How To Roast a Turkey

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I wouldn’t know.

I’ve never done it exactly right, you see. And in fact, the first time, it went quite wrong. I ended up with a fridge drawer full of buttermilk and blood. That was before it was even time to cook the turkey, and when that time came, I failed too. I ended up with turkey meat so dry and tasteless not even the literal tears I wept into it added much flavoring.

But first, let’s get one thing straight: I think turkey is good. I’m not one of those sanctimonious poultry puritans who believes turkey is a doomed bird. You know the type I’m talking about; perhaps you are the type I’m talking about. The person who says turkey is never good and chicken is better. I don’t believe that. I like turkey. I’ve had so much delicious turkey, most often made by my tío, who has been tasked with making the big bird on the big bird day ever since he came into my auntie’s life. Thanksgiving is hers, you see. Auntie always hosts Thanksgiving, that’s the rule. And the one year we didn’t adhere, the time my parents opted for a restaurant in town instead of making the long drive to Nashville, we ended up eating the worst turkey we’d ever had, paid way too much for it, too, I’m sure. It felt like cosmic punishment, like auntie had maybe placed a curse on our plates for our Thanksgiving betrayal.

That was the worst turkey I’d ever had until the year I had to make it myself.

In 2020, I thought maybe I’d have my first Friendsgiving. I’d always liked the idea of this, in theory. Most of my queer friends partook in some form of Friendsgiving. My girlfriend Kristen hosted one for many years. It never occurred to me to spend Thanksgiving with friends, because that wasn’t the rule. The rule was Auntie Always Hosts Thanksgiving, and I’ve long been a rule follower. But auntie’s wasn’t an option that year, so we had to come up with something new. We thought maybe we could safely make the four-hour drive to Orlando from Miami to see friends we hadn’t seen in so long, to maybe eat outside and make it work. My first Friendsgiving. Breaking a lifelong tradition would be hard, but friends would make it easier.

In the days leading up to it, we deemed it, ultimately, still too high of a risk, a decision I felt good about. Too good. A forced good. I smiled and made my little grocery list and said this will be fine, this will be good, I’m a great cook, I will make all the classics just for us, and we will have a VERY GOOD TIME. It was the right decision, but I became consumed with making it very clear that I was doing great, that Thanksgiving wasn’t that big a deal anyway, and who cares if we had to spend it alone. I would plan the menu, make the food, set the table with the Courier and Ives plates Kristen was gifted by her antiquing grandparents many years before we met. I would, in the words of one Dorinda Medley, make it nice.

I’d never roasted a turkey before, but I’d roasted plenty of chickens. Surely the only thing different was scale.

I opted for Samin Nosrat’s buttermilk-brined turkey, because I had in fact used the chicken version of the recipe to great success many times. Whilst others were perfecting their sourdough during the early months of the pandemic, I was becoming a connoisseur of the bird. In a way, I’d been training for this very moment, albeit with chickens, and the thing about chickens is…they’re not turkeys.

Turkeys are, like, so big? Even the smallest ones? And I don’t know if there’s science to support this, but I feel like a turkey the same size as a chicken would still weigh significantly more than the chicken. Turkeys are dense motherfuckers. First, I had to make space in our tiny ancient fridge we’d inherited from our Miami condo landlord for the absurdly large and dense bird. The way the fridge was stuffed in the corner of the galley kitchen, snug against a wall, made it so that the door could never open fully, which made it so that the drawers couldn’t be pulled out fully. Which is all to say: Even just getting the turkey in the fridge was a whole ass thing.

But I got it in, tucked in its plastic bag, brining in its buttermilk and salt. I thought good job, you’re already nailing this. But when I went to slightly adjust the bag so that other parts of the turkey would get their chance in the buttermilk bath, due to the aforementioned density of the bird, the bag just fully split open, dumping its contents into the fridge drawer that could not be removed. There was just a drawer. Full of buttermilk and pale pink turkey juice. In our fridge. The day before Thanksgiving.

Before I could fully exit my body, Kristen swooped in and cleaned up the mess, managing to salvage the turkey as well. I took my frustration to the internet and decided to spin it into humor rather than giving in to despair. I tweeted that there was a drawer full of buttermilk and blood in my fridge, prompting many people to suggest I write a poetry collection called Buttermilk & Blood even though I do not write poetry. I am indeed a writer though, as evidenced by the fact that I tweeted about a drawer full of buttermilk and blood even though I know the pink juice found on raw poultry is really just a protein mixed with water. It’s myoglobin, which is basically muscle juice. Not blood. But doesn’t buttermilk & blood sound better?

After all that, the turkey tasted bad. Kristen would probably say otherwise, and she’s sweet to do so. I could drown it and gravy and make it passable, but I felt like a failure, like a hack, like the world’s worst Thanksgiving host even though I wasn’t hosting anyone other than us and the dog, who thought the turkey was in fact delicious.

I cried, and it surprised me a little. I did miss my family. I did feel sad we couldn’t be with our friends. But it wasn’t just that, if I’m being honest. If I’m being honest, I cried because I felt like a bad homemaker, and the fact that I was crying about feeling like a bad homemaker made me feel like a bad queer. Here I was, trying to be a perfect housewife and feeling like I’d fallen short. On a few different levels: What the fuck?

***
I like to put on a show when people come over, even if it’s just for me. Once, at a small dinner party, I presented the toppings for a meal in the little colorful ceramic bowls my grandmother gave me for Christmas. They’re each a different solid color. I placed lime wedges in the bright green bowl, shredded sharp cheddar in the orange bowl, chopped tomatoes in the red bowl.

“Wait,” a friend said. “Did you match the colors of the toppings to the colors of the bowls?”

Before I could answer, a response from Kristen: “Of course she did.”

No eyeroll, no making fun, no dismissiveness. She said it with so much love, with so much knowing. She sees me the way I like to be seen.

As a kid, I wore clothes that didn’t match. There’s a story people in my family like to tell about my sister as a toddler, bawling her eyes out one morning. When asked what was wrong, she said, simply: Kayla’s outfit doesn’t match.

I clung to this narrative like a staticky piece of cheap fabric against skin, not because it was something I chose or because I liked it, just because it seemed to fit. I was the mismatched child, the one with no eye for color coordination, the one with unironed clothes and tangled hair. My sister, two and a half years younger, was put together, sometimes mistaken as the oldest, her closet a color coordinated display of dresses that looked like something from a catalogue. To this day, family members call up my sister when they need advice on laying out a gallery wall in their living room or figuring out a tablescape for a dinner party or painting their bedroom. She’s a product designer. Everything she makes has to fit neatly, fuse function with style. I’m a writer. I’m good at making messes. At filling drawers with buttermilk and blood.

But I’m also good at all the little hallmarks of domesticity associated with homemaking, with housekeeping. I arrange flowers and fold cloth napkins and assemble cheese plates and match glassware to the drink being served. And it’s not like my family never sees this side of me, but it doesn’t always click for them. They see my domesticity as being at odds with the mismatched person I used to be, with the dyke I am now. And the complicated part is that I do, too. I’m striving to replicate an image of homemaking historically used to control women, to relegate them to the private sphere. Just because I’m queer, do I automatically get to say I’m queering it? I don’t know; I still struggle with this.

I have a vision of dyke domesticity that I want to harness in life, but sometimes the lines blur between that and something else, something not so queer at all. In retrospect, it was foolish to think I could master a cooking technique with a meat I’d never worked with before on the very first try. But isn’t that the image of the housewife, the hostest with the mostest that we’re always shown? She just knows how to do these things. Never mind the fact that I come from a family where the Thanksgiving turkey isn’t prepared by a woman at all, there’s still this idea I have deep down, this feral determination to prove that the girl who wore mismatched clothes, who didn’t fit into other people’s ideas of girlhood at all can now give the perfect performance of a housewife. Sometimes, I’m doing it for me. Other times, I don’t think I am.

So I’m sorry, I can’t tell you how to roast a turkey. I can only tell you that I’ve gotten better at it, since that first go. My friend Willie has helped me a lot, taught me that the best techniques are to dry-brine and spatchcock the bird. Spatchcocking is a deliciously violent process. You’ve got to split the bird down the spine with sharp shears that can cut through bone. It’s inelegant, a little gross. But it’s intentional work, intentional mess, unlike a drawer full of buttermilk and muscle juice. I’m trying to be better about holding two things at once, at desiring domestic excellence but also letting myself make mistakes. Learning from them. Something perfect would be boring, wouldn’t it?


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 458 articles for us.

31 Comments

  1. I too wasn’t pulled in by the title but then was like “But I will always read Kayla on food” and I’m glad I did. There’s such a tension between homemaking as an act of fakery performed by people forced into a role and homemaking as an act of love performed by a whole human who wants the people they love to eat delicious food in a beautiful setting. I’m ace and sometimes struggle with the internalized expectation that I need to make my home beautiful and inviting to prove that me and my lifestyle are okay and not lacking. But also, I like things to be cozy and tasty for me! Ultimately I just try to keep an eye on why I’m doing things and remind myself that my friends won’t really care if I don’t match the candles to the glassware or if I skip the complicated sauce that I’m not excited to make. But it’s an ongoing journey for sure.

  2. Thank you for always being here in every season. I’m torn between wanting to use Thanks Giving as a time to gather with friends and do for others, and chucking it right out with the bath water!

    Also, “spatchcocking”… sounds so dirty! :)

  3. I clicked thinking, Ooh Kayla roasting a turkey in Florida, Must Read !

    I have sooo many complicated feelings around traditional holidays and gatherings. I always run afowl of tradition, I’m sure it breaks my family’s heart just a bit.

    And, “la pièce de resistance”, you DID tell me how to cook a turkey ! So ! My compliments to the chef.

  4. On turkeys: dry brine and spatchcock is my tried and true! But we had an early T-Day this year and my mom, who doesn’t like cooking, just did it the traditional way with the stuffing in, no brining, nothing—and it was really good?!?! So I’m reconsidering everything obviously.

    On everything else in this essay: just, yes.

  5. Lovely essay as always Kayla! I love how you climbed on your milk crate to wag a finger at us poultry puritans (yes I think chicken is better than turkey but it never matters anyway because I come from a Thanksgiving Ham family. Also I’m really just here for the stuffing at this point).

    And also also as someone who’s learning to bake, I know gender roles tricked us into devaluing domesticity but I think they also made us forget that domesticity…is good, actually. That feeding people is perhaps the sexiest of the essential skills. And how giving someone food and wrapping them in a warm blanket (even if that manifests as a bowl of Cheetos and an IKEA comforter) is the original act of love that let us survive those prehistoric nights.

    Domesticity and homemaking and acts of care ARE a net good for humanity. It’s a shame how we have to overthink it now because of a bunch of imperialist fuckers.

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