- Genine Babakian
The Turkey Lurking in my Freezer
Thanksgiving, 1998, was the last time I cooked a turkey.
I remember little about the meal itself. It’s the preparation that is permanently embedded in my brain.
I was living in Moscow at the time, and had invited some friends to my apartment for an “authentic” American Thanksgiving. The only glitch in this plan was that I had to leave for St. Petersburg two days before, to report on the funeral of a prominent, and beloved, politician, who had been murdered.
I took the night train to St. Petersburg and joined the throng of mourners who stood out in the freezing rain for hours to pay their respects. I filed my story and checked my watch: There was just enough time to make the earlier night train to Moscow. But first, I had to make a stop.
Hopping in a taxi, I rode first to Stockmanns. The Finnish supermarket was the only place I knew of in the city that sold whole turkeys. I bought the one they had left and lugged it to the train station. I defrosted that frozen bird on the night train back to Moscow, clutching it to me as I lay down in my narrow berth.
Before 7am the next morning, Thanksgiving Day, the train pulled into the station. Dashing to my apartment, I dropped the defrosting bird on my Formica table and headed to the markets, making a mental shopping list on my way. Having gathered all the fixings, I made it back to my apartment by early afternoon, and spent the rest of the day coaxing a Thanksgiving feast out of a tiny oven with no temperature controls and two working burners.
It may have been my finest hour in the kitchen.
Did it taste good? Probably not. But I didn’t make anyone sick – a blessing, I’ve since learned, given my unorthodox methods of defrosting turkey. As the Center for Disease Control points out every year around this time, defrosting a bird in the “danger zone” – between 40°F and 140°F – is like inviting bacteria to your Thanksgiving table.
Since then I’ve been off Thanksgiving duty. Under normal circumstances, all I’d have to do is show up with pie, as a feast unfolds magically in my sister-in-law’s kitchen. But this year is not normal, so Thanksgiving won’t be as easy as pie. We are following other CDC guidelines: no large family gatherings – just the immediate household.
Which means I have to cook that bird lurking in my freezer. I don’t normally shy away from challenges in the kitchen, but there is something about turkey that puts me on edge. I call it STRA: Seasonal Turkey-Related Anxiety. And don’t even get me started on the gravy.
At least this time I can cook a safely defrosted bird in an oven with identifiable temperatures. But what about brining and basting and timing and – does my meat thermometer even work? I guess I’ll have to wing it. And maybe channel some of the youthful insouciance of that 1998 holiday. If I can cook Thanksgiving dinner under such circumstances, then, surely, I can tackle this bird.