Stuff a Turkey, Be a Better Person
Cube two or three loaves of sliced, white toast bread.
Melt a pound of butter in a large pot.
Chop shallots, parsley and thyme. If you have giblets, chop them, too.
Fry the shallots in the hot butter until golden.
Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the bread cubes and other ingredients.
Season with salt and ground pepper.
On Christmas Day, I’ll pack this mixture into a gargantuan gobbler and roast it in our convection oven, basting sporadically, until it’s crisp and golden on the outside, and moist and tender within. When it’s enthroned on a bed of parsley on our largest platter, I’ll scrape and degrease the dark, umami goodness of its pan drippings, and create a sea of thick, salty gravy to accompany the magnificent turkey and all its trimmings.
In recent years, our Christmas dinner has been served with a minimum of stress. Our son and daughter help in the kitchen and, occasionally, take over completely. It’s a contrast to when our family was young and, believing I had maternal superpowers, I did everything by myself. When our daughter was born, I’d only just become the director of a ballet school; by the time our son arrived, three years later, the school had doubled in size, and I was engaged in a grueling personal challenge to excel as the world’s best wife, mother, and dance professional.
One year, after months-long rehearsals, my school performed The Nutcracker on the two days before Christmas, in a theater whose dressing rooms were undergoing a major renovation; where cement mixers and filthy dust sheets wreaked havoc on the costumes, and the unswept floors turned every pink ballet slipper black. The day of the premiere, our Drosselmeyer fell ill and, instead of supervising the chaos backstage, the head teacher had to jump in and improvise the role in drag. When the last curtain fell, I realized my son’s red cheeks and shiny eyes weren’t due to the excitement of being onstage in tights and a velvet vest, but from a fever signaling a rubella infection. At home, my husband called the doctor and put both children to bed, while I made cranberry sauce for the following day.
At the time, my cooking skills were at the mercy of an unreliable gas oven in a spartan kitchen with practically no countertops. Even simple, daily meals were a struggle, but preparing a huge Christmas dinner, with two young children underfoot, was a major undertaking. Shooing the kids away from simmering pans and sharp knives, I tasked them with carrying plates, crystal, and silverware into the dining room—a simple game based on not dropping anything while achieving a correct, formal table setting—one of the things I aspired to teach them through example, like manners, etiquette, and respect for others. Unfortunately, I wasn’t always the ideal role model, especially under duress.
One of the worst examples of my bad behavior occurred on Christmas Day. The evening before, gamely, in a nod to my husband’s background (most Swiss celebrate on December twenty-fourth), I’d served a boiled ham and green beans and potatoes—the rustic meal his mother would have prepared when he was a boy. When our toddlers were asleep, we’d lugged in a ceiling-high spruce for a Christmas morning surprise—like every tree we’ve ever had, it was too tall and had to be hacked to fit. After we’d festooned it with lights and decorations, my husband went to bed, and I’d wrapped presents into the wee hours, sleeping for a perceived five minutes before early morning reveille by our overexcited little ones. Presents were ripped open, breakfast was served. The kids calmed down, and played with their new toys under the tree. My husband stretched out on the couch. Fighting a tension headache, I cloistered myself in the kitchen, and communed with the raw turkey.
The doorbell rang; I heard footsteps, voices.
My husband pops his face into the kitchen.
My parents are here!
A surprise visit? Seriously, I can’t.
Come say hello and have a drink!
I’m elbow deep in bread cubes, shallots, turkey giblets. A pound of butter is burning on the cooker. I glare.
He leaves. He comes back.
Can you please just say hello to my parents?
I grind my teeth.
He leaves. He comes back.
For God’s sake, say hello!
I’m shoving the bird into the oven, burning my hands and face. Two bags of carrots are waiting to be scraped and cut into uniform sticks, a kilogram of Brussels sprouts demands crosses be sliced into their bottoms, the peels of two oranges need grating because gallons of cranberry sauce are screaming for that extra fillip, and a mountain of sweet potatoes is causing me to despair since the fuckers won’t peel themselves. I grab a match, because the gas flame has just gone out.
Please, do it for me!
He leaves. He is very angry.
Now, his mother pokes her head into the kitchen and giggles the way people do when they’re embarrassed, or maybe she’s afraid, because I’m still glaring. She retreats. I relight the oven.
The in-laws go home, and I’m the worst human being on the planet.
In my kitchen prison, I’ll stick my head in the oven—every fifteen minutes, whenever the gas switches off, for the next few hours, until the turkey is done, because otherwise it’ll be as cold and pale as the previous year when we didn’t sit down to dinner until midnight. My husband comes in and tells me I’m a monster, which is simultaneously true and unfair, and I can hear the kids laughing at cartoons on TV, so at least someone’s happy.
I hold back my tears until the turkey is done, the table set, only one Wedgwood plate shattered (the kids are getting better at it), and the elaborate meal I’ve prepared is eaten without conversation, only the babbling of our babes. My bawling starts that evening, after everyone’s asleep.
Next morning, I sit the kids down.
Mama did a very bad thing: she was rude to your grandparents and to your father because she was tired and stressed—but that’s never an excuse. You can imitate all the good things I do, but please, ignore the rest.
Our son and daughter have grown up to be polite and gracious adults. My husband is tolerant of other people’s imperfections, especially mine. I’ve learned a few things from both him and our children—they’ve taught me by example.
Try the recipe. My family thinks stuffing is the best part of Christmas.
Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. Her literary work has received a Best of the Net and several Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essay “Slaves of Dance,” based on excerpts from her memoir in progress, Escape Artists, was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019. When not writing, she tweaks fonts and photos on her website www.geniablum.com and haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.
"Let Me Clarify: Unsolicited Advice by Genia Blum" a series of short pieces, based on Blum's personal opinion and experience.