Most everyone has a Thanksgiving turkey fail story — from exploding deep fry grease fires to horrible burn victim scenarios to dried up turkey meat that clogs your throat like attic insulation. My mother usually did a pretty good job, but once even she almost took her own eye out when she tried to lift the bird from the roasting pan and the carving fork yanked out of the breast meat and into her forehead, a mere inch away from her eyeball! She sat on the kitchen floor and cried over that one. And we’ve all had a friend or relative who could never get the timing of the dinner right, even to the point of just getting the bird into the oven AS the dinner guests were arriving. I remember that time. We didn’t eat until midnight. By then our host was too plastered to get the turkey out of the oven and it became a drunken comedy of errors by the rest of us just to get the greasy lump of burnt flesh to the table - forget about any gravy!
But of all the fails that have been logged through the years, old man Douggie’s turkey rot incident tops them all. It cleared out the barroom. As soon as Douggie proudly lifted the aluminum foil off the several baking sheets of turkey meat, the fetid stench charged the room. Drinks, purses, money, and wallets were immediately abandoned as even the bartenders fled the bar out onto the city sidewalk. It smelled as though someone unzipped the body bag of a rotting corpse. Jerry, the bar owner, was furious.
Jerry Whitlock owned a quaint little neighborhood bar in the downtown district of San Francisco through the eighties and nineties. I was one of his faithful bartenders. It was called The Bacchus Kirk and had the busy smoke-charm of an old-timers’ bar where the pinball machines were vintage, the jukebox still played records, and it was loaded with trashy trinkets at every glance. Jerry was an elderly old-school gentleman playboy. He was the Papa of our local regulars and our family was strong as any. Especially on holidays, on which Jerry always packed the place with warm and wholesome cheer. I think he liked Thanksgiving even more than Christmas. It may have been his favorite holiday.
“Christmas gets too sad for too many,” he would say. “Especially in a lonely city. Thanksgiving is the best. I mean, who doesn’t like eating? Besides - it doesn’t have the pressures of relatives or religion. It’s just good folk and good food.”
For years Jerry would pop for a hearty spread with all the fixins. The turkeys would be roasted in the three stoves of the poor old broken-down kitchen in the basement of the tiny building. Old man Douggie was the nighttime bar swamp and watchdog of the place, cleaning up and stocking the beer. He lived in a unit in that basement and also did the cooking from time to time. He was a cranky old coot who’d shrunk down to about five foot four, fought in two wars, and looked the part. When asked any question he would scowl at you over his tiny glasses and swat the bartop with his cane. You would rarely get any answer. We’d wonder why Jerry would keep the old grump on the job and Jerry would simply reply, “We’re all he’s got”. Jerry was a good man.
Twas the night before Thanksgiving (traditionally a very busy night as all had the holiday off and many were escaping visiting relatives). I was tending the bar with Mel and we were running hard as the place was filled with the manic cheer of whiskey and beer. Through the night, I kept getting a strange whiff of something rotten behind the bar, and always right around the wastebasket. I had emptied the half-filled trash several times and checked and rechecked the fruit caddies and beer coolers before I started to think the smell wasn’t coming from the bar. It was coming from a hole in the floor that led to the basement kitchen.
“Mel! Can you watch the bar for a minute? I gotta go check out this rot smell.” “Are you kidding me?” she answered, “we’re swamped right now!”
“I know. But I have to find out where this smell is coming from. I’ll be right back.”
I sped through the bar to the basement door and clambered down the rickety steps into Douggie’s culinary crypt. Douggie was busy carving a huge turkey he had roasted the day before and was putting the meat onto a baking sheet. There were already several baking sheets of meat sitting on the counter with foil over them. I went over to one, lifted the foil, and sniffed. The whiff of ammonia wafted up.
“WHAT THE HELL YOU DOIN DOWN HERE?” Douggie gruffed at me in a booze gargled voice. He put down the knife, picked up his cane, and started banging it on the stovetop. “GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY KITCHEN!”
“I thought I smelled something rotten, Douggie! It’s coming up through the floor of the bar. Is this turkey ok?” “There’s nothing wrong with the GOD DAMN TURKEY! I know what the hell I’m doing. Now GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE BEFORE I WACK YA WITH THIS CANE!”
It wasn’t until the next afternoon that Douggie admitted he screwed up. It wasn’t until the entire bar almost barfed its way out the door! Four turkeys’ worth of meat had spoiled rotten in the culinary crypt of old Mr. Douggie. This was a shocker because he had been the Thanksgiving turkey cook for several years now. He had always roasted the turkeys in those same three ovens and always carved the birds the night before, spreading the meat onto baking sheets and covering it with foil. There was never a refrigerator big enough down there so he would keep them warm in the ovens all night. Nobody ever thought anything of it. This year, however, two of the ovens had crapped out, and instead of telling anyone, Mr. Douggie solved his problem by starting the four-bird-roast two days earlier. Without a refrigerator. What could possibly go wrong?
Old Douggie was the only one that stayed in the foul smelling bar. He knew he had let down his only friends and family and had almost poisoned every one. It was a gut-punch. So he poured himself a Christian Brothers brandy and sat at the end of the bar smoking a Lucky Strike. He was as tough as old coots come, but this one cut him deep. It was the only time I ever saw him wipe tears from his aging eyes as he sat alone. Jerry softened, went back in, and propped him back up as only Jerry could do. He was the only one who could get the old-timer to bust a smile and had him chuckling in just a few minutes. It was hilarious after all, and one for the books. Aside from the expense, nobody got hurt and all would be well.
But now, how to save Thanksgiving??
“Tony!” Jerry called me over when he came back out onto the sidewalk. “Here’s three hundred bucks. Go to the nearest Kentucky Fried Chicken and buy them out. And if they don’t have enough, keep hitting others until the money’s spent. NOW GO!”
I grabbed Little Ron for the extra hands, jumped into Jerry’s truck, and screeched out of there.
There are many things that bind a family - love, good times, bad times, the years of growing old together. And sometimes it’s nothing at all; just the silent company when perched up at the bar letting the beer bubbles mark the time. But I think the strongest binder of them all is shared stories.
After the rotten turkey was scraped into garbage bags and hauled away, and after every electric fan that Jerry had was employed, we came together that evening closer than ever and laughed and howled our way through the biggest mountain of fried chicken any of us had ever seen. And through the evening, each and every one of us found our time to come alongside old Douggie with a pat on the back and a side-arm hug as he sat at the end of the bar grumbling into his shots of brandy with a Pabst Blue Ribbon back. All was forgiven in the spin of a barstool filled with love.
As for the three hundred bucks for the fried chicken along with the price of four rotten turkeys? Jerry was a good man, but he was also a downtown neighborhood club owner. Douggie worked extra hours for the next several months.