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Chaos Theory

Cold Turkey

A first-time Thanksgiving cook’s frozen failure

By Cassie Bustamante

Growing up, Thanksgiving was always a big family affair. Dad’s dad had six siblings and they’d all be there with their kids, who also had kids. My older brother, Dana, and I were the eldest of our generation, and we had to sit at the dreaded kids table, where we made sure none of our little cousins shoved peas up their noses.

During high school, Dana and I graduated from the kids table, but it was a decade later when I hosted my first Thanksgiving in New Orleans that I finally felt like an adult.

Because Chris works in retail management and will be schlepping it to the mall on Black Friday, dreams of the classic Thanksgiving return “home” — to either my or his parents — are dashed. Dana, who lives in Los Angeles, decides to visit our little family so he can spend time with his 1-year-old nephew, Sawyer.

While I am sure Mom and Dad will miss seeing their first grandchild, they’re glad we’re spending the holiday together. And I know we will miss them — and Mom’s pecan rolls. One thing I won’t miss? Having to stare at one of Dad’s favorite sides on the table: the jiggling, can-shaped, gelatinous cranberry sauce, ribs still visible.

Since I am the chef de cuisine, I delight in crafting my own menu: a cooked-to-nut-brown-perfection turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg, haricot vert spiked with lemon and garlic, glazed maple carrots, a simple salad — always a great palate cleanser between bites — and pillowy, golden rolls. And no canned cranberry sauce. For dessert, rich, silky pumpkin cheesecake.

We hit the grocery store the weekend before, like every other bayou shopper and purchase a sensibly small bird in advance, which goes into the freezer for safekeeping.

The day before Turkey Day, Chris plays on the floor with Sawyer while I follow the steps of a Food Network pumpkin cheesecake recipe. I pop it in oven to bake and lick the spatula.

“Do we even need anything else?” I ask no one in particular. “Can’t we just sit around the table with cheesecake? I mean, that’s what the Golden Girls always do.” Lost in the delight of the batter and the excitement of my big brother arriving that evening, I take my eye off the ball. The ball being the ice-bound Butterball.

The morning of Thanksgiving, I wake from a dead sleep at 6 a.m., fully aware of what I’ve done — or, more accurately, not done. “Oh, no!” I yell. “We forgot to take the turkey out of the freezer!”

I rush to the kitchen in my pajamas as Chris groggily drags behind me. I yank the bird from the freezer, slamming it on the counter with a rock-solid thud and look exasperatedly at him. “Now what? Thanksgiving is ruined!!!”

“Let’s just give it a water bath,” Chris answers calmly, adept at handling my (over)reactions. “Fill the sink and we’ll put it in there and just keep changing the water. It will thaw more quickly that way.”

Fill, drain, repeat — every 15 minutes. After the first hour, the turkey is frighteningly firm. When the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade begins to roll, I can just about poke a finger into it. I imagine my parents, the smell of turkey wafting through their home, while, down in New Orleans, their daughter spends the day giving a turkey a bath.

But Chris and Dana assure me they’ll be happy to eat whenever the turkey is ready. “I hope you like a big meal for breakfast then, because it’s looking like tomorrow morning,” I lament.

To my surprise, our diligence pays off. Hours later, around 4 p.m., our bird is oven-ready and, because it’s small, cooks quickly. The four of us finally gather around the table. I pour us each — except for the baby, of course — a large glass of pinot grigio. “Cheers,” I say. “I’m grateful for so much — your visit, for one, Dana — but mostly that we’re eating at 7:30 p.m., a very respectable mealtime.

I look around the table at our little crew. With Dana and Chris across from me, and Sawyer in his high chair beside me, it’s a far cry from those big family gatherings of my youth. But, even with my frozen faux-pas — maybe especially because of it — I know that we’re creating new memories.

After putting Sawyer to bed, Dana, Chris and I gather ’round one more time for a 10 p.m. cheesecake session. I don’t care how stuffed I still am. Sweatpants were made for this.

“Mmmmm . . . ,” we all groan contentedly.

Since then, I’ve not once forgotten to thaw the turkey. Of course, that’s probably because I no longer eat — or cook — it. Too traumatic. But pumpkin cheesecake? There’s always room for that.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.