I've spent my whole life wishing for the perfect Thanksgiving I never had. Now, please know, I'm not some whiny New Yorker squawking without perspective about bad traffic or bad relatives; I am, prevailingly speaking, a happy Nutmegger who enjoys his family's company and the accompanying bountiful feast. Seriously: Thanksgiving! What a holiday! We get to eat like hogs -- those really privileged hogs from which they make fancy jamon -- on a Thursday we get off work. No one judges us for it. And sure, in between gravy-soaked bites of delicious carbohydrates, we all get to say what we're thankful for. That's something. So I adore Thanksgiving.
But, like I told you earlier, there's a reason Thanksgiving has never worked out just right for me: We've never had football on. My extended family is that family. The type that considers sports -- particularly violent contact sports dominated by bulky hillbillies -- impossibly foreign, and definitely bad manners. And, you see, bad manners are quite unwelcome at our Thanksgiving, where we have soup spoons and salad forks and platinum gravy pipettes and the like.
So I have never seen the Lions punctually underwhelm in the early game; I have never seen the Cowboys tidily collapse when the sky gets dark. I know these things do happen, because they're joked about on Twitter and the box scores appear everywhere, but that makes the games no more real to me than the stories about Squanto and the pilgrims. I just have to go on faith.
But, a-ha, Thanksgiving 2012: A panacea! Scheduling conflicts conspired to cause my nuclear family to miss the big old celebration. This would carry some drawbacks with it -- we would miss out on seeing the out-of-towners, and we'd have fewer menu options at home, menu options my mother and I would have to cook. But: football. And not just any old football, but our own New York Jets, in a crucial game against New England, the hated rival whom they nearly beat on the road back in October. This trade-off would be even better than the Cromartie deal.
You will understand, then, why I awoke with so much brightness on Thursday morning, even though the hour was far too early (7:20) and my room far too drafty and the family dog far too growly. I had but one task for the day, but what a task it was: I had to prepare the family turkey.
There is so much to dislike about preparing turkey. Yes, the bird is essentially a big chicken. But chicken's proportions are divine. Chickens fit easily in every pan you have. Chicken flesh you can flavor easily by sliding your hand under every fold the skin. Chickens you can handle effortlessly with a knife of any size. Turkeys aren't like that, I discovered. I couldn't flavor the far reaches of the breast with my fingers—the skin just wouldn't give. I couldn't spatchcock the turkey, although I usually spatchcock my roast chicken, because this bird wouldn't give into my knife. The joints on that beast! Also, this particular fowl dwarfed the rack that goes with our roasting pan. (For the uninitiated among us: you ought to cook the bird at a remove from its liquid. Otherwise the underbelly becomes wan and rubbery when it cooks.) So I wound up placing the bird atop a makeshift lattice of carrots and celery stalks, with onions and lemons thrown in for good measure and structural support. If you are ever in a jam, do this—it works.
As for the actual cooking of the turkey, that was tricky, too. I threw it in a 500-degree oven for 30 minutes, and then turned the temperature down to about 350 and let it go for another two hours or so. The Lions game had started, and Detroit looked better than it had in weeks, so I wasn't paying too much attention to the oven. I would tell you not to follow my method, because, from the sight of things (and the first prick of my thermometer), I had overcooked the turkey. But then it wound up tasting great. So do it or don't. Just make sure you have lots of gravy.
While the turkey was cooking, my mother was whipping up all the sides -- dressing (this is what stuffing's called when it's not inside a turkey's carcass), mashed sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, and butternut squash. Pecan pie bubbled up in the other oven. We sat down to a daunting table, with every dish one's heart could desire, just as the Texans mounted their fourth-quarter scoring drive. This was a game! A real, live Thanksgiving football game, a compelling and significant one, too. Who had permitted me to miss this all my life?
Then came overtime. Frenetic and sloppy, just like the plate I had piled high with second helpings. One's first plate of Thanksgiving food has some order to it—quadrants, perhaps, with gravy evenly proportioned in a circle. But the second plate always is a war zone. Starch and gravy are smeared all over, bits of stuffing linger. Houston won, but who could care, at that point? Food, food, food!
Pleasantly enough, the Detroit game ended just as the Dallas game was kicking off. Although FOX's weekly case for the NFC East's superiority ought to irritate any fan -- recall, for example, how they aired Week 11's Cowboys-Eagles tilt as a national game -- Redskins-Cowboys fit Thanksgiving well. And it was even better with the Cowboys losing.
But the afternoon game, scintillating though it was, could not overcome the menacing food coma I brought on myself. I nodded off at the half, and came to just as the Cowboys' comeback was falling short. Yet I understood, from Messrs. Buck and Aikman, and my father, too, that this game had also been a good one, a clash that proved it deserved its platform.
Now this, this was a real Thanksgiving. Here we were, digesting, our little foursome, watching football on TV, the dog stretched out on the floor, all of us in one place for the first time in months. This was what I had signed up for! Football! A flawless meal! And adoring company! Here was Thanksgiving, already perfect, and my beloved football team, the Jets, hadn't even played yet.
How'd they do, anyway?