When I was a teenager I had a small streak of juvenile delinquency. This is not uncommon in young men of course and it comes in different flavors. Some do a little drinking or drugs. Some do a little stealing. Some might commit minor vandalism. I didn’t do any of that stuff. I liked to set things on fire.
One March in Cleveland when I was fifteen or so, after a particularly long and snowy winter the weekend broke into the sixties, setting me and two of my like-minded friends, who were possessed with acute cabin fever, into a manic tizzy to play basketball. Sadly the driveway was covered in slush from the thaw, splattering us with every aborted dribble. We tried shoveling, sweeping, even hosing it down, but to no avail. Then we came to another solution.
I’m not here to tell this story, which is deserving of its own article (in addition to being deserving of notice by the authorities) but let me just say this. One of the most impressive sights I have ever seen is the circumstance that develops about fifteen seconds after putting a lit paper towel in the general vicinity of a driveway onto which one has poured eleven gallons of gasoline. There are few words in English equal to the task of describing the emotional impact of having created an undulating, rotating, fifty-foot tornado right out of the Wizard of Oz that is incinerating tree branches and power lines and basketball hoops and so forth.
So there I was, with my wife, four kids, a dog, Norman G. Fawcett and a turkey with an unmovable pile of frozen logs and no idea how to make an oven. Fortunately as my anxiety rose the considered wisdom of a distinguished man in his late forties was swept aside by the resurgent passions of a young man in his teens. “I know! I’ll melt everything in sight,” I thought to myself. I figured I would subsequently be able to rearrange things as I pleased.
I resolved to make one seriously hot fire smack dab in the middle of the logs. I unearthed a spot where three logs crisscrossed, making a corner of sorts and thus perhaps two sides of my future oven. I cleared as much snow as I could, gathered a supply of tinder and went to work. It took a while; the thick layers of encased, frozen wood proved to be sturdy opponents. but I was hell-bent to win and you don’t mess with a boy who has burning down an entire driveway on his résumé . After half an hour I had a small inferno going. I positioned the turkey in the vicinity to keep it from un-thawing.
In the mean time I further dug out the logs to a point sufficient to see that despite the fire they were too long and too lodged in rock-hard ice for there to be any hope of them becoming movable, at least short of recreating my fateful basketball day. This was a blow, but at least I had a good fire going. I turned to look at its progress and finally I got my break.
Apparently there had been quite a layer of snow beneath my log corner, obscuring further branches and gaps. The fire, which had a superbly intense core, had melted all of that and was busy burning itself through the layers, downward and inward. This was creating a recess. At first the recess could have held no more than a flat tissue box, but it was growing. The logs themselves were smoking and blackening but they were thick and very wet and were undoubtedly going to hold for hours. After a another few minutes of burning down, instead of two sides I had three sides and an overhang. The fire was making its own enclosure for me.
I danced and shouted and whooped, disturbing Norman who was tinkering with his stove. I grabbed the turkey and proceeded to the lean-to. It was preparation time.
Now just for a little change of pace here’s a multiple choice quiz. What is the most painful, frostbite-inducing abuse you can give to your hands on a cold, snowy winter day in the back country? Is it:
- Donning and tightening up a pair of boots with stiff, wet laces
- Filling and treating water bottles from an ice-cold stream
- Putting up a tent, trying to get frozen, shrunken poles to fit together
- Seasoning a half-frozen twenty-pound turkey with thyme, sage, salt and pepper by smearing it with butter you have melted in your own hands, then kneading the spices into the skin
If you selected “D” you are catching on. If you prefer you may also select
- Cleaning hands covered in butter and turkey fat by rubbing snow all over them repeatedly.
The work to prepare the turkey and stuffing and then save my hands from falling off gave me a chance to have some conversation with Norman who was acutely interested in all the goings on. He told us he was an accountant from Jersey who, when not working, which was evidently a lot, loved to solo camp in the Adirondacks, especially in winter. I admired him for that; I don’t meet a lot of people from New Jersey who solo winter camp in the High Peaks. He appeared to be in his early forties, of average height and build with short dark hair and a face that looked a little bit like a younger Rudy Giuliani. He was talkative and had a down-state style.
Norman evinced a certain incredulity as he observed the proceedings. I’d like to be able to take credit for that but truth be told it wasn’t the turkey project so much although he did show a bemused interest in it throughout the day. It was everyone else. After all, here he is, a winter outdoorsman and a loner, fancying himself to be, as I would imagine, reasonably experienced, rugged and sensible, sort of a guy, you know. He’s by himself in the snow, camping out in the Adirondacks in late December. Suddenly, through no fault of his own he is invaded by a small army of women and children, types who in his world would probably not even car camp, plus some guy trying to cook a turkey and a dog that for whatever reason is greatly enamored of him (“I’m the wrong sex, guy….” “…Where’s your four-legged friend? He’s not humping my leg!”). I have to say he showed his character with good cheer and forbearance that Christmas.
Norman kept working through his issues with our entourage through the afternoon, admitting that to me that he was having a hard time understanding how I got everyone to “sign on” to such an adventure. It was clear that Amy in particular gave him trouble. Amy is lively, engaging and flirtatious and she is very beautiful. Most men find her extremely attractive. She is the kind of woman I would imagine Norman might want to date. But Amy is also as hard core as you get in the woods. She is tough, strong and experienced, undaunted by the kinds of things that would cause most city girls to blanch, like eating dirt and dead leaves with her oatmeal or being doused in mud or being buffeted by gale force winds or being required to do her business in a hole. As Amy herself likes to say, she is all woman but no lady. This was a distinction to which Norman wasn’t hip. Winter camping, he stated with disbelief, was “not what the ladies would do.”
As I unpacked my stove for making the stuffing I discovered that Norman had a thing for gear. I had just purchased a new MSR Whisperlite and he excitedly told me how great they were as he had one too. But his model number was different, a 58-BC instead of a 58-BX or some other letter difference that meant zero to me but was apparently indicative of my version having an improved valve of some sort. I took the opportunity to indulge him by asking how to light it properly, never having used it before. This opened the floodgates. Norman wanted to know about all our equipment. Amy has this from the journal she was keeping at the time, after he inquired about the interior circumference of our sleeping bags: ”Fifty seven inches! Outrage!. Can you imagine? Fifty eight-and -half, maybe, but fifty seven? I need room!”
I completed preparing the turkey. I laid out a long piece of thick foil and wrapped the turkey in it. Then I did it a second time, crosswise. Discretion being the better part of valor I unrolled a massive third length and bundled the whole thing up again. Thus, I reasoned, the turkey would stew in it own juices, protected from the direct flame.
It was the moment of truth. I picked up the turkey, which with all the foil wrap had grown to be a prodigious bulk. I looked like I was preparing to load some sort of cargo onto the space shuttle. I carried it over to the fire which by then had burned down to hot coals. I carefully placed the turkey on the coals, gently pushing it into the recess with my boot. Then I stoked the fire to get it going again around the turkey. Next I took two logs I had gathered from the forest and lay them over the crisscrossed logs, making a ceiling of sorts. I knew that I had to have more even heat from the sides and top and not just the bottom if this sucker was going to even come close to cooking correctly, so I built a second fire on top of the log ceiling. So far so good. Now there was nothing to do with the turkey except wait. It was approaching one o’clock and I had four hours of roasting ahead.
In the mean time the family had pitched camp and was onto other things, with Norman observing. Chieri beaned Adam with an ice ball and he hunched over in pain. “Don’t worry,” Norman said to Adam, “chicks dig scars.” Zach broke through the ice and submerged his foot. Alex loaned him a dry sock.
Norman was still commenting on gender issues. “I’m having a hard time getting the babes out here,” he remarked to me. Then a little later he offered, while looking at Amy and Chieri, “No disrespect intended but I‘d never bring a lady out here,” thus implying a difference between ladies and babes, deep waters if ever there were any.
These distractions kept my attention just long enough to make for a real jolt when I turned my attention back to the fire. It turns out that if you have one fire with a very hot core layered with logs on all sides as well as above and then you make a second fire on top of all that, well, once that combination gets going it really gets going. All the logs and everything, no matter how wet, were burning like mad. I had myself a blast furnace of a fire. There was no sign of the turkey, presumably somewhere down in there. There was only a chimney of flame.
Horrified, I panicked. I sprinted to the fire and kicked the roof part off, spreading flaming branches left and right. The top of the the turkey emerged from the fire, the foil aglow but looking whole. I exhaled with relief. I let the fire cool and then began replacing the roof with a more modest collection of fuel. I was nearly done when I heard it.
At first I wanted to believe the sound was steam issuing forth from a wet log. But it was unmistakably coming from the turkey. It was a robust hissing and it was the distinctive version you get when you drizzle water on hot embers. My turkey had sprung a leak. Undoubtedly the blowtorch of a fire I had overzealously wrought had burned through bottom of the foil like it was crepe paper and every last vestige of moistness in that bird was oozing away. I swore under my breath; I had come so close only to be defeated because of latent teenage pyromania. I was loathe to disturb the turkey any further so I resigned myself to my failure, figuring I might be able to get a few small pieces of tough, dry, white meat off the top, enough for a handful for each. At least it would still taste good.
Everyone else heard the hissing for it was quite loud. Out of respect no one made a comment.
The weather was perfect: light snow, no wind, twenties. Everyone stayed warm. We dried all sorts of clothing items by the fire. Norman was watching very carefully and took it upon himself to alert us when anything was about to ignite. Still, as every winter, we got some crisp socks.
I busied myself with all the other cooking. I had the Whisperlite mastered, had a butane stove lit as well and got the potatoes, corn and gravy going. The cranberry sauces was thawing by the fire and two bottles of expensive chardonnay were at the ready, perfectly chilled,. Ah, the advantages of winter.
Norman checked in: “How’s the bird?” he asked as I was stoking the fire. I lied and said it seemed to be going well. The hissing had diminished in volume; obviously it was running out of liquid.
Darkness began to fall. Amy had brought ornaments and some battery powered lights and she and Adam decorated a diminutive balsam that Adam had picked out. It looked lovely in the twilight, casting a warm glow on the snow. I got out various plates and bowls and arranged things as best I could at the lean-to.
At last my watch said five-o-clock. It was time. I donned my heavy mittens, went to the fire, bent over and nervously picked the turkey up. It felt far too light and I could see peels of burned foil near the bottom. I was filled with disappointment but dared not show it as the others, who had gathered at the lean-to, were flush with anticipation and excitement . I came over and set it down. “I’m not sure there’s going to be too many edible parts but we’ll see,” I offered in apology. No one paid that comment any mind. All eyes were on the bird. I took a knife and sliced through the top of the foil lengthwise, then peeled it back a little. The first visible part of the turkey was blackened skin on top. I swallowed my frustration and pulled the foil down on both sides.
A waft of steam issued forth from beneath the foil but as it cleared I could see that what I had perceived as “blackened” was only burnt for a couple of square inches. The rest of the spot was a deep brown and beyond it the turkey’s skin was perfectly golden. As my mind was taking this in, one of the turkeys legs, no longer supported by the foil wrap, simply gave way, sliding off from the rest of the bird much like I imagine overburdened trees, bushes and soil might slide off the side of Mount Colden after too much rain. The leg just pulled free of its own weight, exposing perfectly cooked dark meat and spilling juice all over the flattened foil. A waft of warm turkey smell, redolent of sage and thyme and stuffing flooded our noses. The gallery erupted with oohs and ahhs.
I admit I was completely stunned. I turned the turkey on its side, too curious to resist the investigation. One layer of foil on the bottom had flaked apart under the fire. The rest was intact. The hissing had not been leaking; it had been that damned fowl stewing in its own juices to absolute perfection. I righted the bird and cut into the breast. The white meat was perfectly done, so moist it practically squirted me as sliced.
I need to fast-forward for a moment. It has been five years since this trip. I cook all the time including many holiday meals of every variety. But I have never cooked a turkey since and I never will. This is because I know I cannot equal the sheer good luck of that performance. I will not cook a turkey so perfectly ever again so I am not going to embarrass myself by trying.
I carved that turkey up, though it hardly needed a knife. I served up all the fixings and we indulged in the best Christmas dinner ever. The boys and Amy, who never compliment idly, told me it was far and away the best turkey they had ever eaten. And so it was.
We offered a serving to Norman who was suitably impressed, urging him to at least accept a glass of wine for a shared toast but he’d “already brushed,” plus he was full, he said, having “already had oodles of noodles.”
We scoured our plates and broke out the M and M’s to finish things off. We threw our dirty utensils into a big double-layered plastic bag and returned to the fire for hot chocolate. I threw the carcass deep in the woods for the animals.
As the stars flooded the night sky Amy and I sang carols to Norman and then we gathered around our little Christmas tree and sang to it as well. We left the lights on and crawled into our tents for a perfect sleep at the early hour of eight PM.
Later, alone, I arose, threw my unlaced boots on and left the tent. I stood in the darkness. The fire was no more than a fading glow. The tree and the stars were brilliant. No one stirred. I turned toward Henderson Lake, its snowy surface warm in the diffuse moonlight. It was deathly quiet. My eyes grew a little moist. I returned to bed and Amy’s waiting arms.
The next morning we packed up and said goodbye to Norman, his marten and his gear. The temperature had dropped and the ice was very safe. We hiked to the outlet in the bright morning sun, the dog making the usual check of us as we crossed. Chieri led the way.
Photo: the turkey revealed