I don’t know what possessed me to offer to cook the turkey for Christmas dinner this year. Clearly it had something to do with receiving an electric smoker for my birthday last July, spending a day in July assembling it and then using it to shelve fishing lures and dog food cans.
Guilt is a powerful and mostly stupid motivator. I mean, I could have picked up some hickory chips and smoked a pork loin or something for a gathering to watch an Iowa football game. But Thanksgiving passed and the smoker remained in its virgin state and now Christmas rolled around and I made the irretractable decision to use it.
I purchased wood chips and 24 hours prior to the cooking dutifully soaked them in water.
My middle daughter had been given a 12-pound turkey (the size indicated in the directions) and she in turn donated it to the cause. I sat down and scoured the directions. There are three cooking grates and two pans, one for the hickory (or whatever) chips and one for water. One pan was listed as part #3, the other part #4. There were handy pictures that I studied, since the pans weren’t alike.
I used the recipe in the smoker’s manual, figuring whoever wrote the manual knew what he was talking about. It presented some options for seasoning and said it would take eight to 12 hours to smoke. At the same time there was this sort of dire warning not to open the smoker to check on the bird because you’d lose heat and thus interrupt the smoking process.
I said to myself, “Self, how then do you know when the bird is cooked?” There was no mention of mental telepathy, so I pretty much ignored those instructions. It did suggest using a meat thermometer, but the warning not to open the smoker planted in my mind that a thermometer wasn’t much good if you couldn’t look at it.
So, backing off the hours it would take to smoke, it appeared I needed to put the bird in the smoker at midnight. I thought about going to bed early and setting an alarm, but then “National Lampoon Christmas Vacation” came on and promised to end at 11:45 p.m. Christmas Eve.
If you know anything about this classic Chevy Chase movie, the food preparation and Christmas dinner scenes are hilarious, particularly when Clark breaks out in “Joy to the World” to carve the turkey and at first cut it cracks open, hissing with a horribly dried out inside. In fact, I think the movie jinxed my smoking effort. The movie ended, everybody went to bed and I proceeded to place the chip pan, water pan and turkey in the smoker, turning the temperature to the prescribed 250 degrees F and went to bed.
I woke up around 2:30 a.m., went to the bathroom and proceeded downstairs to check on the smoker, which curiously was not smoking. The directions said you’d see smoke seeping out of the box and warned you not to use the smoker inside the house. I went back to bed, awaking again at 7 a.m.
I’m sure there’s a Christmas song out there somewhere about Papa steeling down the stairs while everyone else was still asleep to check on the smoked turkey, but the tune and lyrics did not come immediately to mind.
I opened the smoker door and discovered two things. First, the turkey was plenty done five hours before it was supposed to be and second, there was no smoke. Long story short, the bird was edible after my wife had me cut it apart, place it in a crock pot and drown it in chicken broth for five hours. Talk about a smoking defeat. She soothed my hurt feelings by telling me it would make wonderful turkey and noodles.
I stewed and fussed and reread the directions. It didn’t even help that a beautiful prime rib my wife had prepared was way too rare when Christmas dinner was ready.
My son-in-law, an avid deer hunter and pretty good cook for a guy, particularly when it comes to fish, dove into my smoker problem like Sean King in a David Baldocci novel. He reread the instructions three times, looked at the chip pan and water pan and discovered what he thought was my problem. I had turned the covered chip pan into the water pan and the water pan into the chip pan. The result was that the water in the chip pan located over the heating coil boiled out quickly and the water pan that I used for the chips collected turkey dripping and simply dried out the chips.
So he cleaned up my mess, resoaked the chips, reversed the pans and prepared two venison backstraps, put them in the smoker around 3 p.m. and headed out to sit in our deer hunting stand. By the time he came back in, I had taken the venison out and it was perfect. Deliciously smoked, tender, moist and just a bit pink inside.
Were it not for the fact that it was still Christmas and people around the world were still celebrating the Baby Jesus’ birth I would have hated him for his smoking success. Instead, I masked my jealously, he carefully reminded me that the instructions were indeed confusing and shared the two smoked venison backstraps with my wife and me.
This, of course, will become a wonderful Christmas memory that will improve over the years like a cured ham. On New Years Day, with the Hawkeyes kicking off at 11 a.m., I have pledged to myself to give the smoker another shot. But it will be something I can stick in the smoker by no earlier than 8 a.m. and be done no later than noon. I’m going to get a meat thermometer and regularly look inside. To heck with the instructions. Little good they did me the first time.
A GUY FROM Kentucky spent Christmas in jail after throwing a ham and other items at a woman in a domestic dispute over what day the family was celebrating Christmas. My turkey meltdown seems tame in comparison.