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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Jive turkey

December 1st, 2004

BY STEPHEN STARBUCK

I was mortally offended. Driving back in the dark down a long black scar of a byway through the black Central Valley night squeezed in the back of my aunt’s station wagon with my then wife and sister and a couple of slivers off the family tree, the bobbing of twin headlights hypnotically approaching then zip-flashing past to plunge us into further darkness, I realized: no leftovers. I had left my other uncle’s house without a bag of fixings for the long stretch of lunches ahead.

turkeymeasuring.jpgWe’re a turkey family. No Christmas ham or fatty goose or blue plate specials. Grandma would corral one of the hugest tom turkey Butterballs from the deepest, iciest aisle of Safeway, sequester herself in the kitchen (don’t you dare come in here!) with its sputtering, capacious four-burner, and somehow, hours later, at the appointed hour, the triply extended dining room table would instantly groan (a delightful groan) with a dozen piping hot dishes around a perfectly crisped succulent bird for Dad to carve. Fluffy mashed potatoes, rice-zucchini (casserole, but we never appended that word it was just “rice-zucchini” longingly and lovingly), whitebread stuffing, green beans, rolls tucked into a basket covered by a cloth chicken cozy she had sewn herself, lonely almond green beans, lonelier candied yams, more gravy than a thirty pound bird could’ve supplied… everything hit the table hot, we never learned how.

But Grandma had retired after Dad died, hanging up her chuckwagon mistress apron, and holidays were now parceled around the family, and this one had been spent in some Valley cowtown suburb cul de sac with an entirely foreign mix of my uncle’s in-laws throwing things all out of balance. Like a solar system whose sun suddenly collapsed, we were all slowly spinning out of orbit.

I had to have leftover turkey. If I had to cook it myself.

A day or so later, a half-size turkey came home with me, tucked under my arm like some outsized fat frozen football. Score!

The defrosting took, well, a little longer than I had imagined. But sometime well past dinnertime, I had a fairly thawed naked bird ready for the tiny oven in our abbreviated galley kitchen. No stuffing, no yams, no rice-zucchini, this was all about getting some cold slabs of white meat a day or two hence. Couple of slices of sourdough, a little mayo, some salt and pepper… perfection.

That oven of ours was especially tiny. The fourteen-pound bird had seemed like such a dwarf in the supermarket freezer, but here it was, perched on a chicken roasting rack tipped into a Pyrex baking disk that didn’t quite match its footprint. The bird nearly touched three sides of the oven walls.

A turkey takes how long to cook? Oh.

So we killed time with cards or TV and a couple of hours into it I started basting because that’s what you do, right? And the baster with its bulbous squeezer and hard tube had always been fun to play with; back when Grandma bathed me and my sister in the kitchen sink we used to play with it, sucking up and squirting suds. I think that’s an actual memory, but maybe it’s just something suggested by photos, me and Meg in that sink, suds all over the place. A half-memory or an assisted delusion or collage, it remains a font of fondness nevertheless.

Basting was tricky. The bird was crowded into the oven, the roasting rack rickety, the baking dish hardly filled with drippings at first.

A turkey takes forever. It got late; we went to bed, or rather to futon. Under the mosquito netting. Bearing some sort of special mark, my practice wife and I had rented a garden apartment in a fog belt of San Francisco that came with a plague of mosquitoes, no extra charge. Mosquito netting, indoors, in San Francisco. It never felt exotic or subtropical, just cursed.

I got up a couple of times, sliding out from under the comforter and the netting to dart into the kitchen and play with the turkey baster, then darting back to bed.

Finally, around three a.m., it looked and smelled right, and the implanted thermometer finally had popped out like a party favor, signaling done. Our apartment, a bedroom off the backend of an old Victorian connected by a short hallway to a sunroom even further back, was saturated with that paradisiacal roast turkey aroma.

In carving off this mortgage-defraying rental, the owners had jammed the kitchen into the only spot that might have made sense, the hallway. So to get out of the bedroom we routinely had to sidle past the jutting ridge and try not to bang a knee on the oven door handle. It was doubly narrow, our galley kitchen, and there I was, squatting naked, the oven door down like a gate barring entry into the sunless sunroom, working by moonlight or garden light to try to let her sleep, swatting at some persistent mosquito, inching the tottering turkey assemblage out with improvised towel hotpads.

And the chicken roasting rack collapsed. The bird came barreling out on a gush of hot grease, smacked into the wall and rolled toward the bedroom. The grease splattering the oven walls spouted flames. I leapt back shrieking and danced around the dodgeball of that Butterball.

And, I imagine, unburying her head, startled and groggy, she must’ve looked into the kitchen to see her practice husband in some pagan ecstasy. She must’ve, because somebody reached past me and slammed the oven door shut, smothering the flames within. And pointed out with cold fury where the spate of grease had already gone under the curling up linoleum squares, poorly applied and now floating free of their cheap adhesive. And refused, a day or so later, to share that perfect sandwich.

Happy Holidays. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Christmas Issue, Starbuck | Link to this Entry

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