Nov 20, 2007

Turkey Practice

Last year I hosted my first Thanksgiving. A local place catered the
meal. We had 24 people so much of our focus was on fitting everyone
in our house and finding enough chairs. I didn't realize that I'd be
reheating everything and it was sort of a disaster--the stuffing took
forever to heat up, as did the potatoes, and the once-piping-hot
gravy was cold by the time the sides were hot enough to reach the
table. It occurred to me then that if I'd cooked everything I'd have
a better chance at getting the timing right. I'm not much of a cook
but my mother and sister are spectacular and I've always felt that I
had it in my genes and the ability to move effortlessly around my own
kitchen would reveal itself to me when I was ready for it. In
general I know how to make my favorite things--big batches of creamy
mashed potatoes, vichyssoise, chili, egg salad, brownies, and apple
custard pie. That's it though. Nonetheless I decided to cook the
meal this year. I set my tivo to record everything the Food
Network was offering about Thanksgiving. I saved a page from the
Times, and bought a little magazine that had a turkey on the cover.

My sister suggested that I use the Sunday before Thanksgiving to
prepare a practice turkey. She added that I could make the gravy
from its drippings, and stock from its bones to use on the real day.
At 4 in the afternoon today (Sunday) I remembered this plan and ran
to the grocery store to fetch the bird.

Once in the supermarket, I didn't even know where to look. I saw
things that looked like whole turkeys at the deli counter...I tried
to get the counter person's attention but she was busy. Thankfully I
realized--before embarrassing myself in front of all the cold-
cutters--that it was just the mushed together deli meat shaped to
look like a whole turkey. Phew! I wonder how far it would have
gotten--would they have sold me a whole turkey shaped thing? Would I
have hauled it to the cashier? Would I have gotten it home and
attempted to stuff it?

Several steps away I found the real-meat shelf and a sea of whole
turkeys. I had the choice between the butterball, which was
shrinkwrapped in pretty plastic, or the purplish turkey that had
lived a lovelier life--probably one with a beak, and some free-
roami ng. It was organic and had no antibiotics but the plastic
was see-through and it totally grossed me out. I inspected it
closely and noticed that it had real wings. The kind that splay out
like it's flying. Not the kind you see on a platter of 'wings' next
to the blue cheese and celery. I made myself buy the ugly one. The
butterball would have been prettier until getting into the sink, so I
figured I should just grow up and buy the one I felt better about
even though it was a more obviously really dead bird.

I got it home and put it on the counter and called my sister who
talked me through it. My not yet two-year-old daughter was running
around naked and kept requiring my assistance with various ventures
to consider using the toilet so the advice from my sister was mostly
theoretical (being that I was hardly even in the kitchen during
certain points of instruction). "Don't think about what you're
doing," "double bag the stuff inside and freeze it until you can
throw it away," "don't even think about what's in those bags,"
"remember there's another *ahem* cavity at the top end of the bird
too, make sure you clean that one out also," "people say you don't
have to tie the legs shut anymore so only do that if you want." I
could begin to visualize the process. My confidence was building.

By the time I got the baby down for her nap (or bedtime?--we're never
sure when she crashes at 5:15), I was ready to take the thing out of
its plastic. I put it in the sink and set about inspecting it
without touching it. Sure enough there was a little bag in the
cavity--I pulled it out and plopped it in a double bag and stuck it
in the freezer. The cavity was smaller than I'd expected. I ran
water into it and dumped it out several times. I even had the nerve
to peer under a wing and remove a bloody thing. I was doing well. I
moved the bird over to the roasting pan and began to stuff the cavity
full of onions and celery. There was only room for half the stuff
I'd chopped...but I filled it to the brim. Then I considered putting
the rest of the onions and celery into the bottom of the pan.
Surely that would flavor the drippings? Or maybe they'd burn and
smoke or something. I decided against it. I was carrying the bird
to the oven, remembering that I had already ruled out tying the legs
shut, when it occurred to me that I hadn't noticed any legs. It was
with great creepiness that I realized that the double bone thing
sticking out of the neck wasn't a double-boned neck but was the tips
of the two drumsticks, with some loop of skin holding them closed. I
dug my fingernails into the loop of skin and freed the tips of the
drumsticks and discovered the cavity I was supposed to be filling--
the cavity I had thought I was filling when I was apparently stuffing
the neck full of celery and onions.

I didn't see a bag in there, so I reached in and my fingers curled
around two little frozen things, I tugged until they came out. Two
raw, red frosty lumps. I tossed them into the sink. Then I
reached in again and found something else that wasn't a bag but felt
more like a bone--I wiggled it loose from its moorings and pulled it
out and tossed it into the sink. The spine? The neck? I wasn't
prepared for this hard pinkish penis thing--tossed it into the sink
too. Now this was a cavity. There was tons of room. A studio
apartment. I stuffed it full of the leftover onions and celery.

Now it looked like a turkey. This practice run was turning out to be
a great idea.

Following the NYTimes instructions (fast roasting not slow, no
basting) I tented the bird after half an hour. Then an hour later I
remove dthe tent and, again following instructions, used my new meat
thermometer to test the bird. I'm supposed to put the thermometer in
perpendicular to the pan, in the thigh near where the drumstick meets
the body. Nothing looks like a thigh to me but I aim for a place
near a joint an d get a low reading--about 120. I pop the whole
thing back in the oven for another 20 minutes, then I test it again.
I realize my earlier poke was near the wing, so now I put the
thermometer down into a thicker spot. The temperature shoots up to
about 180. I'm aiming for 165. I'm supposed to get a few readings
of 165 so I put the bird back in for another 20 minutes and then get
all those good high (too high) readings again. I pull the bird out
and while it sits there I watch a food network special on making
perfect gravy.

Then I call my sister who makes perfect gravy for some on-the-spot
assistance, since her method isn't at all like Alton Brown's method.
Her kids had been at a dessert party so they aren't in bed yet but
she agreed to walk me through the steps anyway. Without any turkey
stock we realize I shouldn't make it at that moment, but rather
should save all the drippings and make it later, but still before
Thanksgiving. By that time I should have a better sense of the
whole process and might even feel comfortable whipping up gravy with
my Thanksgiving drippings (and a kitchen full of chattering
relatives). Who knows? I think I'm starting to get the hang of this.

We figured out a strategy for my gravy. I use my new fat/strainer/
separator thing and only get about a half a cup of drippings. She
was surprised that this was such a low amount, but again, she was
advising me from two hundred miles away and with a houseful of
sugared toddlers so we didn't focus on it for long. We decide I
should keep the whole lot of it rather than strain it. My next
assignment is to pull the meat off the bones and save the bones to
make stock. It sounds reasonable until I realize that I've never cut
into a turkey before. I beg my sister to stay on the phone to walk
me through this (several years ago I called her to walk me through
disposing of a dead mouse--it's a moral support thing mostly, but
necessary to many tasks, especially those, like this, that sorta
gross me out). She tells me to just start tugging at the white meat
with a fork but I don't see any white meat.

The more I st ab and pull the more bones I bump up against and
it's all dark meat, and sort of slimy. A little surprised that I'm
having such a difficult time locating any meat, my sister explains
that it's true that a clean-livin' turkey like this one probably ran
around a lot and won't have that nice plump genetically engineered
breast lump. I'm in a flat panic, unable to imagine how two of these
birds would ever yield enough meat for 5 people, let alone the 15
we're expecting. I start to talk about buying a butterball turkey.
If I get it tomorrow and start to thaw it out, I can do the two
organic birds I'd preordered for political reasons, and the
butterball for gastronomical ones. As I tug and pull with a fork and
a knife my sister asks me if I've roasted the turkey upside-down. I
highly doubt it, it looks sort of like the birds in the
pictures...the knees tucked under, the elbows propped up. It's the
way I'd be if someone asked me to crawl into an oven. She asks me to
take a photo and email it to her so she can see what's wrong.

I resist this suggestion for a moment, and then it occurs to me to
just prop the bird up and peek underneath. Lo and behold, there was
the enormous beautiful white breast, swollen against the roasting
rack, pinkish and plumpish with waxy drips hanging down through the
grooves of the rack. My sister and I gasp with astonishment at my
stupidness. I let her go, since I've now figured out where the meat
is, and her kids really need to get to bed. I flip the bird and
another cup-full of beautiful drippings and juices pours out all over
my kitchen table. I make a weak attempt to gather it into my
original half-cup. But the cat beats me to most of it.

I spend the next half hour tearing all t he meat off of the bones
(well most of it, and hardly any of it in some cases). I bag the
meat, probably woefully undercooked--where was I taking the
temperature anyway? The back of the bird? Between the ribs? The
meat's pink in the way that some fancy cooks like, but I'll never
touch it. I bag all of the meat for the cat to enjoy for many weeks
to come.

I'd like to think that it's the best $16.98 I'll ever spend, since I
made all of the mistakes on a day that just doesn't matter.

I shower to get the turkey meat from under my fingernails, and to get
the smell off of me. I watch a clip on the news about the avian flu
pandemic but the talk of bird to man and so on freaks me out...and
then I switch over to Wolfgang Puck's turkey school. I think I've
learned how NOT to cook a turkey. About sixteen of us will find out
on Thursday.

Nov 9, 2007

Alternate Sides

Her smiling face was perfectly framed in my side view mirror. Our eyes met and she said something cheerful like ‘I think it’s time’ as she adjusted the bottom of her sweater down over her hips. She kept looking in my mirror, eyes locked on mine.
This was quite an invitation--I stuck my head out the window.
‘Wow this was really something,’ I said. ‘My first time.’
‘You never done this?’ she smiled, hefting a suede patchwork purse over her shoulder and then flipping her heavy curls out from under the strap.
‘I only discovered this block a few days ago, but I’ve never been here when the sweeper comes through.’
‘Oh yeah, that’s really crazy, right?’

The signs on this street say ‘No Parking 8:30am to 10am’ but we’ve all been here since before 9:30, most def initely ‘parked’. It was an odd sight to see all of these cars lined up here at 9:30 looking like sitting ducks under the ‘no parkingtil 10’ signs above them. But it was a welcome sight as I circled in this direction looking for parking and found an available space behind a blue Jetta.
People sit behind the wheels of most of the cars, doing crosswords, talking on cell phones, meaning technically--?--that their car hasn’t really been parked (does parked mean abandoned? left alone?). Some of the cars are only loosely guarded. One of the ‘drivers’ smokes cigarettes on the sidewalk next to his dented brown sedan. A collegiate guy sits on a stoop near his Passat with the paper and a
coffee. A woman ahead of me entertains her dog at the curb by her Volvo station wagon. A guy in a plaid shirt seems to be responsible for two different cars--he sits in one for awhile then hops out and sits in the other. It has a Goldilocks kind of flavor--I imagine him thinking this one’s tooo hard and this one’s tooo soft.
These 90th street people all seem to know each other, nodding hellos and mutterings about the weather I can hear from my own open window (it’s a gorgeous crisp May morning). This small cluster of neighbors must go through this together several times a week (with a reprieve on Wednesday and the weekends when *gasp* it’s all legal). Here today, like on a few previous days, I slotted my car in guiltily,
almost worried that someone more regular might show up and demand his spot.

In a decade of having a car in the city I’ve never gotten used to all of this legal law-breaking.
Double parking is gently overlooked on some blocks, including my own in Brooklyn, during the alternate side parking times posted on the signs. But keep your car double parked for one minute past the time when it’s ok to be back on the opposite curb and you could get a hundred dollar ticket. You could get towed.
Double park to pack your car up for a weekend getaway and you could get a ticket, even with your intentions advertised by a popped-up trunk and blinking hazards. But double park for a full hour and a half, trapping strangers’ cars against the curb, while watching soaps a block away in a living room (waiting for the beep of the oven timer to announce it’s time to move the car back) and traffic cops look the other way.
It’s overlooked to a fault. Once years ago (pre-cell phone) I dropped my boyfriend off for some minor out-patient surgery and went across town to make an appearance at work before returning later that morning to pick him up. When I came out of work at 10:30 to get my car to fetch him I discovered that I was completely walled in by a presumptuous row of double parked cars. I called the police to complain. I really really needed access to my own legally parked
car. They said there was nothing they could or would do. The owner of the car that proved the biggest obstacle had neglected to leave a phone number on his dashboard. For his crime he received an angry note from me under his windshield wiper, not an expensive orange ticket. I was livid. I was screwed. I was one of the only drivers that morning who had obeyed the law, and I was the one whose day was
most ruined (unless you count my pitiful drugged up boyfriend, waiting with a crutch, a cast, and a portable urinal across town).
This whole world took a bit of getting used to (the do-gooder in me just can’t believe I’m actually disobeying something) and now that I’d discovered this new block that worked with my current schedule of classes, I was aware that I didn’t know the particular quirks. Do we have to sit here til the moment parking’s legal or can
we leave our cars a few minutes early? I watched the people around me, in a when-in-Rome kind of way. Perhaps some day I’d be a regular here too, like the happy curly-haired Pinto-driver who keeps smiling at me now.

I eyed the clock. 9:54. Parking would be officially legal at 10, but my clock was a few minutes fast, or was it slow? All I can remember is that sometimes it works in my favor that it’s off a few minutes, but I rarely remember which end of on-time the favor is. I hadn’t sat in the car for half an hour to risk getting a ticket by cutting it too close in the final minute.
I laid out my belongings on the passenger seat next to me. I gathered them up slowly. I went to check the side view mirror again for the woman but she was standing at my window now. Beaming. Was she waiting for me? Is this something the regulars do?

“How about that guy with the two cars?” I asked, sticking to the safe subject of our shared experience. She was, after all, a perfect stranger. And I was sitting here with my window already open. I wanted to keep it light.
“Oh yeah they get paid to do that, you know. Not fair to the rest of us out here.”
I nodded knowingly, enjoying that I was considered one of the honest, hard-working law-breakers--my third time on 90th street and already a member of ‘the rest of us.’
“Well I don’t know how he does it, I had a hard enough time managing with my own car.”
It really had been quite a feat. In my dabblings with the double-parking I’d never been a part of such a scramble.

Fifteen minutes earlier I had been immersed in my New Yorker because Howard Stern was on a commercial break, when I realized that the Jeep a few cars up was pulling out suddenly into a double-parked position across the street. The cars between me and the Jeep followed frantically. Like in the movies when the coffee cup starts to dance around in its saucer before the townsfolk realize the earthquake is happening, this sudden and jerky disruption of our orderly curbside line-up confused me--until the rumbling of the street-sweeper sunk in.
I caught site of it swishing and lurking ominously about seven car-lengths behind me, and jammed my car into gear (whoops the engine was off, restarted it, switched it into gear...) and nudged the front of my van across the street in what became more of a show of my intent to move than a successful getting out of the way. The problem was that I was as interested in how the guy with the plaid shirt was
going to move his two back-to-back vehicles across the street as I was in getting my own car clear of the sweeper’s path. I was simulataneously checking him out in my side-view mirror and checking out my own clearance. Was I pissing off the woman in the Jetta? I couldn’t understand if the look on her face was anger towards me or
comradic anger about the guy with the two cars. I shrugged noncommittally back at her--a carefully designed shrug meant to indicate either ‘yikes! sorry’ or ‘that guy’s some kind of nutjob.'

By the time the sweeper groped its way up the curb, we had managed to turn this narrow side street into a four lane road. One lane of traffic remained parked on the left, our line of cars ooched over to create a double parked lane next to that, the street sweeper did its business along the right curb, and there was still room for the occasional poor sob to inch his way through. It must have been a
bizarre thing to witness from any of the thirty-floor high rises that lined the block. Enormously ungraceful. Not very satisfying--not like the slow choreography of two opposing lanes following their own left-turn signals down on Houston and Bowery, or at the Brooklyn end of the Brooklyn Bridge--which always feels like water ballet to me. Somehow we all reshuffled ourselves back along the curb on the
right. I ended up leapfrogging over three vehicles and was now ahead of the Jeep. I’m not sure how that happened. The more I try to figure it out the more confused I get.

The lady was firmly planted next to my door now, looking down the block, sighing like I was holding her up or something--like we’d been assigned to each other and I wasn’t keeping up well enough.
‘Do you work up here?’ I asked--still interested in driving this conversation, worried that she might lead us somewhere religious and awkward if I let her have the keys. She was middle-aged and hispanic and had the kind of overly happy face that makes you wonder what sortof touchy feely corner you might find yourself roped in to, what sort of pamphlets she might be carrying in the outside pocket of her
“No I live in that building.” She indicated one of the highrises cheerfully. “You?”
“I teach a few blocks away--my first class isn’t until ten fifteen--if it were any sooner I wouldn’t be able to wait in the car like this.”
I checked the time--10:00 (but did that mean 9:58 or 10:02--not knowing could be costly)
“I’m always too nervous to leave the car too early” I explained, nodding at my dashboard.
“I know,” she laughed. “I always try to figure out how long it would take the traffic cop to get from the end of the block to the middle.”
“Me too!” and I really used the exclamation mark--I love it when other people confess to the weird inner math that I live with. “I always wonder how long it takes to write a ticket, and I try to figure out when I can go...’
“Me too!” she said, with her own exclamation mark.

Together we looked up and down the block, nodding in agreement that enough people were leaving their cars that it would take an honest ticket-writer more than a couple of minutes to discover our own vacant cars and by that time we’d be parked legally.

She stood by while I grabbed my bag and locked my car. We ambled down the block slowly, in the middle of the road.
“I’m an art teacher” I offered.
“Oh! my son’s a tattoo artist” she said.
“Wow that sounds really neat!” I said, suddenly thinking that being the mom of a tattoo artist must be really neat.
We introduced ourselves, still using exclamation marks, and parted friends. Excited to see each other for the next installment of ‘break the law before breakfast.’
For the next few days I aimed for that block at 9:30, only to find it full up with cars. Each time I’ve found a spot several blocks away. I park on these other blocks willingly but begrudgingly. 90th street remains my first choice. Because one day, thanks to this woman (whose name I’ve already forgotten) I was one of the regulars.

Nov 6, 2007

Mean People Suck

“You’re not still mad that I yelled at you," the tall studious redhead said to the sweet butch gal behind the counter.

“Nah”...the shorter one said with a dismissive wave of the hand. And then she added something but I didn’t hear what it was. From her casual tone I could tell it was either “Nah...I like to be corrected...” or “Nah...I don’t mind it...” or “Nah...I’m used to it.”

I didn’t hear this part of her response partly because I was in disbelief that I was overhearing any of this conversation given the fact that I was only in this coffee shop because someone had just been mean to me, and partly because I was busy gathering my stuff--a small pot of rosy earl grey tea and a giant oatmeal cookie that cost $2--and scurrying off to my table because I both needed the sugary warm therapy and because I didn’t want the tall studious redhead to yell at me for eavesdropping.

Forty-five minutes earlier I fought back tears when a woman I only know by sight scolded me for not bringing my own paper to the copy machine on the fifth floor of my kids’ school. It’s a prewar building and so five flights is really ten flights. The second floor copy machine was either broken or just acting broken. It claimed it couldn’t do a thing until I put more staples in it--regardless of whether or not the small job I was begging it to do required staples (it didn’t). And even though the science teacher, whose copying mission was also thwarted by the staple-obsessed monstrosity, told me the whereabouts of three other machines scattered about the sprawling city block of building, my first peek into the first of these alternate locations yielded a gruff “you need to go up to the 5th floor and use theirs” from a tightly-wound beet-red male teacher. He thrust a ropy arm into the air and pointed sharply towards the heavens. He didn’t make contact with me but rather glared in the direction of his bagel, which meant the conversation was over.

I tromped upstairs past the other floors that, according to the science teacher, had copy machines that, according to the angry man-teacher, were off-limits to a parent like me, and got to the fifth floor.

At one point I passed a chipmunky lady I recognized from the lower floors where my kids’ elementary classrooms are. I smiled at her and added a flash of knowing brightness that was meant to signal “I don’t know you that well but I do know you well enogh to know that it’s funny to see you somewhere other than where I”m used to seeing you.” She didn’t flash anything back.

I found the copy room and entered. Two women looked at me and sighed like they’d already been through the encounter we were about to have.

“It’ll be awhile” one of them said, probably for the seventh time in five minutes, given her tone and the conspiratorial way she glanced at the other woman--a quiet Asian woman with the presence of a student teacher and a ream of paper clutched to her chest.

“I’ll come back in a few minutes,” I said and decided to go find a bathroom even though I didn’t have to pee. I just needed a quick change of scenery.

When I returned to the cramped toner-fumed room the chipmunky lady was in there too. As I cleared off a folding chair so I could sit to wait for my turn, chipmunk lady turned to me and said “you brought your own paper?”

I didn’t understand...I couldn’t tell if she was helping me or not--like maybe she was about to offer me paper, or maybe she was filling me in on some paper shortage that had occurred when I was in the bathroom. She repeated--”you brought your own paper, right? Because up here you can’t use theirs.” She smiled and winked at the other women in the room in a ‘get a load of this one’ kind of gum-cracking way.

When I realized that she was scolding me in a sideways ‘betcha weren’t thinking, huh?--betcha thought you could bring your elementary business up to the high school copier, eh?’ kind of way, I didn’t let her know I was catching on.

Rather, I kept the furrowed brow “I don’t get it” look because if I let go of that disguise I’d have cried. There had to be a way around this, I thought...I was here on class-parent business. Class parent business, for God’s sake! For the school’s sake! Wasn’t this a good deed? Plus, this is a school. Aren’t we all here for the kids? The seeds of the future? Tomorrow’s leaders? Tomorrow’s class-parents? Tomorrow’s xerox-copiers?

Chipmunk lady then launched into a soliloquy about how when strangers use the copy machines they break them, and that strangers shouldn’t be allowed to use the copy machines. She went right up to the edge of suggesting that I was the one who had confused the machine on the first floor but didn’t go over it.

I kept acting like I didn’t know what she meant and shook my head in bland-mock-disbelief at the lecture (like ‘damn all those strangers trying to use the machines), until the lady who had seemed in charge of the mood in the room when I arrived handed me a stack of extra- long powder-blue paper and said ‘if you don’t mind blue, you can use this.’

I took the blue paper. I made my copies. I left the room. I burst into tears. And then I went to the coffee-shop to warm my soul and cool off.

Chipmunk lady had just joined my list of mean people. Along with the Fairway manager who indicated that my dropping of a glass jar of wheat germ hadn’t been an accident, the old man at the outdoor bus- stop who scolded me for talking on a cell phone, and the Polish consignment shop lady who laid into me for bringing two bags of Flax
and Eileen Fisher cast-offs to her store (even though I called ahead to make sure she’d accept them and she’d said yes), because she was ‘trying to run a business here’ and she didn’t think my presentation was appropriate.

I have never understood why some people just choose meanness. It is a choice, isn’t it? It’s been the most major shock of growing up for me--even more shocking than the fact that I never stopped being me on the inside of my body.

As a kid I didn’t realize that grown-ups could be mean. I’d always assumed that all the stuff we were learning about being patient and kind we were learning because we had to be those things to be grown-up. In my own house I saw no badly-behaving grown-ups. In my little town I saw very very few badly-behaving grown-ups. (I
should clarify here that it turns out grown-ups *were* behaving badly...but it is of no small significance to me and to my developing self that it was all tucked behind closed doors, in bedrooms, or in the basement where the alcohol was kept).

Mine was an intimate college town and, until I was a teenager and my dad was on the vestry that felt forced to fire our minister-friend who lived next door, and I learned that a man who preached things like humility and turning the other cheek was super-good at maintaining a three year long silent treatment, I’d only ever encountered one mean grown-up.

I was having a sleepover at Kit Farm’s house and we were brushing our teeth with our mouths open and her dad walked by the bathroom in time to see teensy dots of pepsodent spray out of Kit’s mouth and land on the mirror. He completely lost it. He yelled at her in a mean booming voice, grabbed her wrist, and then humiliated her by showing her (and me, by association) how to brush correctly. I remember his sharp features and floppy bangs every time I brush my teeth. Mean Mr. Farm’s demo is my own madeleine...the smell of wintergreen and rough cedar panelling brings it all back, the sight of a dot of toothpaste on a bathroom mirror can send chills up my spine... I think he might have spank ed her, I’m not sure, because we were
separated for the next few hours. I do remember being sent down to the rec-room to watch ‘Walking Tall’ in silence with her exotic and remote much older brother and sister.

Except for these two up-close examples of adults-behaving-badly, and except for the occasional dinner-table story about a mean lady in line at the bank, or an opinionated co-worker, I had no reason to NOT assume that graduating into adulthood would mean entering a world of well-meaning, well-behaved men and women.

And even though I’m forty and I have three kids, when someone’s unnecessarily and unexpectedly mean to me I cry. And it only happens a handful of times a year. But it doesn’t seem to be stopping. And I didn't think forty would feel this way.