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The Zoo Keeper

Turkey Trauma

Layla Watkins

I love the fall. There is something about the crisp morning air, the scent of fires burning, and the sound of the wind rustling fallen leaves that is invigorating, yet peaceful and serene. It makes me thankful to be alive. So, for me, it's completely appropriate that Thanksgiving is in the fall. And every Thanksgiving, I smile and laugh as I remember the first Thanksgiving dinner I cooked 21 years ago…

My best friend, Connie, and I had gotten our first apartment that summer. When her boyfriend came over to see it, the first thing he said was, "where does the Christmas tree go?"

"Christmas tree?" she asked, "We've got to have Thanksgiving first, right, Layla?"

"Right! And it's going to be a real Thanksgiving - just wait." Before I even knew what I was saying, I had committed myself to providing Thanksgiving dinner and all the trimmings to about 15 away-from-home-and-family, and single, Army friends. I don't think I ever thought about the fact that I really didn't know how to cook.

The Joy of Cooking

The months went by and eventually, about two days before Thanksgiving, I decided I better go grocery shopping. I was scheduled to work on Thanksgiving Day, so my plan was to make everything ahead of time. That way, when I got home, all I had to do was warm things up. The only exception was the turkey - I would get it ready and Connie would put it in the oven at the designated time that morning.

So off to the store I went. No nice, fresh Butterball for us, though. On our budget it was the generic, frozen, hard as a rock, probably five years old turkey.

"What? Three to four days to thaw?" Fortunately, that was when microwaves were about as big as the TV, so in it went. Once it thawed, I did actually know enough (or maybe I just read the directions) to wash it and take out the gizzard bag. I was on a roll.

Next, I seasoned it to what I thought was the perfect marriage of creativity and tradition. I didn't, however, try to stuff it because the stuffing box said "Stove Top." Clearly, that meant it had to be cooked on the stove, not in the bird.

Turkey and stuffing under control, I turned my attention to the box of mashed potato flakes, jar of gravy, and can of cranberry sauce. "Hey, I can do this, no problem," I thought. "Now for the vegetables."

I felt pretty comfortable opening a can of green beans and warming them up. I could also do that with cream corn. I was a little mystified by one friend's request for peas and pearl onions - I knew peas, but had never heard of a pearl onion. Luckily I found a frozen bag of said vegetables. "Hmmm, frozen. Ok, I'm pretty sure this means I have to boil them."

At this point, I was feeling pretty confident about my culinary prowess. I had opted to skip the Sara Lee pumpkin pie and make one from scratch. Well, not exactly from scratch - I bought the pie crust, but did make the filling myself. I'd never made a pie before but secure in the knowledge that enough Cool Whip can make anything taste good, I decided to go for it.

We'll Call It Cajun

Thanksgiving had finally arrived. I'd done all my prep work, and I headed off to work leaving Connie with the task of putting in the turkey in the oven at 10:00 a.m. Around 10:30 I got the phone call.

"Layla, the turkey is burned."


"It's burned. To a crisp."

"What? How? Oh my God."

"I don't know, but it's completely black. I think it's ruined. What do you want me to do?"

"You're kidding, right?"

"No, it's toast."

"No way - Is it really?"

"Yes. So, do you want me to take it out?"

"Yeah, I guess, take it out. No, wait - is it cooked inside?"

"I don't know. I'll cut into it and see…Nope, it's raw and kind of bloody."

"$#*%! Ok, well, I guess leave it in. Maybe we can just cut the outside off?"

"I don't know. It doesn't look good."

"Connie, we've got 15 hungry GI's coming over tonight. What are we going to do?"

"You want me to go get another pie?"

"Pie??? We need a turkey!"

"Well, we could tell everyone it's Cajun."


"You know, they blacken everything. It could be a Cajun turkey."

This is why I love Connie. She can make me laugh under the "blackest" of circumstances.

Better than an MRE…I hope

Somehow I managed to finish my day at work without completely losing my mind. When I got home, I found exactly what Connie had described - a very black, very crispy turkey. Oddly enough though, it didn't smell burned. And by this time it had cooked enough on the inside that it seemed it might just be salvageable.

I started slicing it up, cutting off the black crust, and decided maybe I should taste it before everyone got there. It was good! Tender and kind of sweet. A little unusual, but really pretty good. I decided that even if it didn't look pretty, it still had to be better than the MRE's (that's military for Meal, Ready to Eat) that our friends had been eating on their last deployment.

Ok guys, dinner is served.

Believe it or not, my first Thanksgiving dinner was a hit! And no one was any the wiser as to what the turkey had looked like just before they arrived. One of the guys, who was a pretty good cook, wanted to know how I seasoned it.

"Oh, I got kind of creative - Salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning. But I thought some honey would be good on it too, like honey roasted chicken, you know? So I poured some on the inside and then drizzled it all over the outside too."

"Really? It's good, but I'd have thought the honey would have burned on it."


"Yeah, usually honey sort of caramelizes and turns black."

"Black, huh?"

I looked at Connie, she looked at me, and we both burst out laughing.

"So, who's ready for pie?"

Read other article by Layla Watkins