Dropping the Turkey

Kristen Frederickson

Kristen Frederickson › What part of liv­ing bliss­fully in New York and own­ing an art gallery ...


Our family has a checkered past with Thanksgiving, to be honest.

Each year of my childhood we motored from Indianapolis to Louisville, Kentucky to spend the frosty, gray holiday at my uncle’s home, over which flew a Confederate flag. This journey always took about a half hour longer than it should due to my parents’ annual disagreement about which exit was the right one off the highway. Once arrived, we unpacked our contributions to the feast: pumpkin and sugar-cream pies, brown-and-serve rolls, cans of cranberry sauce. My uncle’s father-in-law, who owned a frozen-and tinned-foods concern called “Frosty Acres,” turned up with his gifts of asparagus and oysters for the stuffing.

As we settled into our family routine amidst the sparkling cutlery and crystal, stories of Thanksgivings past abounded, topped by the tale of my parents’ newlywed first holiday together.

Dropping the turkey: what more could anyone ask of the perfect Thanksgiving?

“We were entertaining your father’s elderly aunt and uncle from out of town, so I wanted to make a good impression,” my mother began the story. “But first, the little shelf where I kept my perfumes from my Grand Tour fell off the bathroom wall. Oh, the smell! Then your father stuck a spoon in the blender while he was making the cranberry sauce and cranberries flew all over the house. We found them behind the curtains when we moved, several years later. But worst of all, I had put the turkey on a cookie sheet because we didn’t have a roasting tray, and when I pulled it out of the oven, the sheet collapsed and I dropped the turkey. All the juices ran onto the oven floor and caught fire.”

How she would laugh at the memory of a day that had been full of tears for her, a young bride in the domestic perfection of the 1950s.

Now, some 60 years later, I am in the last days of writing my cookbook, “Tonight at 7.30: One Family’s Life at the Table.” We are gathering together a videographer, her soundman-boyfriend, our still photographer friend and his partner and daughter, all to record and commemorate a blue-sky, mild Sunday in September, here in our London home. It is all in the service of our Kickstarter campaign, the crowd-funding adventure that will launch our cookbook project into the world.

“How have we let two Thanksgivings and Christmases go by while we worked on this book without getting a photograph of a turkey, or a ham?” I asked in exasperation of anyone who would listen, as the date of the Kickstarter video filming approached. “We’re going to have to have ‘Thanksgiving in September,’ I guess.”  Although she never complained, Avery was nearing the end of her rope as far as photographing dishes for the cookbook went: her passion for the project that had lasted for years was gradually being transferred to the all-consuming task of applying for university. “One more day of photographs,” I promised,“and then we’re finished. Just the turkey, a roasted ham, and the pies.”

And so it was on that sunny Sunday that I set the table with piles of gourds and pumpkins, ceramic name-place holders in the shape of turkeys, tall orange candles. We hadn’t, however, bargained on the summery weather and the resulting sartorial choices of a couple of our guests.

“Didn’t you get the Thanksgiving memo?” John asked of Vincent and Peter, slung about with photographic equipment. “You two look like you’re going on a cruise.” They smiled in their polo shirts and shorts, ready for whatever the day brought.

The video camera whirred on its trolley, the still cameras on their tripods, the microphone with its boom. People took pictures of people taking pictures of people taking videos: there was a deeply meta quality to the entire day as we memorialized that Thanksgiving that was not.

And then the unthinkable happened. In the middle of the perfection, the savory smells, Ella Fitzgerald crooning in the background, I stooped to remove the sizzling turkey from the oven.

“Is that a bit heavy, Kristen; do you need a hand?” asked a prophetic voice over my shoulder, as the turkey slowly, inexorably slid out of its baking dish and onto first the floor of the oven–where its rich, buttery juices caught fire–and then onto the kitchen floor. There was a stunned silence.

“Ten-second rule, ten-second rule,” everyone began chattering in various shocked tones. I lifted the poor battered bird onto a platter and stared in abject horror at the pool of delicious juices, the product of days of herbed brining, the fodder for cups of hotly-anticipated gravy, to smother clouds of mashed potatoes, running over the floor and under the oven.

All gone.

Peter snapped to attention. “Hand me that bread crust, from the stuffing,” he ordered, and began sopping up the juices with it. “If you think I’m throwing this in the bin, you’re crazy,” he said, laughing as he popped the bread into his mouth. “I did just scrub the floor this summer,” John volunteered. “So you’re in luck.”

Avery struggled to get a photo of the poor turkey after its trials, and in the end the photo in the cookbook is one taken by Vincent, of me carving the bird, the perfectionist wind thoroughly taken out of my sails.

For the rest of the day, the phrase “dropping the turkey” became shorthand for just about any cack-handed, gigantic mess-up anyone might make. “I might have skipped four pages of my maths A-level exam, but at least I didn’t drop the turkey.”

At the literal end of the day, the dropped turkey only made the dinner party we had thought should be perfect, really perfect. The best dinner party is one where the guests crowd around to pick up the pieces of the worst mistake, where the mashed potatoes taste all the more like potatoes without their awaited blanket of gravy, where the cameras stop so everyone can pitch in to help.

Dropping the turkey: what more could anyone ask of the perfect Thanksgiving?

Does your family have a monumental Thanksgiving mishap that now makes you laugh?

Photo credit: Vincent Keith