The first time I ever laid my hands on a Thanksgiving turkey was in November of 1996. I was thirteen years old and had just landed my first ever part-time job at a poultry store named “Fernando’s,” situated on the outskirts of a cluster of Sydney suburbs strangely known to locals as “God’s Country.”
Fernando’s had one of those fluorescent-lit twelve foot-long glass display counters filled with dozens of ready-to-bake poultry dishes. Up until that point my diet had been basic at best and I was slightly fascinated by the many ways in which you could skin a bird—they had rolled roasts, marinated spatchcocks, casseroles, enchiladas and fancy-named parcels that I didn’t know how to pronounce, like Filet Mignon and Cordon Bleu.
I saw a ‘help wanted’ sign in the front window of Fernando’s on my way to school and, despite scrawling “N/A” in the Relevant Experience field on the application form, I was hired on the spot. The owner David, a short moustached man who spoke as passionately about pheasants and quails as he did about his eight children and God, informed me that I was the perfect candidate: young enough to view the $4.85-an-hour salary as a blessing, not a crime, yet old (looking) enough that none of his customers would suspect I was under the legal working age.
“Do you know what Thanksgiving is?” he asked. “Not really,” I said. I’d heard of it, of course, however to the best of my knowledge it wasn’t celebrated in Australia. He explained that he was hiring additional staff in preparation for Turkey season, the Busiest Time Of The Year. Turkey season was serious business. Fernando’s would do mad trade making Thanksgiving turkeys for American expatriates in November and then Christmas turkeys for Australians in December. He thrust an apron in my hand and put me straight to work.
At the end of the shift, which involved a crash course on cash register operation and hygiene practices, David gave me an awkward pat on the back and shoved a well-used phone-book-sized product manual into my hands. The folder contained nearly one hundred greasy chicken-coated plastic sheets filled with recipes and their associated cooking instructions and, if I wanted to climb the Fernando’s ladder, he said, I’d need to memorize every single one. So I did—on the bus to school, during lunch break and free periods, while lying in bed at night. I studied that goddamn manual for weeks, filling my head with career-escalating factoids like which of Fernando’s six fruit-flavored stuffings contained gluten and how many minutes our customers could BBQ each side of a chicken skewer before they burned.
My new-found poultry expertise coupled with my apparently remarkable ability to show up for my shifts on time resulted in my swift graduation from serving customers at the front counter to being part of the back-room production team, which consisted of cheap teenage labourers like myself who’d crumb schnitzels, marinate chicken wings and stuff hen meat into pigs intestines at the speed of sound. David bumped my salary up to $5.30 an hour with a promise that another pay-raise would soon follow once I’d proven to him that I could “appreciate the value of hard work.”
With the promotion came the freedom to work an unlimited number of shifts and so I chose to spend every weeknight and weekend elbow-deep in poultry. To say that my friends weren’t supportive of my new career would be an understatement. They’d make excuses to visit the shop after school just so they could piss themselves laughing at the sight of my work uniform: a checkered bow-tie, blood-red calf-length apron and matching faux leather sun visor. They’d squeal and squawk about how touching dead animals is so gross and ask how I could stand it, not because they wanted an answer but because teenagers can sometimes be assholes and this was just one more way to emphasise how undesirable my new occupation was.
Truth was, I didn’t even think about the grossness of what I was doing, not really. My undesirable job was essential to my undesirable situation of having to pay for things like food and clothes, and fisting fowl seemed like a minor sacrifice for those kinds of life necessities. [My friends’ asshattery was short-lived; after ‘accidentally’ leaving one of my weekly $160 pay stubs laying around in plain view, the ridicule was replaced with jealous grousing about how their parents said they were too young to work after-school jobs.]
During that first month at Fernando’s I learned that when it comes to an American’s Thanksgiving turkey there’s no room for error. The American expatriates of God’s Country would come into the store and place their turkey orders in a super-serious manner that made them easy targets for our juvenile mocking. We’d put on our best (worst) American accents and dramatically imitate the way that they would recite, with military precision, the world’s most complicated instructions for how their bird must be cut, stuffed and trussed.
“I need a 4.8 pound turkey roast that’s 12 inches long – no longer! – using the breast and tenderloin but also the thigh skin or it’s gonna go dry. Now in this here tupperware is my great-great-grandmother’s stuffing, you won’t find a better stuffing than this. Ya’ll need to lay down the spinach first, then place the boiled eggs evenly along the leaves at 2-inch intervals and fill the gaps with a ½ pound of the wild rice. Don’t lay down the rice before the eggs! Eggs first, then rice, or you’re gonna ruin the whole thing. What will you use to truss it? Netting? Last year y’all used netting and my poor husband had to re-wrap the entire thing in twine and our lunch was two hours late, it was a total disaster. So we want you to use twine. Write that down. T-W-I-N-E. Actually you know what? I’m going to go buy you some twine right now so that I know you’ll use it.”
The conversion of America’s pounds to Australia’s kilograms occasionally resulted in a turkey that was too big or small, or over or under-stuffed, and the punishment for this was always the same: a lengthy lecture from an irate American about how we single-handedly ruined Thanksgiving. It was hardly fair, as we played no part in the actual turkey preparation. That was what the Turkey Taskforce was for.
The Turkey Taskforce was an elite two-person team that was charged with preparing Fernando’s most profitable products—turkey roasts—and only the store’s most skilled employees were trusted with the responsibility of not fucking them up. Two years later, once David felt satisfied that I had mastered the art of preparing squab, quail, duck and other game, I was invited to join the team.
My role on the Taskforce was to act as apprentice to my co-worker Adam, the popular high school senior who had just been promoted to the top job, informally referred to as ‘Head Turkey Fister’ (a joke that I wouldn’t understand until many years later).
Due to the sheer volume of turkey orders and subsequent bench space required, the Taskforce only commenced operating once Fernando’s had closed its doors at the end of the day. As apprentice, my main duty was to create every stuffing flavour imaginable—cranberry and cheese, apple and cinnamon, apricot and walnut, to name a few—and then help Adam debone, stuff and truss the birds to the customers’ precise demands. Adam and I did this several nights from 8pm until 6am, guzzling full-strength coke and blaring metal music so that we’d stay alert enough to avoid losing fingers to the boning knives.
As it turned out, stuffing turkeys on the graveyard shift was a bonding experience that could not be transcended. I guess when it’s 4am and you’re nauseous from exhaustion and about to shove your fist up your hundredth turkey cavity, somehow all of those petty things that typically create divides between teenagers—popularity and social class and levels of attractiveness—no longer feel important. By the end of our first shift Adam and I had become friends and had even established a 6am post-work ritual: we’d race down the road to my apartment to wash off the turkey filth and then go to McDonalds for multiple coffees and pancakes that would settle our nauseated stomachs. Adam would drop me at the front gates of my high school, and I’d drag my exhausted ass out of his ancient but flashy-looking Mazda and off to class, pretending as I went not to hear the popular kids’ snarky comments about why a senior boy with wheels would date a girl like me. (I was too proud to tell them that we weren’t dating but in the end it didn’t matter, by January we were.)
When Thanksgiving rolled around the next year, a lot had changed. Adam had graduated high school and left Fernando’s for a new job that was better-suited to his non-poultry-related career goals. Before he left he’d taught me everything he knew; my knife skills were top-notch and my knowledge of turkey anatomy was thorough. David, who by then had become a fatherly figure, proudly promoted me to Head Turkey Fister.
That holiday season I learned that making turkey products was my natural talent. I mean, I was really fucking good, and up until that point I’d never been able to say that about anything. My other friends could speak a foreign language or play Grade 8 piano or win prizes at art shows, and now I finally had something I could brag about: being able to turn a whole turkey into a perfectly stuffed boneless roast in a matter of minutes.
My biggest point of pride were my Turduckens and my Turkduckenpigs. I found the fact that some Americans actually wanted to eat a chicken that was stuffed inside a duck that was stuffed inside a turkey and then wrapped or stuffed with bacon utterly hilarious, and yet I was grateful that they did; otherwise I might’ve never discovered that my Turduckenpigs were an in-demand work of art.
My career as a professional turkey-fister came to an abrupt end in November 2002, two weeks shy of Thanksgiving. In the preceding year, several significant events had occurred:
I graduated high school and decided that I wanted to be a band/tour manager, like Clifford in Spice World.
David sold Fernando’s to a new owner, saying that he wanted to explore other business opportunities, although we all suspected that his decision was partly motivated by the other thing that happened:
Adam died in a car accident.
Afterwards, spending time at the store was tough; it became impossible to do my job without visualizing Adam working at the bench beside me like he’d done for years. My solution was to start taking on sporadic jobs in the music industry but not quit Fernando’s completely; I was arrogant enough to figure that I could show up and sling chicken whenever I needed extra cash or wanted to feel close to Adam.
In mid-November, after wrapping up a three-week temp role at a music magazine (my longest absence from Fernando’s yet), I went to the store to speak to the new owner about what hours he’d like me to work in the lead up to Thanksgiving. That day I learned about something called ‘Abandonment of Employment,’ which is another way of saying ‘if you don’t show up to work you don’t have a job.’ No matter how shit-hot you might be at fisting a turkey.
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