Is it unorthodox to eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and if so, what’s your backup plan? Having occupied the minds of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, who all expressed opinions on the matter; it’s not such a trivial question. So let me preempt any concerns regarding halachic correctness with the following disclaimer: The turkey I cooked didn’t get eaten anyway, and the one we ended up with was eaten on Purim.
Purim 1979, as a matter of fact, it was a vintage year. Back then it was presumed a newly minted kallah might prematurely endanger the marriage by attempting to cook any meal of substance solo, and so the various in-laws and out-laws made sure that invitations to eat somewhere other than the “bayit ne-eman” were plentiful. There wasn’t a shabbat or a chag the family considered safe to leave us to our own devices.
Six months in, I declare war by rejecting an invitation to attend the family-at-large Purim seudah because I want to make my own meal in my own apartment and invite friends. My mother-in-law, slightly surprised by the blatant assertion of independence so early on, takes it in stride with dignified grace. She inquires about the various dishes planned for my menu, when I reveal my intentions to roast a turkey she asks if I’ve ever cooked one before.
“No,” I tell her, “but I’ve roasted plenty of chickens, it’s not much different, it just takes a few hours more.” When she offers to give some helpful advice I cut the conversation short. I’ve already listened to 45 minutes worth of cooking instructions from my own mother and I’m a chemist… if I can build a bomb, I can bake a bird, what’s the big deal?!
I invite 10 friends to arrive at 5-ish and put everything into the oven early that morning. By noon I can smell the turkey, but it doesn’t smell quite right and it doesn’t look quite right either. I’m not exactly sure what “quite right” is, because I’ve never cooked a turkey before, so I tell myself not to worry, hope for the best and eagerly check every half hour to see if it’s starting to brown.
But it never turns brown. Instead it starts to ooze some kind of slimy green substance and now it’s 3PM. I have 10 hungry guests arriving in 2 hours and no backup plan because there’s nothing else in my refrigerator or freezer that I can cook and serve instead. At this point in the story, you might be wondering if I forgot to remove the plastic wrapped liver from inside the carcass before cooking, but no, that’s not the problem. And now I’m scared about whether or not this Tom is safe to eat because it smells putrid and something is obviously and terribly wrong.
I reluctantly take the bird out of the oven, and then swaddle it in foil covered by a blanket. I pass it off to my BHB (baal ha-bayit) like it’s a newborn; tell him to drive over to his mother’s, have her take a look-see, diagnose the problem and ask her opinion. This is just killing me because now I feel totally humiliated.
My BHB returns 45 minutes later, and doesn’t say a word. He puts the pan down on the table, goes to take a shower and I’m afraid to ask, but hey… it… actually… smells… not so bad! In fact, it smells great and I’m wondering how my mother-in-law managed to fix it. I gingerly unwrap the blanket, and peel back the aluminum foil; lo and behold it’s a miracle! The turkey is brown and lovely, plump and juicy, heavenly to look at, my mouth is watering. And what’s this? It even looks slightly bigger, like it gained a few pounds.
I absolutely hate to admit this, but I’m filled with awe, amazement and even vast quantities of admiration for this woman who saved my hide. I start banging on the bathroom door and shouting above the shower, “How’d your mom pull this off? What kind of seasoning or spice did she use to heal that sick bird? Your mother is a genius, a saint, what’s her secret; did she inject it with something? I have to confess I’m mightily impressed. This is nothing short of resurrection, a revival of the dead! Someone ought to notify the Chief Rabbi of Israel.”
The BHB comes out of the shower, he’s dripping wet and laughing his head off. “My mother DIDN’T fix your turkey. She took one look at it and said, ‘if you eat this thing you will die’, then she threw it in her backyard hoping to kill off a few stray alley cats.”
Now I’m confused. If my turkey has been trashed, whose gorgeous bird is sitting on my kitchen table wafting such an irresistible aroma throughout the apartment? Then my BHB explains, “I told my mother we had nothing else to serve our 10 guests and she didn’t want them to go away hungry or for you to be ashamed. So she gave me HER turkey, the one she cooked for HER seudah, the one she was planning to feed to HER guests.”
“OMG!” I shout, “Then what will she serve?!” At this point I’m freaking out because I know eternal gratitude and obligation to one’s mother-in-law is not advantageous when the game plan was all about setting boundaries.
The BHB casually dismisses my concerns, “You don’t need to worry about my mother, she always has plenty of food around and no one’s going to starve, but it would be nice if you called to thank her”. And he’s right, of course, it’s time for me to eat crow and chase it down with humble pie for dessert.
I call my mother-in-law, I gush and blush and express my profound appreciation for the lives of 12 people who won’t die of food poisoning and won’t go hungry either. My mother-in-law is one classy lady because she doesn’t gloat or rub it in, instead she listens politely and simply says, “Well my darling, I’m so glad this all worked out.”
And now I can’t help myself (because I have images of my mother-in-law pan frying some last minute dog food to feed her own hungry crowd of guests), “So, uhm, what… (I’m stammering) will you be serving tonight as the main course?” I half expect her to say something like, “Don’t worry angel-face, I’ll just open up a few spare boxes of cereal” but she just laughs and says,
“Why I’ll be serving them turkey, of course. I always cook two. Because in life you just never know what could happen so it’s always good to have a backup plan.”
This was thirty years ago. Ever since then I’ve always cooked 2 turkeys for Purim (and 2 for Thanksgiving because I like turkey and will use any excuse to make it despite the controversy). One gets served and one gets frozen for some later date. One day, G-d willing, I’ll have a daughter-in-law. She’ll set boundaries which I will try to accept with gracious dignity. When the right opportunity comes along, I’ll pass down my mother-in-law’s profound wisdom about life: You never know what could happen, so it’s always a good idea to have a backup plan.
If you’re looking for a recipe back-up plan or just a change of pace, you can now search OU Kosher’s Recipe Data Base, a growing collection of nearly 3000 cooking ideas.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.