21 November 2007

A Thanksgiving Excerpt: In Search of Turkey

This entry is not perfect - for one thing, it's really long - but I'm leaving tomorrow for a vacation in ESTONIA (woo!) and I wanted to post it before I left. Enjoy, and have a great Thanksgiving, everyone!

Turkey is not, to me, the most important part of the Thanksgiving meal, and I would have happily just left it off my party menu. But in all of my classes, the first thing my students said when I asked what they knew about Thanksgiving was, "You eat a big turkey!" I figured I would be in trouble if I didn't produce the bird, so I scouted out the market.

The place at the market where you go to buy meat is charmingly called the "meat pavilion." Here I should mention that I am sort of living a vegetarian lifestyle (without being a "vegetarian" in the moral sense – I eat meat if someone serves it to me), so I hadn't been in the meat pavilion yet, and looking at raw meat isn't something I'm really used to. When I got there, I found that it smelled overwhelmingly like raw meat, there were stray dogs roaming the aisles, and it was full of rows and rows of men hawking meat laid right out on tables in the open air. They all seemed to be selling the same two things, too:
a) cat-sized mammals, completely skinned except for one black paw that was left on so that you could tell they weren't cats; and
b) chickens, uniformly displayed in such a way that you got a nice view down their necks and could admire how great their internal organs looked.

Eww. I later found out that those mammals are nutrias. Nutrias? Yes. Nutrias. Anyway, I also found several turkeys, but since I don't know how to cook a whole bird, my oven is about the size of a standard microwave, and there's no room in my fridge for a whole turkey, I decided that wasn't going to work. I picked a nice, easy stovetop recipe for turkey breast tenderloins with caramelized onions instead. Unfortunately, I only found one turkey breast tenderloin in the whole of the glorious meat pavilion, sitting unwrapped and rather freezer-burned in a freezer case that was otherwise full of poultry organs. This was on my Wednesday scouting mission. I returned to the same freezer case on Friday and asked the attendant if she had any turkey breast.

"Oh, sure," she says, reaching in deep past the piles of chicken hearts and excising from some hidden crevice the same breast I saw on Wednesday.
I wrinkle my nose. "Is that the only one you have?"
"Yes, it's the last one. But it's fresh. Extremely fresh, even. We just got it in, actually. See, it doesn't smell at all. And look how high-quality it is, nice and fatty."
Just the fact that she was saying this about such a sad-looking hunk of meat was, I felt, an insult to my intelligence; add in the fact that as she said it, she was brushing off all the bits of freezery gunk stuck to it, and the nutria-induced queasiness I was already feeling, and I just couldn't buy.
"It's OLD," I said, and stalked away.

The next day – the day of the party – I returned to the meat pavilion, hoping one of the other freezers would have some turkey. Alas, it was not so, and I returned defeated to the same freezer. As luck would have it, the same woman was working, and believe me, she just exuded glee as she informed me that their turkey breast had sold yesterday, and wasn't I sorry now that I had called it old and refused to buy it? I sighed and told her she was right (even though she wasn't), and asked if they had any other turkey. "Just wings," she said, showing me one. They looked acceptable. Wings, breast – what's the difference? I bought two, anxious to get home and get cooking. It was only as I was walking away and she said, "I know you'll be happy with them. They make great soup," that I realized my mistake. In all of my Thanksgiving dinners (and I've had a lot, because my family eats two every year), I don't think I've ever eaten, or even seen, a turkey wing. And if they're used for soup, that probably means they're not all that meaty or the meat's not all that good. I peeked into the bag. My suspicions appeared to be confirmed.

This mistake on my part just galvanized me: I was going to make a good turkey dish if it killed me. I returned to the scary nutria-filled, non-freezer half of the pavilion and, without even trying to haggle, plunked down 600 rubles (24 dollars!) for the smallest turkey I could find (5.5 kilos, or 12 pounds).

I then spent a good hour or so bent over the illustrated how-to guide in my Betty Crocker cookbook, hacking away at this poor turkey with the only sharpish knife I have, trying desperately to extract some nice breast tenderloins (how can something be both a breast and a tenderloin? I'm still not clear on that). Since this is an instance in which saying that I totally butchered it might imply that I did the job well, I will be specific: I butchered it in the figurative sense. It was like, I don't know, a turkey horror film or something. I gave up on Betty around step four, when she instructs you to cut through all the rib joints on either side of the spine (Betty, you say that like it's even possible to FIND the rib joints) and started bushwhacking, with surprising success. But if there's some entry-level FSB hack in charge of spying on me, he or she definitely got a good laugh that day.

So in the end (sorry, I'm tired and this is getting long, so it is not going to have an exciting conclusion) the recipe turned out fine, or at least my guests said it did (I didn't eat any of it), but I was left with the rest of the turkey which did not fit in my fridge. Being a cheapskate by nature, I cringe to admit this, but I coarsely hacked apart the rest of that $24 turkey and fed it to the cats that live outside my apartment building. As for the wings, they were taking up my entire freezer, so last night I made them into turkey broth, which is now taking up less than my entire freezer. All's well that ends well, I guess. But if there suddenly appears a holiday that requires roasting a nutria, I am putting my foot down.


Celine said...

Oooooh, you'll have a fabulous time in Estonia, I've heard great stories about it. I'm jealous...

Nutria, yak! I had to look that one up, and I can tell you, in Dutch it sounds even worse, because it actually has the word 'rat' in it. Gross!

Lisa said...

You haven't tried the nutria yet? I bet it's delicious. :-)