Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stuffed with Tradition


Mrs. Bomblatt’s Way

Mrs. Bomblatt woke calmly to the scent of sage and with no undue expectations nor worries. The big turkey, she began to remember, with her eyes not yet open, was crammed into the cooler on the porch, the big wooden bowl was full of bread cubes that had been tossed with the rendered suet, and onions that had been melted in the suet for a long, long time, as well as torn fresh sage and the Thanksgiving seasoning. How many years had she been using that same little yellow box of seasoning? A quart of oysters sat in the fridge awaiting her decision: She did not want to use saltines – which were mainly awfully unhealthy though tasty white stuff – to scallop them, though that was traditional, and she had not bought saltines for the occasion, was rethinking the technique.

The turkey broth from the neck and giblets rested in the pan on the porch counter. Mrs. Bomblatt hoped that it had gotten cold last night, but then she had grown up with chancy food temperatures and never gotten sick from them nor, to her knowledge, had anyone else. Just another way to make us fear our food, she thought with finicky irritation.

Mrs. Bomblatt rose from bed and paused at the window. The mountains were rusted brillo pads, the sky seventy-nine shades of gray that contained every other shade in the palette watered down to almost nothing. It looked to be your average gloriously restrained Thanksgiving day.

Arriving in the kitchen Mrs. Bomblatt was met by more shades. “I don’t know when you think you’re going to get that bird in the oven, Kid,” admonished her grandmother, “lying slugabed so late!” Her mother tossed her head and languidly sipped coffee. Father dipped the newspaper and winked at her over its top, and Grandpa held a bloody axe in his gnarled hand while a headless turkey scrambled under the table. Her aunt hovered near the refrigerator door just itching to start the oysters. Mrs. Bomblatt smiled to herself and began to grind the coffee beans. It never failed, they all came back on Thanksgiving day as on no other.

Mrs. Bomblatt turned from the shades and toward the telephone. She would call her daughter, she decided, to see how the instructions she had given her the day before had worked out. But with her hand on the receiver she checked herself, the recollection of the two hour time difference and Lizzy’s sleeping habits rising through the Thanksgiving haze in her head. She withdrew her hand. She would wait an hour or two, and in the meantime figure out what to do with those oysters. Stew would not do, nor raw, since there were no half shells. Something puddeny, slightly bready, something like scalloped but without those awful white crackers.

Her mind wandered to Lizzy, making Thanksgiving dinner in her own kitchen out there in that god-forsaken place.

***

“Mum, I know I’ve made stuffing with you every Thanksgiving since I was born,” she’d called to say yesterday, “but I can’t remember the fine points.”

“You know you’ve got to find some suet,” Mrs. Bomblatt had said sharply, fearing her daughter’s Thanksgiving hopes would come to naught without it. It was Wednesday afternoon and Lizzie did not yet know what ingredients she needed? How mobbed the grocery stores would be? Mrs. Bomblatt calmed herself. She began to give the needed instructions. Lizzie could deal with the mobs herself.

“You’ll need suet,” she said, “about a pound of it – that’s beef fat, of course, and most grocery stores have it. And a loaf or two of a good substantial white bread – think something as close to Baba-a-Louis as possible. And,” she put down her own loaf of Baba-a-Louis and rummaged through the spice cabinet, “some... Bells Seasoning. And fresh sage. And two or three large onions. Are you writing this down?”

“Got it, Mum.”

“All right. And if there’s something else you want in the dressing, like chestnuts, or sausage, or ... oysters, get them, too.

“Now, as soon as you get home take the bread and spread it out so it will dry a bit. Then take the giblets – don’t use the liver, just stew that in butter and eat it for lunch – and the neck, and any other trimmings of the turkey, put them into a saucepan and add about 6 cups of water. Bring that to a boil and then turn to a low simmer, add some salt and vinegar, maybe a teaspoon of each – vinegar and salt help pull the flavor from the bones into the water – cover, but tip the cover so steam can escape. Okay?”

“Yep.”

“Okay, now you make the stuffing. Chop up the suet into a large flat-bottomed skillet over low heat and let it render the fat out. You’ll end up with little crispy things after an hour or two. Scoop them out and throw them away, as they aren’t very tasty. Try them, though, sprinkled with salt, just to prove me wrong.

“Slice 2 large onions thin and add to the melted suet and, over low heat, let them just melt, stirring occasionally and turning them over and about. They will become golden but don’t let them get dark. This will take about an hour. Let the onions cool a bit in the beef fat.

“In the meantime, tear the bread into half-inch sized chunks into a big bowl. Balance your weight on your two feet, pull in your stomach muscles and breathe deeply while doing this. You will have less stress on your back, and become less tired and irritable.”

Her yogic advice met with silence at the other end, Mrs. Bomblatt plowed on. “Strew the bread cubes with a handful of torn sage leaves and a tablespoon or so of Bells Seasoning. The kitchen will begin to fill with the scent of Thanksgiving, and thus the spirit, too. Toss this mixture with your hands several times while you’re rendering the suet and melting the onions. That will help them dry out a little bit more.

“When the suet has cooled enough not to fry the bread on contact, pour it and the onions over the bread cubes and toss until each cube is coated with fat and has onions to snuggle up against, which will scent the bread. You see, Lizzy, the waxiness of the suet on the bread prevents it from becoming soggy with the turkey juices and permeates it with flavor.

“Cover the bowl with dish towels and leave overnight. Cover the giblet broth and put it in the fridge or out on your porch, if you’ve got one. Do you have a porch in that godforsaken place you live in?” Mrs. Bomblatt asked her daughter delicately.

“Sure do!”

“By then, you’ve made your pies?”

“Yes, Mama Dear.”

“All right, then, go to bed. Sleep well.”

“Nighty night, Mum.”

***

The telephone rang. “Mum! The house smells heavenly, just like Thanksgiving!” said her daughter delightedly. “I almost imagine you’re here!”

Mrs. Bomblatt, thinking of her own shades, looked out the window onto the far-away brillo-pad peak and smiled undecidedly.

“But now what?” asked her daughter, “something about eggs...?”

Shaking herself back to the present, Mrs. Bomblatt set about the next operation. “When you’re ready to stuff the bird, pour several whisked eggs over the bread – maybe three to a loaf of bread – and more fresh sage, and toss that all up. Then you check it for taste and texture. It might need more sage, or salt, or even another egg. When it’s just right, add whatever is extra for this year – are you adding extras this year, Dear?”

“Nope. I want it just simple, like Grandma and Great Grandma did it, and you do it! I just need that taste,” she continued wistfully, “something to remind me that the Thanksgiving we’re having in this crummy kitchen stems from something tried and true. And delicious.” She turned brisk, “Now Mum! What about the gravy?”

“Dear, the main thing to remember is you’re going to want lots of gravy. So, when the turkey’s out of the oven, and you’ve wrestled him onto a big platter – you DO have a big platter, don’t you, Lizzy? – well, you can use a cookie sheet or... whatever! Cover him with tinfoil! Then put the roasting pan over a burner or two, and turn the heat to low, and scrape up the bits and pieces off the bottom. Put about a cup of flour into a jar with a lid and add some water and put the lid on the jar and shake it up until it’s smooth. Skim the giblets and neck and stuff out of the broth. Toss the neck, but chop up the giblets very finely and put them back into the broth.”

“Mum! Joe HATES giblets in gravy.”

“That’s why you chop them up so very finely, Lizzy. But, do as you like. Back to business!

“If you think there’s too much fat in the pan, pour some off. But there probably isn’t too much fat in the pan with turkeys bred as leanly as they are nowadays.” Mrs. Bomblatt’s tone was ever so slightly disapproving.

“Then pour in half of the flour slurry and stir until it thickens and browns a little bit. If it’s too dry add some of the broth. Keep adding the broth a ladle at a time, and if it gets too thin add some more of the flour slurry, until you’ve used all the broth and it’s the right thickness, then add some salt until it tastes right, and some pepper. Then cover it and keep it very hot. Be sure to simmer it long enough to cook the raw flour taste out. It’ll thicken, but you can always add a little water to thin it.”

“Oooo, Mum, I can’t wait! This is going to be a great Thanksgiving!”

Mrs. Bomblatt smiled through her damned tears.

But Lizzy spoke again. “You didn’t forget oysters, did you? Have you scalloped the oysters yet?”

“They’re sitting right there in the fridge,” said Mrs. Bomblatt, “But I don’t want to scallop them with those awful crackers. I’m trying to think of something different.”

“But it’s tradition,” Lizzy wailed. “Great Aunt and then Aunt and then I made them. You’ve got to keep up your end of it, Mum – just because I’m not there...!”

Mrs. Bomblatt sighed and reached for a pencil, thinking that tradition could be carried a bit far. “Let me just jot down the recipe then, Dear.”

***

Mrs. Bomblatt was stuffing the bird when Mr. Bomblatt walked into the kitchen. “Anything I can do to help,” he announced confidently, knowing there would be nothing required of him. But he was to be disappointed, as “Yes, as a matter of fact,” said Mrs. Bomblatt, bent directly over the gaping crotch of the turkey, “If you wouldn’t mind, you could try to find a store that’s open and see if they have saltines.”

There was a flurry of movement in the corner of the kitchen, but when Mr. Bomblatt tore his dejected eyes from his wife, there was nothing more than shadows to be seen, but shadows from which emanated a distinct aura of intense satisfaction.

this twice bitten column was published in the Rutland (vt) Herald November 20, 2007