The tradition continues with iterations.
As a lad with seven older siblings of a Father who had all the requisites for being a member of the alcoholics Anonymous, the Christmas Turkey was the sole meal of the year upon which we could be guaranteed to have meat. We were fed vegetarian meals seventy per cent of the time. But Turkey at Christmas was as sacrosanct custom, well approaching Sunday Mass. With cunning and conniving, my Mom was able to ferret away enough money over the months leading to Christmas to place a bird in the centre of the table. It would have been a bargain of a bird, having suffered the loss of a leg or a wing, or, worse, suffered freezer burn from aging in the butcher’s freezer for a year. Always, though, at mid-table to be honoured in the eating was the Christmas Turkey.
Mom would roust herself out of bed at four-thirty or five in the morning. She may have had two hours of sleep. Having directed my brothers and I to attend Midnight Mass as altar boys, and, she as a member of the church choir in the choir loft, she, like times immemorial, had stayed for the shorter Shepherd’s mass. We would have opened our gifts and had a ‘Reveillion’, of pickles, tourtière, a some form of drink before she retired to her bed. She would rustle herself out of bed into the chill of the house. It was heated by a wood-fed furnace that had given out hours previous. She would crumple newspaper and stuffed kindling into the wood stove, the smell of the struck match invading the tiny four roomed house. We could all hear the roar of flames rushing through the paper.
She assembled the stuffing from the myriad of ingredients including celery, bacon, onions and the inevitable bread crumbs garnered from the uneaten slices of the past few weeks. Into the preheated oven it went, to come out some ten or twelve hours later, after the stove had been kept alert and fed selected pieces of wood to maintain an even temperature in the oven and the house. The aroma filled the small house creating a salivation, an enjoyment before the fact, a hunger for the special. And, when she began to mash the potatoes, we all became aware that satisfaction was at hand.
Once settled on our plates, the reality of the succulence was gobbled with the gusto of starved mob.
When I married, my wife’s family knew little of the reality of a Christmas Turkey. This void in their lives I filled with a pencilled remembrance of the recipe I vaguely recollected from my childhood. It was then, I remembered, all of our Christmas Turkeys were not equal. Some years, it tasted better than others. I became aware of the profuse amount of advice found in a myriad newspapers and cookbooks.
The years took their toll on the central focus of the yuletide. We lived on a an acreage, and raised our own flock of a half-dozen of the birds. One year, the oven control failed and the bird was still raw after twelve hours.
My Father-in-Law was a hunter-fisherman type. He hunted moose for meat. He had a pug-nosed jeep truck which four by foured him through the wilderness on these hunts. He was the strong he-man type who never shared his emotions, always purveying the impression of being an impregnable fortress. Together, he and I had beheaded hundreds of chickens and a number of turkeys. All without incident. Until the year that one turkey supersized itself. I could hardly hold onto it and direct its neck and head onto the chopping block. The frist chop, like all of the others, should have been the last for this turkey. The blade of the axe stuck in the block, having completely missed the neck. The second strike I noticed was not much better than the first, though the bird bled some. With the swing of the axe on the third occasion, I became aware that as the axe approached the apogee of its trajectory, he turned his head aside, turning away seeing its intended goal.
It was at that moment I realized how fortunate I had been not to have been struck by the axe myself as it flew through the air unguided. We exchanged a few words and our positions. I became the axe man. But the Turkey, the Bird, when weighed, eviscerated, came in at fifty pounds on a bathroom scale. When eaten we discovered that its bone structure was no larger than its siblings. The breast meat was between seven and eight inches thick. The drumstick was the size of a child’s baseball bat. My Father-in-Law muzzled the drumstick that Christmas with his head bowed.
The best Turkey I ever put together started one Christmas Eve morning at about ten o’clock. My wife was at work, and, we would share the Christmas Turkey that evening, as the next morning we would fly to another destination. With a glass of red wine accompanying me, I worked my way through the building of the stuffing, meticulously engineering new processes including subtle additions to the recipe, none of which were ever reduced to writing. The Turkey could have made the cover of Good Housekeeping, and, the stuffing, had I noted the machinations of the day, would have been spread across the centre pages. The comments at the table as well as the lack of any leftovers from my daughters and their partners all made the effort worthwhile.
The stuffings came and the stuffings went. Some tasty, some awkward, some plain. But always there.
These days, with Christmases spent in Mexico the tradition continues, with the iterations that life changes bring. While I no longer prepare the stuffing, I search these environs for a dining room that serves a good turkey with the historical stuffing I am accustomed to. By chance, the first year we were here, we were walking along the beach Christmas Eve when we entered a restaurant which was serving Christmas Dinner with all the trimmings. There I succumbed to Christmas Turkey dinner. The stuffing, I would swear, had been made by my Mom in her best year. Mexican turkeys are different. They are imported from Argentina. The climate in Argentina is similar to Canadian climate.