To cook a turkey — first find the darned giblets


In our family, there are lots of stories we like to tell around the Thanksgiving table. Most of them are funny — to us — and most of them involve disasters, some going back generations.

There’s the story about my grandmother’s sister, Gladys, who had her eye on a skinny young cowboy who lived on the next ranch, who happened to be my grandfather’s brother, Pearl.

Gladys invited Pearl over for dinner one night and had done some preliminary detective work to find out his favorite foods, and high on the list, she learned, was pumpkin pie.

Trouble was, she was an inexperienced cook, had never made a pumpkin pie and was too proud to admit her ignorance and ask one of her sisters for advice. So she figured all you had to do was cut the pumpkin into chunks, and it would reduce itself to delicious filling during the baking process.

She waited on pins and needles the night Pearl came to dinner and took the first couple of bites of pie. Legend says he had a funny look on his face and seemed to chew that pie a lot. Finally, she couldn’t stand it any longer.

“How is the pie, Pearl?” she asked.

“Pretty damned pumpkiny,” said Pearl, never the sort to mince a word if it described pie.

They married anyway and Gladys eventually learned to make a decent pumpkin pie, but she never lived down her first disaster.

Then there was the time that one of the neighbors decided to cook his Thanksgiving turkey in one of those big, deep-fat fryers. But he didn’t realize that you have to thaw the turkey first and that dropping a big ball of iced turkey into 50 pounds of hot grease makes for a nasty explosion. Thankfully, there were no injuries.

“Looks like we’re goin’ to Perkins,” he reportedly called to his wife from the backyard.

Then there was the Thanksgiving dinner when my little brother decided he’d contribute something as the adults were telling familysafe jokes around the table. Trouble was, little brother had heard his joke on the schoolyard and the punch line involved several expletives, including the Big Kahuna, twice. Within seconds, grandma nearly choked on her drumstick, grandpa spit out his mashed potatoes, mom’s hands trembled so badly she dropped her knife and fork. My father sent my little brother to his room. About three seconds later, the entire room erupted in raucous laughter, and my little brother and his foul mouth took his place in family history and oral legend.

“Do you even know what that word means?” one of us asked him later.

“Sure,” he said. “It means tickle. Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?”

Then there was the first year we made Thanksgiving dinner for our new family and made the mistake of inviting my boss to supper. We’d moved far away from the grandmas, and they weren’t around to hector for hints, so we winged it to the best of our ability.

But what we hadn’t factored in is that the biggest art of making Thanksgiving dinner is timing things so they’re all ready at the same time. Our turkey was done hours before our mashed potatoes and gravy. The sweet potatoes and rolls came about an hour after that. We forgot the frozen peas on the stove and didn’t even serve them, but we made the best of it, serving one thing when it was ready before moving on to the next.

“Good meal,” my boss said when he was finally finished. “But that was the first Thanksgiving dinner I ever had that lasted six hours.”

Then there was the time we cooked the turkey and left it on the stove to cool while we ran to the store to pick up some last-minute items before our guests arrived. While we were gone, our dogs ate the entire turkey and were lying on the floor when we got home with their legs sticking up in the air, stomachs looking like they’d ingested beach balls and both of them too stuffed to jump. They didn’t even leave us a drumstick. That year, we did get our turkey at Perkins or the local equivalent thereof. Our guests were too polite to comment but did note that our dogs could stand to lose some weight.

Then there’s a story I always tell at Thanksgiving, although it didn’t happen to someone in our family. I won’t embarrass her by putting her name in print, but she knows who she is.

As I tell the story, she and her new husband were hosting Thanksgiving dinner at their home for the first time, and she had never cooked a turkey before. But the one piece of advice she remembered from her mother was to be sure and remove the giblets before putting the bird in the oven.

Trouble was, she wasn’t sure what giblets were, or where to find them. They shook the bird a few times, but nothing that looked like a giblet fell out. So they both put on pairs of big, rubber kitchen gloves and decided to start excavating.

The argument centered on who would get the job of sticking his or her hands into that white, slimy, bloody carcass.

“You’re the man, you do it,” she said.

“I’m not putting my hands in there,” he said with finality.

So they decided the giblets must be something you had to cut out of the turkey.

She was armed with a big pair of shears and had pretty much surgically removed the turkey’s entire breast when her mother happened to call and explained that the giblets were in a little bag inside the turkey.

I’m told people eventually enjoyed the turkey at dinner, although several guests commented on the fact that it had apparently had open-heart surgery before it made its way to the table. She might dispute some of the elements of that tale as embellishments, but she’d have to out herself to do it, so I think I’m pretty safe.

Here’s hoping you create some of your own family legends this Turkey Day and hoping they’re not all disasters. Hint: If Uncle Walt has been at the wine all afternoon, don’t let him anywhere near the electric knife.

If you send me some of your favorite family stories, I’ll try to use some of them in a future column. Happy Thanksgiving — for my money the best holiday of the year.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at