Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How to avoid Thanksgiving disaster (not including awkward hugs with distant relatives)

This column, like many others, first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on I usually let some time pass before posting them here.


Every year, millions of Americans sit around the table at Thanksgiving and enjoy a delicious meal with family and friends. And every year, someone is cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time.

So much pressure. So much to do. So much to mess up, even if you’re not trying to create the Martha Stewart-suggested spread that includes chilled oysters with apple-ginger mignonette and dumpling squash served with cream, sage and a condescending attitude.

But relax, first-time Thanksgiving cooks. While it’s true that my only experience preparing turkey dinner involves poking the plastic-wrap covering with a fork and heating it in a microwave, I know the biggest key to getting the Thanksgiving turkey right:

One hundred and sixty-five.

One hundred and sixty-five degrees, that is. The turkey’s internal temperature needs to reach that mark for it to be safe to eat. Come up a little short of that number and the strange feeling in your gut might not be from hearing Grandpa’s dreaded stories of bachelorhood in the ’60s.

It could be from Salmonella enteritidis, Staphylococcus aureus or other bacterias that sound like Greek basketball players or the ingredients in Twinkies. Unfortunately, food-borne illnesses are a part of Thanksgiving, just like showings of It’s A Wonderful Life, awkward hugs with distant relatives and unwanted advice from the in-laws.

One of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s goals is to educate people about food-preparation safety, so on its Food Safety and Inspection Service website, it offers a fact sheet for poultry preparation. There are lots of tips for chicken, duck and of course turkey, a widely domesticated bird that is found throughout North America, often between two slices of bread.

(The website also has tips for cooking ostrich, if you want to get wild on Thanksgiving. Sadly, I couldn’t find any Martha Stewart ostrich recipes to pass along.)

It can take a while to get a turkey fully cooked. For example, even a small, thawed eight-pound turkey that’s stuffed will need to cook at 365 degrees for three hours. For a 20-pounder, the USDA recommends cooking for five hours, or at least until the Cowboys have committed three turnovers in their annual Thanksgiving game.

The best way to be safe?

Cook the turkey until it looks like it has an unlimited-use pass at Planet Tan. Sure, the turkey will be a little dry, but no amount of Salmonella can survive in a bird that looks like it’s a cast member of Jersey Shore.

Actually, the safest way to cook a turkey is with a meat thermometer. A basic one costs only a few bucks. But if you’re confident that this first turkey will be the start of an explosion of cooking confidence, you can splurge for a fancier digital model. There are even several types of talking thermometers, all of which are ostrich compatible.

Above all, don’t worry about making a mistake. With so much to prepare and so much going on, something is bound to happen. Your in-laws might point out your cooking shortcomings in between lectures on how to be a better parent, but your Thanksgiving debacle won’t be the worst thing ever. Several people have burned down their houses by trying to fry turkeys in the their kitchens, and you’re not going to top that.

Hopefully. We do, after all, live in a state that has set the bar high for kitchen flamb├ęs. According to State Farm Insurance, Texas leads the nation in turkey-fryer fires.

No matter what you do, remember that everyone appreciates the person who takes on the responsibility of preparing Thanksgiving dinner. That’s right, all of us inept cooks – those of us whose typical turkey dinners include opening a cardboard box and punching numbers on a microwave – count you among our blessings.

We’re giving thanks for you, even if the turkey is a little dry, the gravy is lumpy and the Martha Stewart-inspired quince-ginger compote didn’t quite work out. And yes, even if we’re clutching our stomachs because a food-borne illness is knotting our intestines.

You make Thanksgiving memorable.

You can use the buttons below to share the column on Facebook or Twitter. Click "Follow @humorcolumn" to get a Twitter update for new columns. To get columns by e-mail, type your address in the box under "Receive columns by e-mail" near the top right of this page. Thanks!