Warning: If you are vegetarian, vegan or squeamish, maybe you should give this a miss.
Tilly, the Laughing Housewife had a post the other day about cooking a turkey. I had just finished my lonely portion of Beef in Guinness stew, when I read it. It would have been about the time all my American relations and friends were about to sit down to groaning tables of full and plenty. I decided to save my turkey story for today when their meal was well digested!
I cooked my first turkey when I was 12 years of age.
Let me set the scene…. It was Christmas. In Ireland we didn’t do Thanksgiving. No the Yanks did that – Our funny relations over the pond who all lived in Ranches like Southfork, as big as aircraft hangers with Olympic sized swimming pools in the back gardens. They drove cars the size of buses and grew oil wells behind the paddocks. This is all true. We saw it week after week on TV, so it had to be true!
Where was I? Oh yeah, the turkey.
Our turkey was usually big enough to feed about 15 - 18 people. We were 8 in family and granny was always there for high days and holidays, add to that several waifs and strays unattached relations or friends, who would otherwise spend the day alone. Leftovers were essential for later in the evening, when nobody was hungry, but yet they devoured the platefuls of sandwiches, like they hadn’t seen food for a month! I suppose singing round the fire was hungry work.
Then we always needed plenty of cold cuts for the lunch the next day. Normally the feast of Saint Stephen, 26th December, was mammy’s one day off from cooking. I peeled a mountain of spuds, together we cut them into chips/fries and she cooked them in a large vat pot of oil. The chips when ready, were served and you helped yourself to the cold turkey, ham, pork, salads, chutneys and brown (wheaten) bread & butter. It was all washed down with gallons of tea, or since it was the holidays, glasses of Cidona – an apple based soft drink – for the childer and stout or beer for the men.
A whole ham was boiled or baked each year on Christmas eve and a joint of pork was roasted. Brothers had hollow legs and took plenty of feeding. You would need a sack of spuds, a field of Brussels sprouts, half a dozen heads of celery and several pounds of carrots to go with all those meats, the bread & the sausage meat stuffings, never mind the gravy! This was besides the starters, the Christmas Pudding, mince pies and trifle for dessert!
Goodness it has taken nearly twelve years to get this far and not a child in the house washed!
So the year I was twelve…..
Mammy was ill in bed in the run up to Christmas, and granny had been allowed home from hospital for the duration, with a badly broken right arm covered in a heavy plaster cast. At 75, she was considered ‘old’. She had an arm out of use and a bad arthritic hip (it was before the days of hip replacements), and she needed a walking stick to help her rolling gait.
BUT the story is only beginning….
The turkey arrived by train from friends with a farm deep in the county of Cork. Don’t be daft, it didn’t travel first class with a suitcase and sit there reading ‘Fowl friends’ or playing patience for the duration. This is a true story!
A couple of large boxes containing the turkeys for our family and those of friends, had to be collected from King’s Bridge Station (now called Heuston Station) in Dublin and distributed to those who ordered them. Collecting the turkeys was Daddy’s job and I was regularly brought along so he didn’t have to touch the birds – this is daddy who grew up in the country, with chickens and geese and turkeys roaming about the yard and a goat and a few cows beyond in the field!
Each turkey had a manila tag tied with string, with the name of who had ordered it, and the weight of the bird. This made distribution easier. By the time we reached home there were only two turkeys in the box, one for Christmas day and the other for new year’s day.
The story does not end there. No way! There was no chucking these birds in the fridge. These were special, straight from the farmyard. Their necks were pulled, but they came complete with head, feet covered in half a farmyard, and all the feathers, and yes, the innards were still intact.…..
Daddy tied the feet with string and the birds were hung in the passage-way outside the back door for a few days before Christmas eve. That was daddy’s work done for the Festivities. We had to remember not to run out the back door in a hurry without putting on the light or a blood dripping turkey head might hit you in the face!
Picture of me at twelve.
So the big day arrived. No, not Christmas Day.
Christmas EVE had dawned.
Breakfast was over, I had mammy sorted and granny bed bathed. It was time for me to take over the kitchen, I put the ham on to boil, the pork roast in the oven and then it was time…. The older boys were given chores… chop sticks, fill the turf and coal buckets and to keep the younger siblings out from under my feet.
I had an operation to perform. I had watched a rather bossy aunt only a few months earlier, demonstrate with great theatrical drama how to clean out a chicken. I was not looking forward to this but there were mouths to feed not alone today, but the next day too.
If my brothers came into the kitchen they would tease me about my bloody hands and tell yarns about turkey guts etc… So I wedged a chair back under the kitchen door handle and once I brought the bird indoors, I locked the back door. Nobody was getting in.
The enamel kitchen table was scalded and the knives sharpened. I got an empty potato sack and sat down with the turkey between my knees and began plucking the feathers. I was slow to begin with but gathered pace as I went along. I had kettles on to boil and the sink cleared. The tricky business of singeing the fine feathers took what seemed like an age.
Next was time for the knives. My stomach heaved, but I opened the window and calmed myself down. I was doing this for mammy. I cut the feet off as close to the knee joint as I could and into the sack they went. I set the legless bird on the table and with my eyes almost closed, I chopped off the head. It went into the sack too. I didn’t want to see it again. At twelve, I was not that worried about saving the neck for making gravy.
I poured boiling water into a basin and in went the turkey for the first wash. I removed it and set it to drain while I cleaned the basin and the table again. Back to the draining board. I had set a kitchen chair there to stand on while I worked.
Surgery began. Pretending I was a vet, I gingerly pushed my hand into the hole and moved in a clockwise manner around the abdominal cavity (back then I didn’t know what it was called), then I gently but firmly pulled the innards out, all the time worrying that I would break the bile bag – that would mean the whole thing was ruined. My aunt had spend time telling me how important it was not to do so. To my amazement, I had managed to get all the innards out in one go and leave the cavity clean. It did naturally need to be washed and dried out, but I DID it! I would have danced a jig, only I was still up on the chair.
I was not going into that hole again so I cut a lemon and pushed it in there and roughly stitched the hole closed. I had made up my mind to cook the stuffing’s separately and if daddy didn’t like it he could stuff the turkey himself!
I set the turkey in the roasting tray and covered it with a clean glass cloth, It would be fine overnight in the cool pantry. I then had to deal with the roast in the oven and the ham on the stove, and a gang of hungry people who wanted feeding that day.
Christmas day was easy. The turkey, the stuffings and the potatoes for roasting were put in the oven at the times mammy suggested from her bed. I cooked the vegetables, heated the soup and made the gravy on the stove. And all went to plan. I washed and dressed Granny and brought her down stairs to join the family. Mammy was not fit to join us, but managed a mouthful of dinner. She said it was the best dinner she ever tasted, but daddy muttered “It is not as good as your mother’s cooking”! I didn’t care, he cleared his plate and I saw him going back for more.
From that day on I cooked the Christmas dinner and gave mammy the day off. We were a good team. Mammy and I!