I sincerely hope that you had your fill of food, drink and joy over the holidays, I certainly did. And so that I can get this anecdote out of my system and thus avoid another rendition at New Year’s I have broken my no laptop till 2020 rule.
Just before Christmas I wrote a thank you blog, in advance, for the turkey that readers helped me to buy. This turned out to be, not a mistake exactly, but certainly less straightforward than anticipated.
I am quite old now and do know how to get Christmas off and running but I’ve been a bit busy with the jobs I mentioned in that same blog. Some of them are new to me and took up the bit of my brain power usually used for planning the Christmas food shop. This was the year that I was too late to order my turkey from the posh butchers as I usually do. I accepted that making any turkey taste good is down to how you cook it and simply added one to my Tescos delivery. Any later delivery slots were taken by the well-organised so I booked it for late on the 22nd when I was due to be back from putting my uncle’s ashes in the Thames (which was delayed and rather poignant but that’s another story and not for here).
At 8.30 pm on the 22nd my beloved, who not incidentally has no sense of smell, kindly put the fruit, veg and turkey away because I was understandably tired and emotional. My biggest worry was that they had replaced Sage with ‘roasting herbs’ and ham with gammon. I could supplement with dry sage and put some of the gammon in the pie so I was not that bothered. I think my Turkey and Ham pie may be better than the roast itself.
On the afternoon of the 24th I began on the preparations with no need of any particular mental capacity. I do Christmas lunch traditionally; I do not need a cook book or the internet I just switch on the internal ‘roast dinner’ button handed down from sozzled mother to squiffy daughter and now to ever so sober sons. Nor do I stress, I simply remember what my mum told me, ‘as long as the gravy’s hot…’
The younger generation appear to need recipes with weights and measures and so forth. Last year when our eldest was doing lunch for his friends and wanted me to write down how to make sausage stuffing I had to actually think about it. I eventually settled on an algebraic equation where ꭓ is the sausage meat. Whether or not it bore any relation to what I actually do whilst on cooking auto-pilot I am not sure, but apparently it was delicious.
Any way, this Christmas Eve I began by concentrating on ensuring the trifle sponges absorbed the optimum sherry. The new cultural norm whereby the youngsters irascibly ask their elders turn their music down was countered with more traditional, indeed Anglo-Saxon, reposts. So far so good.
My oven only has two shelves so I do quite a bit the day before. I also needed to soak the turkey in couple of bottles of wine and my few fresh herbs. It was in two thick plastic bags and smelled a bit funny so I carefully ignored it for an hour and got on with the chipolatas, pigs in blankets, sausage stuffing and paxo balls. If my mother-in-law had been present I suspect she might have made some allusion to my oven cleaning to writing time ratios, but she was with her other son this year and we simply moved the smoke alarm into the living room and opened a window. I was on track and in the prepping zone and all was right with the world.
I could still smell the turkey but would not let it worry me, it was Christmas and I also profess that I am one of those people who have in the past cooked things that I suspected were ‘on the turn’, just very carefully. No-one has ever been ill, or even got a little collie-wobble so hey. I had received the turkey on the 22nd, the sell-by-date was the 26th, I have been shopping with Tescos for decades and we are all still alive. You have to hang wild foul for eight days. If it was a little off I would just add another bottle of wine.
The trifle sponges could take no more alcohol so I washed and chopped the soft fruit and was pouring the jelly when our eldest appeared, shut the window and wondered what that awful smell was. I could pretend no longer, it was time to face the turkey lurking on the corner work surface.
I gingerly cut through the first bag and our eyes watered. I asked if it was something to do with that gas they put in food bags. Our eldest was skeptical and re-opened the window. I snipped a small hole the second bag and we ran into the yard gagging and gasping for untainted air. I took some breaths, left the fruit of my womb safely under the sweet smelling bay tree and walked back in. With stinging eyes I looked into the bag. Two grey and slimey legs poked out oozing a miasma I wish I did not recognise; putrifaction. This bird was not a bit off or ‘on the turn’, a glug of extra wine wasn’t going to bring it back into the realm of edible. It was fetid, foul and truly rotting.
Our eyes were streaming but we did not weep. I took a photo for the complaints department at Tescos, put the disgusting thing in a black bag in the outside bin and began disinfecting everywhere the bird had sat while our eldest took it upon himself to go and buy another one. My beloved returned home having completed his habitual hour and a half getting ready for Christmas and went out immediately to join his son in his turkey quest.
Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere; the streets of Hackney are only really mean in the early evening of the 24th of December when they team with desperate last-minute shoppers; a frightening wildness in their eyes. People say that war, terrorism and natural disasters bring out the worst in human nature, but in Britain at least these things can make us kinder and braver than normal. Other humans are only seen as so much competition, social conventions discarded and all morals dispelled on forgetting Aunty Ethels lavender bath salts on Christmas Eve. The benighted career from shop to shop blind to decency and human warmth and will fight to the death for the last Brussel sprout. Into this my loved ones threw themselves, phoning only to somewhat frantically discuss the acceptability of turkey crowns or rolls.
I remained safe, if not a little chilly with all the windows open, and sound at home. After decades of Christmases having a jolly time I was finally experiencing the stress the pundits tell us we are supposed to experience in relation to cooking the dinner. My mother’s wise words were no good to me, no turkey; no gravy, hot or otherwise. I opened another bottle of sherry and emailed Tescos. Then since it was Christmas Eve I got on with the veg. I had not cut a little cross into the last Brussel sprout when Tescos rang up. The Lady, Linda, had obviously been saying the same thing a lot of times but she still seemed genuinely sad for me. She was so sorry, it was the centre piece of my Christmas meal, she would get onto the suppliers, she would refund my money, it was the centre piece of my Christmas meal, she was so sorry, she would give me £30.00 compensation, it was the centre-piece of my Christmas meal, she was so sorry. What a job to have to do, and on Christmas Eve. In truth, I had to find a nice way to get her off the phone poor woman. If anyone deserved to have a lovely Christmas it is the Lady Linda from Tescos Complaints Department.
As soon as I put the phone down my heroes called me from the supermarket Iceland. Our eldest, an apprentice aeronautical engineer capable of high-tech material science and interpreting algebraic stuffing recipes, assured me that they had found a frozen bird of about the same size as the fetid one. Christmas dinner was saved. I finished the sprouts and began the peeling, back to my non-stressed Christmas cheerful self.
My beloved and eldest son returned with a relief, elation and turkey the dimensions of which can only be likened to being recently visited by three ghosts and finally realizing the error of a lifetime of hum-buggery. If Scrooge himself had turned up at my door screeching Merry Christmas I would not have seen so much joy or so big a bird. Except of course that this immense foul was not so nineteenth century. Dickens had never heard of freezers. It was solid, not so much as a rock, but some sort of Arctic boulder. All the normal size ones were of course sold out. Never the less what I will now call the centre piece of our Christmas meal in honour of the Lady Linda just needed a nice warm bath, we could all have a festive sherry and, since the new turkey was cheaper than the original despite being at least twice the size, we were actually more than £30.00 richer than we had been that morning. All was well with the world. As it lay defrosting happily in the bath silently reminding us of its descent from the dinosaurs I got busy cooking all the things that wouldn’t fit in the oven when it was in there the next day.
One of the many, many great pleasures that give the lie to the nonsense; ‘Christmas is just for children’ is a nice lie in on Christmas morning. Perhaps sensing the emotional scars burned into their parents by attempting to put a Lego Tai Fighter together at Six in the morning our great big children offered to get up while it was still dark to season and begin roasting the monster still having the nice long soak my beloved deserved. That way we could still have Christmas lunch ready by the One o’clock we had promised our friends.
Midnight came and went and we handed over the stockings I still like to do. This is another child-free Christmas treat, offspring are are not sleep deprived and parents are not hungover when the Yoda slippers the Donald Trump loo paper is handed over and the satsuma put back in the fruit bowl. The old people left the youngsters to talk and play computer games and wandered off to bed
As ten approached on ‘the big day’ me and my beloved woke up, exchanged gifts and without surprise hefted the turkey into the kitchen doing what needed to be done to copious skin, massive breasts, pterosaur wings and legs that might have managed a half marathon if they weren’t dead and wrapped in bacon. Nearly everything else just need heating up while the roasted bird rested.
It was Christmas and all of us being over 16 we rather enjoyed a few drinks and lingering on the fish for an hour or two. Our eldest made a late but lovely and very hot gravy and we all tucked in. Another bonus was I didn't have to start faffing about in the kitchen again when people were getting peckish again by Six, we were still having lunch. I am a convert to dishing up in the dark I must say. Every take-away pot in our house was needed for left-over turkey and our friends were good enough to take their share with their Boxing day breakfast trifle relegated to a biscuit tin.
Over our own morning pudding we saw that Tescos, Aldi and Morrisons had all sold rotten turkeys and chickens to a great many people and there will no doubt be hoo-hahs on consumer programmes in the New Year. Something big went very wrong somewhere and heads may roll. Lots of people only discovered what had happened on Christmas day itself, the centre-piece of their Christmas meal was absent. We were lucky to have discovered the problem on the 24th and to live in area with lots of shops.
I’m sure there will be plenty of year-round humbuggers who will say that all the rotten birds are something to do with mass production. They will say that farms should not be factories, that food should be produced on a small scale and in old-fashioned ways. I say that a very large fridge somewhere must have been on the blink. I also say that Bernard Matthews mechanization of poultry produced for us masses affordable, tasty and nutritious chicken and turkey (if turkey is ever tasty) for the first time in history. I say that improved life expectancy and quality is in large part down to better nutrition. I do think birds should be allowed to peck about outside before they die, for one thing they taste better. But If you want to go back to a time before factory farms when most people could only ever afford fresh meat on high days and holidays then you are actually being a terrible, and rather backward, snob. If you tell me that eating less turkey altogether will keep the planet from heating I am going to need some sums at least as good as my stuffing recipe before my suspicion that you are just scared of everything, and everyone, is allayed.
I have to stop writing now, I’m getting cross at Christmas, it is time to renew my no laptop till 2020 rule and make a turkey sandwich before I get round to making several pies. Have a very Happy New Year and hopefully see you next decade.