Around the Island

Tom Hashagen: Bloody napkins and the legend of Thanksgiving

Tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day, America will go on its annual turkey binge. Approximately 45 million of these birds will be grilled, roasted, smoked, deep-fried, rotisseried, mostly overcooked and served by 97 percent of the families across the land.

The days following will produce refrigerator loads of turkey hash, turkey soup, hot and cold turkey sandwiches and a plethora of turkey casserole dishes including my mother’s favorite, turkey tetrazzini. Think everyone will be sick of turkey? Think again. Just one month later at Christmas, another 22 million cooked turkeys and resultant leftovers will clog refrigerators until after New Year’s.

While the odd wild turkey or two may have been cooked at William Bradford’s three-day feast in 1621, it was most likely ducks and geese that were provided. Also, there were no white or sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie. There were, however, clams, mussels, lobsters and corn, more like a clambake than a Thanksgiving feast.

The aforementioned “traditional” dishes were popularized by Sarah Josepha Hale, an author and editor of a ladies magazine who petitioned the federal government for 30 years to recognize a “day of thanksgiving.”

Another notable contribution from Mrs. Hale was her penning the lyrics to “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which was obviously written after Easter dinner. Abraham Lincoln finally did establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863 and in 1941 a presidential decree made the fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving from then on.

The reason that there is so much turkey left over is that an unknown urge prompts some shoppers to buy turkeys the size of ride-on lawn mowers that barely fit in the oven and need to be cooked for at least 18 hours.

My Aunt Jane was one of those people. Jane was from Plymouth, Mass., the heart of Thanksgiving country, so you might think that she would have been an expert at Thanksgiving turkey.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Jane would start cooking her monstrous bird at about two or three in the morning. The unstuffed turkey weighed in at close to 25 pounds, with drumsticks the size of tennis rackets. If you’re calculating, one pound of raw turkey per person is enough to provide ample dinner and leftovers enough for the cook’s family but not the neighborhood.

What perplexed me was how Aunt Jane always overcooked such a behemoth. Opening the oven every 15 minutes to baste the turkey should have added another two or three days to the cooking time but apparently Jane’s criteria for doneness was to pull off and shake the turkey wing and not have one scintilla of meat remain on it.

It just so happened on returning home one Thanksgiving night that my brother Don developed severe stomach pains that turned out to be appendicitis.

The next day my dad called my uncle to inform him that Don was in the hospital and Jane nearly collapsed because she thought she had poisoned him.

While my aunt’s culinary antics were indeed memorable, it is my dad who has provided me with the most vivid Thanksgiving recollection. In the Norman Rockwell tradition, Thanksgiving was a big deal at our house. Mom would plan and execute a flawless dinner and Dad would provide the pies.

It was also his responsibility, of course, to carve the bird, a duty Dad would start preparing for around Halloween with the sharpening of “the knife.” In a felt-lined box in the cupboard lay a 16-inch carbon-steel scimitar with a handle made from a deer antler.

It had been passed down from generations of turkey carvers. Dad would get this knife so sharp that a hair tossed in the air would split lengthwise on contact with the blade. The children were forbidden to touch or even go near it.

On the appointed hallowed day, the knife would come out and take its position of honor at Dad’s place setting. The family, seated in hushed reverence, would gaze admiringly at the huge bronzed bird brought from the kitchen to the table. On this particular Thanksgiving, Dad rose from his seat after the blessing and with Excalibur in hand began to carve.

My brother wanted a drumstick and as it was surgically removed, some grease from the leg caused Dad to lose his grip on it.

In a flash the leg was headed to the floor, so Dad dropped the knife and with both hands attempted to catch the falling turkey piece. Unfortunately, coinciding with the turkey leg and my Dad’s left hand was “the knife” which was falling, guillotine-like, from the table. A mild oath from Dad was instantly followed by his return to his seat and a grab for a linen napkin. Stunned silence.

“Dad, how bad is it?” I asked. Not wanting to, but knowing that he had to, Dad lifted the now bloody napkin and peeked. “Pretty … pretty bad,” he stammered.

I sprang into action. Leaving my wailing mother to rescue what was left of Thanksgiving dinner, I hurried Dad to the car and headed to the hospital. I had just gotten my license and this was my first true emergency behind the wheel.

In the 10-minute ride to the ER, Dad was just beside himself. “I’m such an idiot. Mom is so upset … there’s blood all over the carpet … It’s all my fault … I feel so stupid,” he went on and on.

Dad really didn’t feel quite so stupid when we walked into the emergency room and saw three other gloomy men sitting and waiting, holding their hands in bloodied napkins.

So what’s my family having tomorrow? Chicken!

This column appeared in the Reporter at Thanksgiving 2011.