'The best turkey dinner ever'

My siblings and I all swore that we fixed turkey exactly as Mom taught us. So why were Mrs. Rudick's four children gathered in the kitchen one Thanksgiving morning arguing over how to cook the big bird?

My mother had always prepared the entire Thanksgiving meal. When my parents moved from New York to Florida, the whole family flew south for the Thanksgiving weekend, crowding into their house.

But eventually, with spouses and then grandchildren swelling the ranks, we exceeded their house's capacity.

Our solution was for "the kids" to rent a house at the beach near my parents. Having altered tradition, we also decided it was time for us to cook the turkey. But the tradition we wouldn't alter was the turkey recipe – Mom's.

The problem was that we all had different versions of how Mom cooked it. Rob insisted that she had taught him to rub the cavity with garlic, stuff the bird, and then season the skin with poultry seasoning and garlic. Then, he said, we should fill the bottom of the roasting pan with water, celery, onions, and garlic and put a foil tent over the bird and cook it for 20 minutes per pound at 325 degrees F., taking the foil off the turkey for the last half hour.

Ian insisted that Mom had taught him to cover the turkey with a cloth soaked in melted butter and to baste every 30 minutes, taking the cloth off for the last half hour so the turkey browned.

Sherrie weighed in with her version of Mom's recipe: a paste of paprika, garlic, and water smeared over the skin. A skin aficionada, Sherrie proclaimed, "None of the rest is important."

My method, a paste of poultry seasoning and butter spread over the skin before slipping the turkey into a plastic roasting bag, evoked the morning's only true consensus: an indignant, "Mom never used a bag," from everyone.

The debate intensified over stuffing. The essence of Rob's recipe was to take six to eight pieces of "perfectly stale" white toast and one package of Pepperidge Farm stuffing – and then pour hot water over them. Add carrots, celery, onions, garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, poultry seasoning, and two eggs.

Ian's method was less rigid. First he looks at all the stuffing recipes in "The Joy of Cooking" and then throws in whatever is in the house. Most often it is leftover bread (toasted), green peppers, mushrooms, nuts, onions, and plenty of spices. Essentially, anything goes – except Pepperidge Farm stuffing.

Sherrie argued for a minimalist approach: a basic bread stuffing with onions, carrots, dill, and parsley.

My stuffing is a mélange of bread, raisins, apples and dried fruit. My siblings nixed the fruit as revisionist: Mom definitely didn't use fruit, they insisted.

As we argued over the trussing, stuffing, basting, and roasting of a 20-plus-pound turkey, we were puzzled: If we all learned from the same master, why were our recipes so different? Mom must have changed over the years, we finally decided.

After a tepid debate in a preheated kitchen, we engineered a compromise: Ian was in charge of stuffing, and Sherrie was to season the turkey and tend to the skin. Anyone was free to baste (Ian with pan drippings, Sherrie and I with butter). Later, Sherrie and I would collaborate on the gravy, and Rob would carve.

We'd just gotten the turkey into the oven when my mother called with the reminder to put the giblets in the bottom of the roasting pan along with some water, so we'd have liquid for the gravy.

It would be a few hours before she'd arrive, but she let us know that she was available for emergency turkey consultation.

When she did arrive, she clucked about the kitchen. She seemed equally delighted and distressed that we'd managed without her. Our turkey was juicy and browned to perfection. Her pronouncement: "the best ever," her yearly accolade – as traditional as the turkey.

Although our turkey recipes have mutated, there's one thing that my mother's children have in common: an almost religious belief in the importance of turkey. Cooking the turkey is the major event of Thanksgiving day, overshadowing even football. Our conversations focus on how it smells, when it will be ready, and what dishes will accompany it.

We marvel that in some families – notably those of our spouses – turkey is not king. With disbelief, Ian related how his wife Beth's family cooks turkey: "They stick it in the oven and leave it for four hours. Go for a walk. There's no obsessing over turkey, no thought of the preparation or eating."

My husband's family has no turkey obsession, either. Bob's mother once bought turkey TV dinners for a family gathering.

Although my mother, Beck Rudick, has been gone for 15 Thanksgivings now, her turkey legacy lives on: Her four children still gather in the kitchen each Thanksgiving morning to talk turkey and cook the bird "exactly" as their mother taught them.

Avocado Wrap With Turkey, Swiss, and Cranberry Mustard

6 whole wheat tortillas, 10 inches in diameter
1 cup Cranberry Mustard (see recipe below)
12 slices roast turkey
6 slices Swiss cheese
3 Hass avocados, peeled, pitted, and sliced lengthwise into 8 slices each
Salt to taste

First prepare Cranberry Mustard (recipe below) and refrigerate. After it has chilled, lay tortillas flat on a clean work surface. Spread the Cranberry Mustard equally over the tortillas, on one side only.

Lay two slices of turkey on each tortilla; cover turkey with a slice of Swiss cheese.

Top the Swiss cheese with four slices of avocado and sprinkle with a little salt, if desired.

Assemble wraps by folding in both sides and the bottom of each tortilla up over the filling; then roll to close.

To serve, cut in half crosswise or into 2-inch slices crosswise and arrange on a serving platter.

Serves 6.

Cranberry Mustard

About 1/2 cup jellied cranberry sauce
1/2 cup (or less) Dijon mustard

Place 1/2 cup cranberry sauce in a small bowl and whisk until smooth. Whisk in 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard and taste. Add more mustard – up to 1/2 cup – to achieve desired flavor. Refrigerate. Makes 1 cup.

– Adapted from recipes by Chef Ivy Stark. Courtesy of Hass Avocados from Mexico.

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