, “It’s just like that, right? I just can’t figure out why it keeps smoking even though I’ve been pouring all this chicken stock in there!” He raised his eyebrows and nodded towards the oven, “The oven is on fire,” he said again, “It’s actually on fire.” I scoffed at him, and then leaned down and looked under the turkey – and saw that there were flames coming from the hidden heating elements under the bottom of the oven and licking their way up the sides. I didn’t even know that there were hidden heating elements under the bottom of the oven! Perhaps I should have read the owner’s manual when we bought the appliance seven years ago.
Apparently, all of that chicken stock I had been adding had just overflowed the pans and dripped down to those hidden heating elements, along with all of the rendered fat from the turkey. The fire burned cheerfully, growing even as I watched.
Chaos ensued! The turkey was removed from the oven, quickly but very carefully (because there was a still a shit ton of chicken stock brimming over the sides of the pans). I switched off the oven, but the flames continued. I opened the cupboard, frantically looking for baking soda – or was that salt that is supposed to be used to smother a grease fire? My son-in-law sprinted upstairs, as he knew I kept a container of baking soda in my laundry room, but I finally found my half-used box of soda in the cupboard and emptied it on the flames – successfully extinguishing them at last.
Now, we faced a dilemma. The spatchcocked turkey needed another 30 minutes to finish up. Did we turn the oven back on and put the bird back in – risking death? But, of course! Luckily, the baking soda held any additional flames at bay and, while the oven smelled rather strange, the turkey came to the proper temperature in good time.
I have to tell you – my spatchcocked turkey was everything the online reviews had promised — delightfully juicy and delicious, with crispy, salty skin. The family raved about it. It’s something I would definitely try again next Fakesgiving-o-ween (although I would probably invest in a massive baking sheet next time – as well as some decent poultry shears).
Now — how the hell do I get to the hidden heating elements in my oven to clean up the baking soda and any residual grease? I’m still looking for that owner’s manual.