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Five-alarm turkey 

It's that time of year when the world teems with heartwarming stories of wishes granted, stockings hung and treats baked. It's also the time when some of us hunker down and relish the retelling of the iconic holiday disaster story.

My maternal grandfather Pietro was, out of necessity, the cook in our family. My Danish grandmother was fluent in three languages and could knit a sweater in an afternoon; she could barely boil a potato. Pietro was an enthusiastic improvisational cook, however, having once worked in a hotel kitchen in Italy. His methods were unconventional. Key ingredients for almost any dish included Angostura bitters, Le Sueur peas and Parmesan cheese. The meals he turned out from his galley kitchen in Durham were improbably good. He called his experimental dishes "concussions," which seemed more apt than "concoctions."

Pietro had a passion for political debate, conspiracy theories, family and food. One night, they all collided. We had gathered on Christmas Eve for a turkey dinner. The evening started with tiny glasses of sweet vermouth on the rocks, spiked with bitters (told you) and a piece of lemon rind. The conversation inevitably turned to politics, and Pietro joined in the debate while "basting" the bird. His "basting" involved pouring great quantities of wine over things—not a bad approach, I confess. He always kept a couple of jugs of wine beside the stove.

He inexplicably stored the surplus basting wine and a selection of liquor in orderly rows on a shelf in his bedroom closet; the liquor was brought out on special occasions. Christmas was such an occasion, and a bottle of aquavit came down from the shelf. Somehow, in the midst of the conversation and the vermouth, Pietro confused the wine and the aquavit. Do you remember Evel Knievel and the Snake River Canyon?

According to witnesses, as everyone settled down for their first course, they heard a loud bang. A rifle shot? On Christmas? A car backfiring? In the kitchen? The oven door flew open. The turkey shot out, and smoke billowed. Accounts differ as to whether it actually hit the floor.

After we regained our composure, determined the turkey was fine and attended to my grandmother, who had nearly passed out laughing, we put the turkey on a platter and brought it to the table. That turkey was eaten, and the gifts were opened. The baby was laid in the manger of the presepio, and tiny cups of espresso were passed. Parents bundled up their drowsy children and took them home to wait for Santa.

This year, as we pass the coffee and fill the same presepio, I will delight in telling this story to my own daughter. Who knew an exploding turkey could be so tender?

  • The oven door flew open. The turkey shot out, and smoke billowed.

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