ROCHESTER — 1974: “Defrost turkey early Wed … Remember last year!”
The pencil is faded, there are yellow stains on the outside margin, but my mom’s elegant and distinctive cursive is clear on the page, under the header “Turkey dressing.”
When Peggy Gertner and Peter MacAdam were married in 1960, my mom received as a gift a small three-ring binder with a green-and-white pattern and the words “My recipe book” on the cover. Her sister and in-laws all shared recipes in it, as did our grandmothers, Marion Gertner and Lucy MacAdam.
Mimi — our mom’s mom — submitted “Lemon Graham Cracker Pie” dated April 2, 1960, and Gramma MacAdam begat “Christmas Cookies,” which became legendary in our Irondequoit suburban home, thin, toasty brown cutouts made from the simplest ingredients, but simply delish, decorated with red and green sugar, and if you poked around, you could find one with a small cinnamon candy melted in.
Although the recipe “makes 300-400,” a household with six kids and a father who got a taste of his own childhood with every bite was well equipped to make short work of the barrel they were stored in between layers of wax paper.
But that’s getting ahead. We celebrated Thanksgiving last week, for the fourth time without Dad, who died in 2017, and for the first time without Mom, 83, who’s been in the hospital. It gave some of us an opportunity to revisit her old recipe book, the seams on the binder cracked open but holding steady, spots of who-knows-what clinging to some pages like barnacles on a rusted ship.
She has a small library of cookbooks, but this one is the Book of Kells in her cupboard above the stove, a treasure chest of kitchen direction, but also a Thanksgiving journal that she kept through the years, marking details like the weight of the bird, how much it cost per pound, quantity of ingredients for the stuffing, the weather, but also contributions by others to the preparation of the meal and tidbits about the family in general.
As it became increasingly difficult for her to make the Thanksgiving dinner in recent years, the journal entries dropped off, too. This Thanksgiving reached a whole new level of separation from the past, because Mom’s been dealing with an ongoing succession of serious medical problems (but not COVID-19) since the middle of August and remains away from home, having been transferred back to St. Ann’s nursing home last Monday from Rochester General Hospital.
This all would have been an awful span in any year, but it’s compounded in 2020 by pandemic restrictions that have prevented us from visiting her, a feedback loop that likely also slows her recovery. The pandemic did affect Thanksgiving, since, like many families in the U.S., we chose to go our separate ways. Apart from Mom, we were split into four households, each doing their own thing.
Over beers in October, the three of us who are single and don’t have kids — myself, my brother Kevin and sister Sue — decided, damn the torpedoes, we were going to cook a turkey ourselves for the first time, in the house where we grew up, and assemble some of the traditional elements of what had been Thanksgiving dinner to us since decades ago. At the time, Mom was due to be home for the holiday, and would be available to coach, but … things change. So we were on our own.
That’s where the Butterball Hotline comes in.
Yep, there is a Butterball Hotline.
Sue bought a 14.34-pound turkey fresh — by far the smallest ever — eliminating the possibility of a 1973 defrost repeat. There was some leakage in the refrigerator, though, and she called the hotline to ask if that was a problem. Turns out it ain’t.
There isn’t much actual turkey direction in Mom’s recipe book, so we turned to a Wegmans Meat Guide and had our bird in the 325-degree oven at 12:35 p.m., anticipating a basting break shortly after 4 and full removal between 4:45-5.
“We need to find the thing she uses to skim off the fat for the gravy. It looks like a watering can for your plants.”
We had cut the bread, onions and celery for “Turkey dressing” and cooked it in a pan with butter and raisins the night before, so that was done.
Mom always made two pies, almost exclusively apple and pumpkin, but this year Kevin bought a pumpkin and a grape (scrumptious, if you’ve never had) from Monica’s in Naples. Sue also picked up some pumpkin bread and a can (I insisted) of cranberry sauce. Nothing says holiday cheer like a big jellied red pellet with can corrugation lines molded into the side.
You may notice a dearth of vegetables. More of an oversight than anything. Don’t judge.
We drew up a parlay betting sheet to manufacture interest in the atrocious NFL games and even set up squares (33 each and an unpicked “square of death”) for the second game. This is the face of desperation.
By halftime of the first game, Houston-Detroit, Sue observed that the house didn’t appear to be filling with that rich aroma of turkey. Uh oh. We checked, but the oven was, indeed, on. At 4, the internal temperature was a meager 139 degrees, well short of the 165 target, and there was scant juice in the bottom of the roasting pan. Like, zilch.
Our guy surged to 146 by 4:45, it was starting to smell like Thanksgiving, and the thermometer DK-Metcalfed well past 165 by 5:45.
We were in business.
The most daunting part was the gravy, so we had two backups, an envelope of dry McCormick mix and a jar of Heinz. Don’t judge.
Turkey resting on the cutting board for a half hour, the three of us were cast in “Three Sibs and a Gravy,” expectantly hovering over the roasting pan trying to deliver … something, anything. But bombing.
In retrospect, we should’ve added more water or, as one of Mom’s journal pages dutifully notes, “2 cups chicken bouillon,” as we went along. I was hellbent on no lumps, and at least accomplished that. Thick and kind of gummy, our concoction only filled half of Mom’s gravy boat. Hello, you fine people at McCormick.
Who knows what Christmas will bring.
A bag of Halloween candy we bought for Mom to hand out is still on the kitchen table, unopened. The “Welcome Home” and “We Love You” signs made by her 12-year-old granddaughters, Colleen and Molly, still hang from the kitchen ceiling, having greeted Mom on Oct. 28, only to see her back to the emergency room less than 24 hours later.
Sue wrote this year’s journal entry for the old recipe book, on a sheet of looseleaf paper, jotting down the particulars of our turkey, stuffing and gravy. “What a different year this one was. Not only did we have to deal with COVID but Mom is an inpatient at RGH. We decided a few weeks ago that we would celebrate separately.”
It’s tucked in the back of the book, after these:
2005: “Last year’s stomach bug that Sue had took hold of me right after dinner. Mo got it on Friday. It was awful!!!
“This year we are all well, something to be thankful for. Everyone will be here, and since Ian can now sit at the table, we don’t all fit in the dining room.”
2008: “The weather is cool and rainy. We’ve already had a bunch of snow, so this is a bit of a respite from the cold. Michael is in Orlando covering the Siena basketball tournament …
“The turkey cost 49 cents a lb, it’s 21+ lbs. I hope I can lift it into the oven. John or Kevin can lift it out.”
2009: “Gray day but not too cold. I had to sing a funeral in the morning. Made pies when I got home, apple and mincemeat. I bought pumpkin from Irondequoit Chorale (Leo’s). I know I’ll be in trouble with Mary Jo.”
2011 (when Mom forgot to put the milk in the pumpkin pie filling): “I don’t know what happened to 2010. I know that part of what I wrote in the last entry happened in 2010, like the new roaster. Oh well, I’m getting old and can’t remember anything.”
2012: “Made the pies and said it was the last time. Why isn’t it the same every year. I couldn’t get the crust right and couldn’t pick it up without it falling apart.”
1999: “19.45 lb turkey from Pt. Pleasant (another one is in the freezer) Thank you Mo”
“I’ve made 3 pies and I just got a beautiful flower arrangement from the kids to ‘our main cook.’ It made me cry to know I’m loved.”
“3 sticks marg”
“2 cups chicken bouillon”
“2 lbs bread”