|My infamous Christmas Coffee Mug which got a lot of use yesterday.|
I hope everyone had a safe and fulfilling Christmas. I know I did, at least the safe and 'filling' part. I actually had to work Christmas and part of that work was cooking Christmas dinner for ten. This then will be partly a cooking column and partly a column about Christmas with Pope Francis' 'sheep', but first a little background. I manage an eight bed facillity for severely disabled mentally ill adults. In theory it's supposed to be a transitional facility in that clients stabilize and then move out back on their own. In practice we've begun to accept clients for whom the State Hospital or crisis facilities can't find any other placement. Which means we have a very diverse group of people representing African Americans, Native Americans, young adults, an 82 year old, three Developmentally Disabled mentally ill, two who are brain injured and two who might actually transition to independent living. What most of them have in common is that they have little or no family connections. Holidays can be really trying for clients and staff. Only one of the eight actually spent any time over the holidays with family. So staff walk a fine line between creating a holiday atmosphere and not triggering a lot of depression about not being an actual family with actual Holiday traditions.
I get to work at 7:30 in the morning and am met at the door by a sweet heart of woman who greets me with a hug and forces me to get to the Christmas tree and watch her open her gifts. One of which came from my daughter who knew this woman as a neighbor before JW was overcome by the vicissitudes of living life in an adult world not designed for a Black American orphan with a less than average IQ. She's laughing her heart out because I'm drinking coffee from my Christmas mug. It's completely black and reads "Bah Humbug". "You, so funny", she says and gives me another hug and a hug for my daughter and then takes her loot to her room from whence it will never be found.
Most of the rest trickle in for meds and breakfast and exchange some gifts at their leisure. One of them got the movie Fast and Furious 6 which we had to watch right then. Lots of talk about death on Christmas and lots of comments from me about how Vin Diesel really can't hit the broadside of a barn with a shotgun. By the time the movie is over I decide it's time to get going on the turkey.
First off I discover we have no stuffing mix which will force me to make stuffing from scratch. I assign one client to toast an entire industrial size loaf of bread and another to saute the celery and onions until they are clear. "How much margarine should I use?", he asks. I give him very explicit directions, "A whole bunch". He puts in the correct amount of margarine, pours a cup of coffee and wanders to his room completely forgetting he's supposed to be sauteing the onions and celery 'until clear'. In the meantime I am trying to thaw out some sausage patties to add to the dressing and finally just cut them up frozen, add them to the vegetables, and saute the whole thing until vegetables are clear and sausage thawed. I wound up seasoning with garlic salt and Italian seasoning because I discover we had no other traditional spices. Spices like sage. The Italian seasoning did have some sage. I used a whole bunch. Thank God my other helper had stayed on task and the bread was toasted to a fine crispness. We got the dressing done and the turkey stuffed. By now there are at least six clients in the kitchen including our 82 year old and all loitering in my work space.
One of them had watched a cooking show in which the TV chef stated the key to cooking a turkey is to bake it with breast down. I am appalled at this suggestion. How totally untraditional. Secretly I'm thinking about why that might actually work and while I'm voicing my concerns about destroying generations of turkey cooking tradition have decided I will let them think they have a say in this meal and suddenly flip the turkey over on it's breast. Our 82 year old gasps. "NO NO NO NO, that's not how you cook a turkey!!!!" I have a flashback to my own mother, she too would have been appalled. My co staff is skeptical. "You do know", he says, "that the breast will be cross hatched from the drip rack and be ugly." "You do know", I respond, "that no one is going to notice that after the turkey is sliced." "Good point. I sure hope this works."
"It did on TV", says the client who brought this up in the first place. To which another client responds, "and on TV Vin Deisel can't hit the broadside of a barn with a shotgun." Everyone cracks up, except the 82 year old who stomps off to her room with many mutterings about how I'm insisting on ruining Christmas dinner. She is so sure about this she returns to the kitchen three hours later and makes herself a huge breakfast of eggs and bacon.
About the time that grandma is cooking herself a breakfast for a lumber jack, we pull the turkey to do a little basting. Except there aren't enough drippings with which to baste. "Why isn't there any drippings?" gasps my co staff. "I TOLD YOU YOU WOULD RUIN DINNER" snaps grandma. I ignore her. "Maybe because they are all in the breast meat and they will magically appear when we flip the turkey and brown the ugly cross hatched breast side for the last forty minutes." I tell him, but in truth I did not anticipate this phenomenon.
We flip the turkey and crank up the temp. I begin to pray very seriously. Grandma finishes her breakfast and stomps back off to her room.
I loudly suggest people quit loitering in my kitchen and go watch Vin Deisel again. Nobody pays the least bit of attention. That happens a lot and besides it's not my kitchen. We begin to make deviled eggs and discover we have no relish, only really big full sized dill pickles and an onion. We add a ton of Miracle Whip, a little mustard and call it good---and they were. In the meantime three clients decide they want a summer sausage and cheese plate, which we all make and they finish off in five minutes and I wonder if anyone is even going to be hungry enough to eat my potentially butchered Christmas dinner.
Finally the turkey is done and my patience with it. We pull it out and by the Grace of God, the drippings are right where the should be. We will have gravy. I start slicing and the breast meat just flows off like butter, the dark meat too inviting not to try. So we all did. It was to die for. Seriously. It was hands down the best turkey I have ever made, and I have made a lot. Of course I got no credit for it, the TV chef and the client who watched the show got all the credit.....which I suppose is only fair. All I did was to agree to break a generations long tradition and evolve as cooker of turkeys. It's how this whole faith journey sometimes works. Sometimes the gifts come when one is open enough to listening to even the most seemingly heretical of ideas. Like baking a turkey breast side down.