Talkin’ Turkey by Janet Lee Berg

I wonder if it would be socially acceptable to dump my family and invite myself to eat the holiday feast with the Johnsons, total strangers who live down the block — ’cause I don’t think I can take another year with my overzealous, politically inclined relatives. And I predict this year will be a doozy.

Besides, I hear the Johnsons are politically apathetic. So what if the cooking is bland? I can picture my surrogate relations now — they’ll have mellow yellow candles glowing in each window. Zen music will be coming from every orifice of their walls. Maybe all they’ll argue about over dinner is the wishbone. 

In our family, Uncle Frank, the family’s gourmet chef, hands out meticulously printed menus to each of the 20 dinner guests seated at the long table. His recipes are so confidential even the Secret Service can’t break the code. Except for the caucus . . . I mean carcass. That’s a given. “Kill bird, cook bird, eat bird,” says our gun-toting Uncle Sam, ready to stab the poor unpardoned thing with his fork. 

At the last gathering, I knew trouble was a brewing when some of the giggling teens started to draw renderings of elephants and donkeys on the backs of the cartes du jour. The alcohol and appetizers were the precursor for the mix of high-strung personalities and a melding of different generations, as stirred up as the food we were about to receive: corn bisque with red bell pepper and rosemary soup, Brussels sprouts with pecans, baked spiced butternut squash drizzled with pure maple syrup, ensalada verde, and, of course, the main course, crispy roasted applejack tarragon turkey with mushroom, bacon, and leek stuffing.

Ah, a family with such political appetites, including the I’m-gonna-save-the-world United Nations human rights attorney nephew; his brother, the liberal elitist New York Times journalist; the protesting but creative nieces and nephews in the music business; the high school sophomore who thought he could apply for his higher education at the Electoral College; the What-am-I-gonna-do-now? recent Ivy League college grad student; the pompous English professor, and the peace-making surfer dude who says, “You know, it doesn’t matter who’s in office, the cycle of political eras just goes up and down . . . you gotta ride ’em out like a wave, man . . . you gotta just ride ’em out.” And others, way too complex to describe in that run-on sentence. 

Aunt Mary, from Philly, is the one who always wears those crazy hats and counts every gram of fat out loud, and her sister-in-law, Flo, from L.A., eats only organic foods like African plant roots. I think last year she brought her own tree to the table. And, of course, I can’t forget the spinster, Cousin Zoey, the vegan, who lives on beans and garlic. There’s usually an empty chair next to hers. She goes into great detail about how she “cleanses the toxins from her body” the day after Thanksgiving.

The Floridian couple complained throughout the entire meal about how long the flight was, while others at the opposite end of the table boasted about their latest exotic trip to Egypt.

Yes. Thanksgiving. Our annual gathering. Very entertaining for any fly on the wall when everyone attempts to skirt the political issues at hand. I recall in the year 2000 (which seemed like such a futuristic date at the time) we turned into the Hatfields and the McCoys. A good old-fashioned food fight would have been more civilized between the staunch Republicans and the resilient Democrats. I remember wishing there were no utensils within anyone’s reach. 

The chitchat then seems so harmless now, arguing over the pimpled and absentee ballots, rather than the Russians and nuclear weapons we now face. Someone had suggested if the ballots were printed like bingo cards, they never would have counted wrong. 

But everyone was eating in between the discussions, except for the vegan, who started to cry. “I keep thinking of all those poor turkeys. Isn’t it bad enough they had to walk around their entire lives with those stupid red things hanging from their necks?” There was silence between gulping. “And what about animal rights?”

“Animal rights? What’s that?” Great Aunt Millie from Brooklyn asked innocently. She reminisced. “I remember the old days on Mulberry Street. We were sooo poor back then. There were stables across the street from where we lived, and whenever a horse died they would just put it out by the curb until someone would come and take it away. I once sat on a dead horse when I was little, eating my sandwich.” 

“I think I’m gonna be sick!” The vegan bolted from the table. Brussels sprouts rolled everywhere. Again, silence.

“Did I ever tell you about the time Uncle Tooty bit the ear off a dog?”

“Shut up!” someone blurted.

“At least we got off the subject of politics,” the host said pleasantly. 

Then the leftover hippie from the ’60s spoke up. “The last time I voted was in 1976 for Jimmy Carter.” Uh-oh. I knew that wouldn’t sit right with the rich bastard Cuban-cigar smokin’ uncle from the Gold Coast. The food was passed around abruptly. To say there was a lot of clattering is an understatement. 

The wide-eyed Why-is-the-sky-blue? little ones watched the adults as if it were a tennis match. One of the youngest asked, “What is a gravy boat, anyway?”

“I don’t know, but it sure is starting to thicken!” someone said. 

“Why are you all fighting?” little Bobby asked.

“We’re not fighting, Bobby. We’re having a discussion. A debate, if you will.”

“Enough!” the hippie from the ’60s yelled.

Then the main platter, the “head honcho,” was placed in front of us all — the Big Orange Bird — and we broke into roaring laughter. 

Outside the window I saw the American flag on the tall white pole, and I waved back, gratefully, whispering under my breath, “Good luck, America.”


Janet Lee Berg, the author of “Rembrandt’s Shadow,” a historical novel, has been a Star contributor for many years. She divides her time between Charleston, S.C., and East Moriches.