Back in The Day, when I was a fledgling line cook on his way up the culinary food chain of Napa Valley, Thanksgiving had sort of become a Holiday of Accommodation for me. With a new-found disdain born of my recent experiences working with “the real thing”, my thinking went that if it wasn’t straight out of Ecoffier, my wanna-be French nose was in the air immediately. How could I possibly sit by and subject myself to overcooked green beans and dry Turkey after I had spent all week making Sauce Écrivisse, trimming bones for Carré D’Agneau En Croûte, and slicing beautiful loins of milk-fed Veal? Would I, yet again, have to suffer through another meal of those “time-tested recipes” used by my Mom and Aunts for years? I had become such an ass, as Thanksgiving up to then had been a perfectly fine dinner we all enjoyed together, over-cooked turkey notwithstanding.
One year, I decided to take the reins, and took the pompous ass thing to new levels. I called my Mom to inform her that I would be preparing the most vital portion of the Thanksgiving meal: the bird, the stuffing and sauce.
“This year, we are having Red Wine and Cognac Marinated Turkey with Wild Rice, Sausage and Chestnut Stuffing, and Wild Mushroom Sauce, and I’m doing the cooking.”
“No, Mom, not gravy. Sauce.”
“No, really I want to. Mom, it’ll be great. I can do it. Mom…”
Mom grudgingly agreed; the grudging part came mostly from her being forced to relinquish the all-important control factor of the dinner. But also, if I pulled off the coup I was attempting, she would finally have to admit my career choice was actually valid. For years now, she had been patiently waiting for the day when I would put down the knives and pans, go back to school, and get “a real job”.
The recipe called for a 48-hour marinade of the massive 21-pound bird I had purchased. At the time I was a true bachelor who worked in a restaurant kitchen, which meant that at home I had one or two old frying pans, a motley assortment of utensils, and nothing in the fridge except Dijon mustard, beer, and a bottle of Old Crow in the freezer. I ate at work. So preparing the meal I was attempting, and doing so at home, meant borrowing pans of suitable sizes and a vessel to marinate a bird the size of a Dodo, from the Chef. We were closed at the restaurant for Thanksgiving, and I assured him all equipment would be returned unscathed on Friday.
Home, at the time, was up in Angwin, a sleepy little conclave of hippies and Seventh Day Adventist college students in the hills, nine miles up from the restaurant in St. Helena. My parents’ house, where the clan would gather, was in Napa, twenty miles or so down-valley. Without realizing it, I had become what every self-respecting Chef Di Partie dreads: I was a Caterer. Restaurant cooks have a saying, paraphrasing Nancy Reagan: “Just say No To Catering”. Catering is always fraught with the potential for disaster and the need to be constantly “stomping out fires” when the main course for the event goes sliding across the floor of a van en route to the site; or some essential ingredient is left back at the prep kitchen, thirty minutes away. My Thanksgiving adventure would prove no different. I loaded the groceries, my frozen Pterodactyl, and all the equipment into the back seat my 1971 Chevy Vega (one of a series of $250 cars I had back then) and headed for home around 10:30pm in a driving rainstorm.
The Chevy Vega, even in showroom condition, was a poor excuse for a vehicle; and mine could never be confused with anything remotely resembling dependable. It had transmission issues, bad suspension, and a passenger-side window that was stuck either halfway up or halfway down, depending on your philosophy and that day’s weather. Of course I had no insurance, no valid driver’s license, and about three cups of gas in the tank. I told you I was a true bachelor restaurant cook, didn’t I? But pride and reckless youth were powering this adventure and so A-Catering I will go…
About halfway up the hill to Angwin, the Vega decided to live up (or down) to its reputation. The rear axle of this 70’s Detroit P.O.S. is held together by a small horseshoe-shaped pin, which secured the right rear wheel to the axle rod and left rear wheel. As I rounded one of several hairpin turns on the road up the mountain, with my little car Loaded For Bear with pots and pans, the World’s Largest Turkey, as well as 5 or 6 bags of groceries, this pin decided that a rainy night in November on a dark mountain road would be an optimal time to let go. It disintegrated, detaching the right rear wheel from the axle assembly and turning my car into a three-legged Billy Goat. The Vega’s right rear side dropped with a sickening thud and some disconcerting grinding noises. It’s a particularly odd sensation, to be looking out the driver’s side window and see your right rear wheel passing you on the left, and disappear over the cliff on the other side of the road. I managed to limp the Vega off onto the narrow shoulder, and began to assess.
I was at least two miles from home; and it was 10:30pm, and pouring rain. Of course, this was back when Cell Phones were still the size of a shoe box, and pretty much a novelty item for people like Gordon Gecko, so I had no one to call and no way to call them anyway. A triage of the situation called for leaving the Chef’s equipment locked in the dead car and hoping for the best. I hoisted the bags of groceries onto my back, and started walking the last leg of the journey. To add insult to injury, the last mile of the drive was up and over a 7% grade and down into town.
You never realize just how friggin’ heavy a 20-pound turkey is until it needs to be carried uphill, in the rain, in a plastic grocery bag while getting soaked to the bone. Stumbling along a pitch-dark mountain road with six bags of groceries can cause one to ponder one’s career choices; and the drive and determination to not let Mom be right, yet again, and pull off my first Thanksgiving Dinner despite the obstacles, was fading fast. Just as I was seriously considering spinning the bag with the Turkey over my head and letting it fly for the first time in its life, headlights appeared behind me. My next-door neighbor, a contractor, was on his way up the hill, returning home from tarping over an exposed construction site down in the Valley. He zoomed up in his massive Ford F-250. I loaded my stuff in the back and, after doubling back to the corpse of my Vega for the borrowed kitchen equipment, we arrived home and off-loaded.
The Thanksgiving meal was a roaring success, with the red-wine marinade turning out a bird that was juicy and magnificently bronzed. The Wild Rice Stuffing and Mushroom Sauce were big hits too, even with my uncle, Big Mike, a staunch traditionalist when it comes to Holiday meals. Friday was spent retrieving a used 1971 Vega rear end from the junk yard and I came away from that Thanksgiving with a new-found appreciation for the complexities of gray green beans, Durkee Fried Onions, and Sweet Potatoes topped with tiny marshmallows.
I suppose it could have been worse…