Lessons from My First Turkey Dinner

by Jill Novak on November 22, 2016 in Food, Holidays, Home Culture

canstockphoto10478046The story of how I cooked my first turkey is a laughable reminder of why homemaking skills are taught and not caught! I distinctly remember sliding the highly anticipated “Thanksgiving bird” into the oven. As the blue-speckled enamel roaster scraped noisily across the metal rack, I announced to my new husband, who had been looking forward to this special meal for some time, that I was going to drape a kitchen towel over the top of the turkey to keep it moist. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing (this was long before novice homemakers could become pros overnight from watching YouTube videos), but I figured it would result in the tenderest of turkeys. Well, it did, sort of.

Needless to say, you shouldn’t get excited about using this method for the following reason. As I pulled the “burnt” towel off the roasted turkey, the charred, dry skin adhered to the towel! It wasn’t the result I was trying to achieve. After all, it was my first attempt at making a perfect turkey diner, but something went horribly wrong!

My husband still claims it is the moistest turkey he has ever eaten, but I think he is possibly confusing it with one of the other 36 turkey dinners he’s consumed since we’ve been married (or maybe he’s just being nice). Still, I remember being mortified. Where I got the crazy idea to use a towel in the first place, only heaven knows.

Over the next few years, I experienced many more culinary mishaps. It wasn’t because I disliked cooking, but simply because I hadn’t been trained. Even though my mother was a good cook (she made the best pumpkin pie), she preferred to do everything herself. While we were busy at school getting a “real” education, Mom was at home, holding down the fort. She made the beds, did the laundry, cleaned the house, sewed our clothes, and of course, made dinner–every day, day-in-and day-out for 40 years! I once asked her if I could vacuum her floors when she had been ill. She declined, saying, “Oh, no, that’s okay. There’s a certain way I do them!”

As you can see, my mother was a real character, and I truly miss her, but it wasn’t until I raised  children of my own that I realized how very little time I had spent with her in the kitchen. Thus, I endured many years of trial and error in the culinary realm until I finally gained the confidence to call myself a good cook. And maybe that’s why, unlike my mother, I spent countless hours in the kitchen with my children–taking advantage of the teachable moments that seem to pass away all too quickly.

And like everything else in life, I guess you never really arrive. In preparing to write this post, I had to research what may have gone wrong with my first turkey, and in doing so, life has come full circle. As it turns out, there is a technique for achieving a crunchy layer of golden turkey skin, with perfectly moist meat underneath, similar to what I tried on my first Thanksgiving as a new wife. All it takes is a square of cook’s muslin or a piece of layered cheesecloth soaked in three sticks of butter.

That’s right, cook’s muslin or cheesecloth soaked in butter.

First, brush your turkey with softened butter. Then, after seasoning it with salt and pepper and any other spice you want to use, take a piece of cook’s muslin or cheesecloth that has been soaked in three sticks of melted butter and drape it “snugly” over the turkey. Place the turkey in a roasting pan in a 450 degree oven for 30 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and baste it every half hour for two and half hours. Finally, remove the cheesecloth and baste every 15 minutes until the turkey reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees (I can’t wait to tell my kids how to do it!). Or you can just slather your bird with butter, season it, and let it brown “au natural.” Either way, it is sure to be hit!

My children are all grown now, and occasionally they ask me how I make something, but the truth is, in many ways, they have surpassed me. Some follow recipes, while others create them, but they’re all confident cooks because of the years we’ve spent together, side by side, in the kitchen. For this I am truly thankful.

Have a blessed Thanksgiving!


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Jill Novak

Jill Novak and her husband Robert have been married 37 years and are the parents of five precious children: Claire (30), Eric (25), Elizabeth (20), Anna (17), and Nicholas, their fourth child who was born in 1998 with the genetic syndrome Trisomy 13. Because of the powerful impact of his short life, Jill began to record God's faithfulness to their family in a journal, an act which eventfully led her to begin a family publishing company named Remembrance Press, publishers of a variety of art and writing products, as well as well as products for heart and home: The Girlhood Home Companion and The Mother~Daughter Tea Cozy Club. Visit Jill's website at: www.remembrancepress.com Visit Jill's personal blog Through the Windowpane at www.jillnovak.com

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Donna November 22, 2016

I was disappointed when there were no gibblets in the first turkey my roommate and I ever cooked. She had a big stand alone roaster and water was put in the bottom so that part of the cooking was in steam. She did not like gibblets, so it did not matter to her. When the turkey was good and steaming hot (but mostly raw) we noticed an odd smell. I called my mom and explained the situation. She said, “Oh, the gibblets are in the other end!” It was a major operation to access them at that point in the process, but we managed it, and the turkey was a success. I still laugh at that experience. The second (and probably last) turkey I tangled with was cooked in a plastic bag, which is fine if you also put it in a deep pan and don’t push it too far into the oven. That was not the case in this instance. The plastic must have melted onto the back of the oven so when we tried to remove it, grease poured out and created a very impressive fire — huge flames raging out of the open oven door while the turkey, on the mostly pulled out rack, made it difficult to shut the door and snuff out the fire. Thankfully, my brother was there and had the presence of mind to karate kick that year’s bird back into the oven and close the door, saving the house. We peeled off the most questionable areas, but still had enough turkey to enjoy once the house was cleared of part of the smoke, and the screeching fire alarm (placed on a terribly high ceiling) was finally reached and turned off.

Jill Novak November 22, 2016

Oh, Donna, I laughed so hard! I loved the image of karate chopping the bird back in the oven!
I hope you have a uneventful Thanksgiving this year!

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