This Thanksgiving, the vast majority of food writers were excited about one thing: skipping the turkey. A small gift of this shitty year was the chance to devote time and energy to cooking a duck or leg of lamb or beef Wellington or bo ssam — or anything, really, but a fussy, large, bland bird. Or, burned out on endless pandemic home cooking, one could say fuck it and order a pizza.
Meanwhile, I ordered a 17-pound heritage turkey for two people: my girlfriend and me. Coming up with a different creative cooking project sounded tiring, and honestly, I like turkey. I enjoy how mild and bland and slightly sweetish it is, and that blandness makes turkey a perfect leftover food. In fact, every component of my ideal Thanksgiving dinner tastes better the next day, or honestly, for the next week. No other holiday menu is as prescribed or ossified as traditional American Thanksgiving, and no holiday is as dedicated to overabundant casseroles. The only way to enjoy the meal’s strictures and abundance, in my opinion, is to treat it like a giant, rare beast, felled but once a year to be feasted upon with absolutely nothing left to waste.
But the day after I ordered this large, expensive turkey, I started thinking it through. The rule of thumb was, what? A pound per person? So we were getting a turkey for… 17 people? Did I actually like turkey that much?
My personal pandemic cooking fatigue manifests as decision fatigue, and honestly, it sounded like a relief to spend one intense day cooking and then ease into a long stretch when I would know what I was making: something with turkey. In late November and early December, turkey tastes best and most correct, when the failing sunlight and increasing chill makes for the most satisfying eating of pot pies, noodle soups, and other ideal leftover turkey conveyances. Nothing seemed sadder than losing pounds and pounds of turkey in the back of the freezer, so I decided we would eat turkey every day until it ran out. It ended up being a three-week affair.
Thursday, November 26
Giant turkeys involve so many logistics. I knew this, and knew I would likely regret trying anything much more ambitious than making said giant turkey, but after hearing Samin Nosrat discuss her buttermilk turkey recipe on her podcast, Home Cooking, I had to try it. Even after I saw the recipe had only been tested for a bird of up to 14 pounds, I was not deterred — I left hipster grocer Cookbook with an alarming amount of extremely heritage buttermilk to make sure I had enough. Our bird arrived frozen on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, which I hadn’t counted on. On Tuesday, while it was still partially frozen, I gruesomely spatchcocked it with a pair of kitchen shears whose handles were falling apart. Next, the turkey carcass poked tiny holes in the plastic brining bag, spilling gross turkey-buttermilk juice all over the floor. I switched to brining it in a roasting pan, but our tilty broken fridge shelf made more gross juice spill, so then we cleaned half the fridge. These experiences spurred a great deal of Turkey Regret.
But then we cooked the actual turkey, and the skin came out so utterly perfectly golden and crisp and packed with flavor that we couldn’t stop sneaking bites of it while carving. For the first turkey meal, we ate it hot with a few sides (stuffing, candied sweet potatoes, green beans, my grandmother’s coleslaw my mom taught me how to make over Zoom) and a ridiculously thick gravy I cooked for too long because I detest thin gravy. We ate maybe two to three slices of turkey breast each, which, while not as flavorful as the skin, was pleasantly seasoned and only a tiny bit dry.
After dinner, I messily broke down the turkey (no guests = no stressful fancy carving), storing the legs and wings whole and shredding the remaining white meat and dark meat into separate piles. Some of the breast I sliced thin for sandwiches, too. All of this I packed into a gigantic tupperware container, and then stacked the leftover skin on top. The carcass I put into an equally giant plastic bag, and left it a bit meatier than I would have otherwise, because we had turkey to burn and a meaty carcass makes excellent stock.
Friday, November 27
In terms of how much time goes into making its components, no sandwich requires more actual work than a Thanksgiving sandwich, but because it is a vehicle for leftovers rather than the main event, making one always feels like a sneaky triumph. But every one I’ve made disappoints me slightly — I still haven’t cracked my personal Thanksgiving sandwich code. The first Thanksgiving sandwich of 2020 I built on milk bread, with sliced turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, coleslaw, mayonnaise, cold gravy, and cranberry sauce. All I really tasted was sweet potatoes, which undermined the point of the Thanksgiving sandwich: it’s meant to be a balanced bite of Thanksgiving-ness — some savoriness, some herbiness, some sweetness — while not tasting exactly like Thanksgiving dinner. I remain convinced the next one I make will be perfect.
Dinner was a slop pile of leftovers; I believe turkey was in there somewhere. This tasted exactly like Thanksgiving dinner, because it was, but at least it didn’t only taste of sweet potatoes.
Saturday, November 28
After failing to relax on Friday, Saturday we declared a Day of Nothing and took to the couch, leaving it only to eat Thanksgiving sandwiches or Thanksgiving slop piles or maybe just pie, while watching a Mackenzie Davis double feature of Happiest Season and Terminator: Dark Fate. I didn’t totally manage to do nothing, though, because I threw the turkey carcass in the stock pot to simmer overnight on the stove, after conferring about how this probably wouldn’t kill us in a fire. For the first time in six days, there was no giant turkey carcass taking up space in the fridge, and I felt a mix of triumph and mild worry, as if the space opening up might mean I’d have to fill it with another big bird and start all over again.
Sunday, November 29
I woke up at 4 a.m. to the entire house smelling of turkey stock, and I woke up starving. For breakfast, despite the fact that I’d eaten pie for dinner the night before because I was tired of Thanksgiving sandwiches and/or slop, I made the questionable move of using Thanksgiving leftovers, making a hash with sweet potatoes and turkey skin, and spooning some of the extremely thick gravy next to the egg. Lunch was a lazier pile of leftovers, and dinner was an open-face, gravy-heavy hot turkey sandwich, with some mashed potatoes I made that day, because I was sad we hadn’t made mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving.
I could eat a hot turkey sandwich over mashed potatoes and fluffy white bread for several meals in a row and still want more. Eating that sandwich for dinner reinvigorated my faith in the turkey plan, and instilled a sense of Turkey Triumph. I’m pretty sure this is my actual ideal Thanksgiving sandwich: It focuses on the two things you worked hardest for — turkey and gravy — and does away with all the adorning sides and their tendency to cloy. There’s a purity to the blandness of the hot gravy sandwich that somehow allows them to transcend, in part because they’re a little old fashioned and therefore novel, one of those foods difficult to find made from scratch in restaurants. If your childhood palate was heavily shaped by precision-engineered processed food, simpler, blander midcentury classics are almost a relief.
By the end of the weekend, the turkey pile had dwindled surprisingly far below the lip of the Tupperware, but the whole container still had serious heft.
Monday, November 30
Lunch was a pared-down Thanksgiving sandwich — turkey, coleslaw, cranberry sauce, mayo — scarfed in a parking lot overlooking the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, before I went on a hike. It was delicious in that messy way only eating in or near your car is; some of the coleslaw fell out onto the asphalt. Reducing the Thanksgiving sandwich components down to turkey and two acidic components made for a more successful sandwich, but I wasn’t sure it had enough Thanksgiving going on to truly count.
For dinner, I made the New York Times recipe for a Thanksgiving leftover enchilada pie, which the headnote says was developed for a children’s section of the newspaper, which made me feel a little self conscious but only a little. Making the recipe drew down some of my March food hoarding — the tortillas were the last of a huge freezer stash, from a packet given to me by a local chef when he was shutting down his restaurant those first few uncertain weeks, and the can of red enchilada sauce I’d bought from my corner store out of some misplaced fear that a supply chain breakdown would result in a long enchilada shortage.
Into the enchilada pie, I piled cooked cranberry beans, sweet potatoes, and lots of shredded turkey. It tasted mostly like sweet potatoes, again. But I had a breakthrough: I realized the thing I was mostly sick of was sweet potatoes, even though that seemed insane because sweet potatoes are the perfect food.
Tuesday, December 1
I was ready to move on, but I wanted to keep drawing down the turkey. For dinner, all of the beans that didn’t make it into the enchilada went into a recipe from the latest edition of the Rancho Gordo bean club newsletter, a bean soup that involves pureeing beans with aromatics, cooking arborio rice in the resulting thick thick stock, and then piling some sauteed greens on top. Maybe this is where I confess that I didn’t put much thought into how we would get through all this turkey, because I considered it as a big chicken, and about 30 percent of what I know about cooking involves using up leftover chicken and its stock. In this case, I dumped some turkey stock into the soup, and shredded up turkey meat to go in at the end, which I’m not sure improved the soup, but did use up some turkey.
The problem with the big chicken method is that turkey does have a more distinctive taste than chicken — it’s a bit richer and sweeter — and even when I make a chicken, I don’t eat the chicken every day for weeks. I guess what I’m saying is I would have been happier with a non-turkey bean soup. The rest of the turkey and the stock (there was a lot!) went into the freezer. I portioned the turkey into quarter-pound bags of shredded up meat, and the stock into two cup baggies. Is this a little late to be freezing both? I don’t know. I lived to write this piece!
Wednesday, December 2
Maybe this is where I confess that we’ve spent a great deal of this pandemic living off of literally the same meals for days, and often those meals are “a pile of beans over toast,” not a specific recipe. Having two real-deal leftover meals — the turkey enchilada pie and the bean soup — in the fridge Wednesday felt like a massive luxury. We had enchilada pie for lunch and the soup for dinner.
Thursday, December 3
For lunch, my girlfriend and I split the last of the bean soup and pie leftovers. For dinner, I made a variation of a lazy udon soup I’ve been making off and on throughout the pandemic. This one was especially lazy: just some plumped-up dried shiitakes and a daikon radish from my farm box, simmered in turkey stock until tender, and frozen udon noodles dumped in at the end. I added a little bit of miso, too. It was fine? But a satisfying kind of fine, where you eat knowing how many different stockpiled ingredients, acquired months apart, you turned into dinner.
Friday, December 4
After about a week out from Thanksgiving, the turkey consumption dropped down to once a day, whereas the first week we had something turkey-derived for lunch and dinner. I honestly can’t believe it took that long. Lunch was leftover perfectly fine turkey udon soup. For dinner we ordered a bunch of Thai food from one of the best Thai restaurants in Los Angeles, Luv2Eat. The massaman curry came with a whole chicken drumstick, and the dish’s layers of heat and spice cleared my palate after (way) too many days of mild Thanksgiving sweetness.
Saturday, December 5
One thing I’ve gotten into making from time to time lately is gravy, so for lunch I made up a new batch of gravy (if you have stock, it’s not that annoying or hard), and heated up some of the frozen turkey in it. Then, I dumped it over some pieces of toast: hot turkey sandwich! If you like mush enough to enjoy different textures of mush, there is no better pleasure than gravy and shreds of meat melting into a thick slice of white bread, softening it some places while leaving the edges firm enough to sop up the rest of the gravy after the heart of the sandwich is gone. It’s especially good if the bread is a little sweet and the gravy a little too salty, so your senses keep getting mildly overwhelmed in different ways, like going in and out of the cooler saunas in a Korean spa.
Sunday, December 6
Another hot turkey sandwich? Another hot turkey sandwich. I ate this one for dinner, with a knife and fork, hunched over our coffee table while watching The Crown.
Monday, December 7
So, the reason I “got into” making gravy was I had to follow a strict soft food diet for a couple months this summer after scorching my esophagus. How did I do this? By tasting, and then swallowing, a lava-hot spoonful of bechamel for a pot pie filling. Please do not do any of these things.
Now my food tube is largely healed (alcohol and coffee are still kind of tough!), I decided it was time to face my fears and make another bechamel-involving casserole. Bechamel makes so many things creamy and good; I couldn’t fear it forever.
I went with Molly Yeh’s tater tot chicken pot hotdish, because I love a tot and also I find Yeh’s recipes charming and reliable. I cut the amount of turkey, added in some butternut squash from the farm box (maybe all of my cooking decisions come down to using things up?), and made my girlfriend, who does not cook in any way but is much tidier than me, line up all the tater tots. This dish was delicious, honestly one of my favorite things I’ve made recently. What really made it was the thyme; it was rich and herbal without tasting like Thanksgiving or Christmas, but of the cozycore time in between. The butternut pushed things a little sweet for the tots, though — it would have tasted even better with puff pastry on top.
Tuesday, December 8
My favorite kitchen appliance, which I use twice a day sometimes, is my rice cooker. When my mom gave me the rice cooker, she also gave me The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook, which I use often to make everything from polenta to rice pudding. I tried out the book’s recipe for turkey jook, a rice porridge made with turkey stock, which I’d never made before but had eyed over the years. You add chopped carrot and cabbage to the rice and stock, and then cook it all up in the rice maker’s porridge setting. I topped it with shredded turkey and cilantro and scallion greens and sesame oil, and it turned out pretty nicely! I think next year, when I can face turkey again, I’d like to try a more traditional stovetop version, but this made for a warm and simple lunch.
Wednesday, December 9
Turkey jook leftovers for lunch and hotdish leftovers for dinner. No regrets.
Thursday, December 10
In a mirror of last week, we split up the last of the jook and hotdish for lunch. Before writing this, I had no idea my weekly cooking routine was so routine. At times, I have suspected that if I didn’t get a weekly farm box full of ingredients I didn’t choose, I might die of boredom in this pandemic. It does seem like without external input, I can easily eat the same thing over and over until I get sick of it; maybe it’s better to instead have to face down what I’m going to do with all these turnips this week.
Friday, December 11
This is where I hit my limit, or some kind of limit. I tried to have the last of the turkey jook for lunch, and it tasted… not good? I don’t think it had gone bad; I think I just couldn’t take turkey any more. Flavor fatigue is a surprisingly disturbing feeling. When something tastes exactly the same as it has for days or weeks, except no longer good, it feels like reality has gotten hollowed out a tiny bit, and that more could be coming. I realize food not tasting good is a symptom of depression, but it’s also the most apt metaphor for what all of depression feels like — everything is exactly the same, except now it sucks.
Saturday, December 12
This weekend, we began our new seasonal cooking project: cookies. In between making six different kinds of cookies, I pulled the final dregs of the turkey and its stock out of the freezer, chopped up a bunch of carrots and a sweet potato I’d forgotten I had, and put it in a pot with some frozen homemade curry bricks. In April, when my pandemic despair was especially keen and hopeless, I threw myself into unusual kitchen projects, and none am I more grateful for than having made Sonoko Sakai’s curry bricks with her curry brick kit. All of the spices are so pungent and flavorful and perfectly balanced, and it results in so many easy and satisfying meals. We housed our curry over white rice before pulling more cookies out of the oven.
Sunday, December 13
In the midst of the continued cookie madness, for lunch I microwaved the leftover turkey curry and poured it in a huge messy pile over a fluffy slice of milk bread. Curry over rice tastes correct, but curry dumped over bread was a perfect mix of familiar and slightly off. Remember what I said about hot turkey sandwiches? I actually want one right now.
Monday, December 14
For my final turkey meal, already past deadline on this turkey blog and 20 days after first cooking this turkey for Thanksgiving, I did the same exact thing for lunch I’d done the day before: dump curry over bread. I still enjoyed it, but I also had something akin to the feeling you have when you know after your next bite, you’ll be full: I was done. I look forward to eating turkey on Thanksgiving of 2021, but I do not need to see it beforehand — and despite the obvious utility of cooking a giant bird once instead of many smaller chickens, I want turkey to remain a seasonal food. Bringing it into April or July would undermine its specialness, and underline its blandness, reducing it to just another bird.
Finishing off the giant turkey took less time and work than I imagined — if anything, it made deciding what to eat easier, and there was no need to keep poaching chickens for a few weeks. But now, all I want is fish and beans, all of it topped with salsa verde or salsa or chili oil. Maybe a steak. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t considering getting a whole Christmas ham and spending a week or two living off its carcass.