We Ate Our Thanksgiving Turkey Frozen -- and It Was Lit
Thanksgiving. Sure, an attitude of gratitude is the hook to the holiday, but honestly, let’s talk turkey.
I’ve had them all. Turducken, a sausage and oyster stuffing-filled chicken shoved inside a duck inside a turkey. Deep-fried, the skin a burnished copper and carrying the ghost flavor of peanut oil through to the juicy meat. Rotisseried until its flesh slid easily off the bones. Smoked, the fragrance of wood and embers lingering on the tongue. And roasted, of course, in different and sometimes experimental ways, every home cook determined to make it their own.
But of all the turkeys I’ve had, the most memorable one was sweet, meatless, and ended up a gloopy puddle.
It was a balmy day in New Orleans, the scent of sweet olive redolent in the motionless air. But then, every day’s a balmy day there, even in November. Hurricane season’s departure still leaves a shadow of humidity, like a final foot stomp after a tantrum, its thrumming hollow through the floorboards.
The walk from my apartment near Tulane University’s campus was quieter than usual. The normally raucous Frat Row on Broadway was a ghost town; even the gaily painted walls of the houses seemed muted. The sidewalks that were usually bustling with students sweating to and from class were deserted. This stillness combined with that of the atmosphere gave off the feeling of a moment trapped in time, hazily locked into place as I scuttled up to block to Calhoun.
Tulane University is a school proud of the geographical spread of its student body; as of 2018, 85% of its students traveled 300 miles or more to attend; the average is around 900. It’s also a school with a significant endowment -- obviously fantastic for getting us broke scholarship kids there... but not so great for getting us home for breaks.
And so here it was, Thanksgiving, and I was far from my family in Long Island, NY.
A scoop of sweet cream ice cream. A handful of frozen macerated strawberries. Crumbled pound cake, just enough to hint at its presence but not enough to become mush over time.
Leah scraped the ingredients together on a massive slab of frozen granite, breaking apart the cake, separating the fruit, and folding it into the ice cream base, with only the hushed strains of inoffensive music for company.
She was closing up at New Orleans’ first Cold Stone Creamery, where she worked part-time to help pay for her Tulane tuition. It was the week of Thanksgiving, and the rest of the college-age staff had gone home; she had the place to herself to work on her secret project.
Scrape, scrape, scrape went the metal spoons as she worked the ingredients together on the stone. She eyeballed the pile--it needed to be bigger. She started another to avoid overworking the ice cream, then combined them, tasted it, and smiled smugly.
Next step: she pulled out the yellow cake layers she’d baked and put aside; being the lead cake-maker, she had better-than-most access to materials and was encouraged to get clever with her cakes. But this clandestine cake, made carefully with pilfered material, wasn’t for her.
Carefully, she layered the ice cream in a round mold with the cake, spreading it evenly and patting it smooth. She put it in the deep freeze; round one was done.
I arrived at a shotgun double, a common architectural design in NOLA. The steps leading up to the entrance creaked, and next door, the screen was ripped and hanging dejectedly off its forest green frame, the same peeling color as the shutters.
I raised a hand to knock, but a sharp bark and frantic scrambling of claws made it unnecessary.
“Hey! We’re back here!,” the lively tones of my college bestie’s voice carrying from the kitchen through the straight-shoot hallway. In the deafening silence of the streets, it was a relief to hear it.
I laughed for the first time that first Thanksgiving away from home, as I was greeted by a blue heeler waving her tail-less behind, squirming in the joy of company. Gave her a little scritch behind her ears and made my way through the living room, bedroom, and into the wood-paneled, antiquated kitchen.
“Happy Friendsgiving!” I said, a phrase that had not yet become trendy a dozen years ago.
“Meet Sal,” Leah said, pointing to a new friend as she stirred two dented pots on the ancient gas stove, “and have some endives; I stuffed them with goat cheese and topped them with cranberries. It’s Thanksgiving!”
Another evening at Cold Stone, the cotton candy skies -- an unexpectedly beautiful product of heavy air and light pollution -- outside the plate-glass windows as saturated with color as their sprinkles.
Leah scooped out of a pail the banana ice cream she’d churned just that day, and started chopping up crunchy almonds to mix into it.
Today’s task was a little more difficult than phase one; it was time to make the main form of her Thanksgiving piece de resistance.
There was no mold for what she was doing, so she had to get creative, go freehand with the shape. She took the ball of ice cream she’d made and wrapped it in wax paper. With a roll of masking tape, she forced it as best she could into an oblong, bullying it more after manipulating it into a more pliable form on the counter stone. Then off into deep freeze it went.
Only one more step to go, and she had the daytime shift the next day to finish the project before her opening.
She was excited about the finishing touches. Orange-dyed buttercream icing for the main body and accessory parts. Red for the fire and heat. Rolled up wafer cookies she brought in because, why not? It could be wood at best, and new texture for a decorative base at worst.
Come tomorrow, she’d be ready to host her first Thanksgiving.
We sat around a rickety second-hand table, creaking from plates of flavor profiles as much of a mismatch to each other as the chairs surrounding them. Chicken teriyaki stir-fry made from a jarred sauce and a rainbow of vegetables. Random cheeses from Whole Foods. Brussels sprouts, slightly charred; sweet potatoes baked whole in their skins. On the fancier end, medium-rare steak crostini, fresh-baked sourdough, some shrimp cocktail, and seared tuna bites.
“Dig in!” Leah urged Sal and me. “I’ll go get the turkey.”
“What turkey?” Sal and I glanced at each other perplexed; we didn’t see one in the oven while standing uselessly in the way with glasses of Yellow Tail.
“This turkey,” she announced proudly, pulling out the symbolic bird from the freezer.
Above a red cake form with orange and yellow swirls piped around the sides, brown tubes of cookies arranged with artful haphazardness where the presumed cake met the plate, was a apricot-hued, lumpy, clay-like … turkey.
A solid ice cream turkey. White drumstick bones, gangly wings and all. Thoughtfully made in my and Sal’s favorite flavors.
“Happy first Friendsgiving, guys!” she beamed, “Isn’t this ridiculous?”
…Somehow, though, it wasn’t.
It’s funny what lengths people go to for the semblance of tradition. There’s a comfort in the ritual, of going through the motions. And there’s a sense of pride as you interject your own personality, preferences, and those of your friends and family to it and make it your own.
We were geo-orphans, Leah and I, and this was only the first of years of Friendsgivings.
We came from opposite sides of the country: she from Northern California, me from Long Island New York. She came from as American of a background as you could get, steps and halfs and all. My roots were new as a daughter of immigrants, just trying to figure out what was normal.
But despite that, Thanksgiving meant the same thing to us both: a time to be surrounded by people who cared about you enough to feed you with love. A chance to not feel alone. And for those without means, a way to create chosen family.
So even in isolation, we were comforted rather than depressed by the random spread on that weather-worn table. Its bulbous ice cream turkey was an absurd and childish declaration of independence as we play-acted at being adults since we couldn’t go home and be kids. But it completed a rite of passage: making a holiday and family your own.
Most Thanksgiving turkeys start frozen. Ours ended that way. But although it eventually melted into an amorphous blob, the memories of that day stay in sharp focus. Frozen. Perfect.