As a man of a certain age, I’ve made an observation or two about holiday meats. I’ve noticed how they’ve changed a lot during my already long lifespan, always remaining scarcely edible. Never in my childhood or youth would I have believed that people would line up outdoors for an hour, even in foul or freezing weather, to buy an outrageously expensive precooked ham coated in candy. How did this happen? In my day, by which I mean the Age of Aquarius, give or take a decade, there was no such thing as a ham covered in sweet sticky syrup as though it were a pancake or a lollipop. Who would want a hog lollipop? Or a pig pancake? The very idea is nauseating, and yet today no one wants anything else. The only people who have other tastes are those who would be cast into hellfire if they ate pork.
Am I alone in remembering the way my mother and her mother prepared the holiday ham, those cooks from the Great Generation and before? When my mom made a ham, she baked it herself, for half a day in her tiny, smoking oven, and the only sweet thing that touched it were rings of pineapple, about half a dozen of them, out of a can. The ham itself sometimes came out of a can too, an import from some Scandinavian country that is now socialist. The pineapple rings she nailed onto the ham’s hide-like exterior with tiny spikes of clove, pressing them into place with her steely fingers. She would then bake the fruited thing until the rings turned brown and the cloves were scorched, and that was dinner. You can’t come by that kind of festive eats anymore, not even at a lunch counter.
Holiday turkeys are also different now. I remember my dad, who was in charge of roasting our turkey back in the 50s and 60s, saying that sometimes you got a bad turkey from the store. He said that once every two or three years, perhaps as an excuse for his subpar cooking. There was nothing you could do about it, he implied, but make the best of it. These were the days when frozen turkeys began to be all the rage, but they weren’t all of uniform quality, according to my dad. So on off years we ended up with what he called a rubber turkey, one that would not become tender no matter how long it was cooked. It was rubber at any temperature. And these rubber birds never got completely done, but retained some pinkish hue all through the meat. Also, the skin of the bird would refuse to turn golden brown or any other shade of brown, but remain a gray or even bluish color, no matter how often you basted it. But all you could do was celebrate the holiday as best you could with it, because that’s how turkeys were: some of them were rubber.
Back then there was another difference in your turkey too: there really was dark meat on the bird. A modern turkey is all white meat, though here and there it might appear grayish-white to the discerning eye. You can’t tell a thigh from a breast without a microscope, if you’re looking at a slice. But when I was a boy, dark thigh meat was really dark, and gamey and greasy too, or so I remember. Everyone served himself a little of it to be polite, but you felt like you were eating a squirrel or a cat or something. Maybe the leftover dark meat was used to make mincemeat pie, whatever that awful stuff was. I don’t know, because I never tasted it as a child. It looked like a quart of used motor oil in a crust, and I never laid a taste bud anywhere near it. And now nobody serves the muck except at nursing homes.
Rubber turkeys and birds with dark meat have all but vanished from the holiday platter, due to new standards in avian uniformity, but have been replaced by the SBBED, or self-basting buttery explosive device. My struggles with this hazardous firebird began in the 80s, when I had my own household to run and my own turkey to buy and roast. Injected with enough butter to make Paula Dean blush, these 25- to 30-pound pustules of grease would sizzle in the oven at 325 and, when you tried to collect the buttery rivulets that ran over the sides to make gravy or baste the thing despite its not needing it, the unstoppable fat would drip down onto the hot oven coils. An arc of flame would then shoot out the oven door like a solar flare and singe off all or part of your mustache and sideburns, if you had any, and your arm hair too, if you had neglected to put on an oven mitt. I had as much hair and side-hair as anyone back in the 80s, with the sole exception of David Lee Roth, and usually emerged from a turkey-basting session as closely shorn as John Candy in Stripes. There was no way to avoid this, because after all, basting was part of the tradition.
The family has since switched to leaner birds that have not been inoculated. Voila, no more grease rivers and explosions! But my daughter insists our turkey be roasted in a bonnet of cheesecloth drenched in liquid butter and white wine. That this headdress doesn’t burst into flame almost at once confounds me. But it doesn’t, though I can’t help but check on it every fifteen minutes, to make sure. You throw the cheesecloth out after it turns brown and crispy, and by then the bird has a golden sheen and something like a taste.
Of course if you prefer, you can get a candy-coated turkey at the same place you get those hams. It saves you a lot of trouble.