Paul Prather

Prather: The turkey that didn't catch whooping cough

Like the father in A Christmas Story, I am a turkey junkie.

I like making a turkey. I like carving it. I like the white meat. I like the dark meat. I like the mashed potatoes and gravy that go with it, and the cranberry sauce. I like turkey leftovers made into turkey sandwiches and turkey salad.

Thus Thanksgiving — Turkey Day — is my favorite holiday.

This past Thanksgiving, I was euphoric in anticipation of our Prather family dinner.

We were to eat at the house of my nephew Will and his wife, Stephanie, at 5 p.m. the Friday after Thanksgiving.

I'd volunteered for, to put it diplomatically (actually I'd insisted on), the honor of preparing our massive 22-pound bird. Oh, thoughts of the aroma alone left me giddy.

Stephanie, my fiancée Liz and my niece Lorrie planned to fix side dishes and desserts.

As Thanksgiving approached, I pulled a dozen turkey recipes from the Internet and lovingly compared them, like a kid staring at the endless possibilities in an old Sears Wish Book.

You can bake a turkey all night on a low temperature. You can bake it breast-down. You can bake the drumsticks and torso separately. You can bake it in tin foil. You can bake it bare. You can even deep-fry it. All options were heaven to me.

Several times a day, I opened my refrigerator to stare at that big thawing bird.

And dream.

That same week, my granddaughter, Hadley, 1, came down with sniffles and coughs. Then Harper, 2, started showing similar symptoms.

I went to check on them. The girls sat on my lap. They coughed and sneezed on me.

Friday morning, just as I was about to preheat the oven, my son, John, called.

"A test on Hadley just came back positive for whooping cough," he said. "It's highly contagious. We're sure Harper's got it, too. We can't come to the dinner. And since you've been exposed, you shouldn't go unless you want to infect everyone there."

My heart collapsed.

After I hung up, I opened the refrigerator and gazed once more at that wonderful bird.

I started sniffling like Hadley, but it wasn't from the whooping cough.

I called Stephanie and then Liz.

"What should I do?" I said to Liz. "I can't prepare the meat if I'm a Typhoid Paul."

"I'll bake it. Write down the instructions and drop the turkey off here," she said. "Don't breathe on me. I'll go to the dinner without you."

I slathered myself with sanitizer, handwrote my chosen recipe and carried the turkey to her apartment, feeling like a condemned prisoner walking his last mile.

Later, I moped around my place, crestfallen. No turkey to bake. No family dinner.

Then — a reprieve.

In the afternoon, John called again. My daughter-in-law, Cassie, had talked to the doctor, who said that if I wasn't showing any symptoms of whooping cough, I wasn't contagious. As my only symptom was a crushed soul, I could go to the dinner. I danced around my living room. I phoned Liz with the glorious news.

Sure, I was sad that John, Cassie and the girls couldn't be there — but still. Turkey! I was going to get turkey!

About 3:30, my phone rang yet again. Liz.

"We've got a major problem," she said. "I stuck a thermometer in the turkey and blood gushed out. It's still raw."

I tore out to her apartment like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile.

To this day, we don't know what happened. Maybe the heating element in her oven was bad. Maybe I wrote down the wrong temperature. But the bird was as bloody as if I'd just shot it.

I cranked up Liz's oven to 500 degrees. At 5 o'clock, the meat was only partly done. We called Stephanie and told her to keep the side dishes warm.

I started carving the outer portions, anything that didn't look as if it would poison us. Liz sped to KFC in her car.

We arrived at Will and Stephanie's 45 minutes late, with a small Tupperware container of questionably cooked turkey and a bucket of original recipe chicken.

By then, several of the side dishes were fossilized.

It was a Turkey Day disaster.

Which just goes to show you ... something. I'm not sure what.

That the best-laid plans of Paul frequently go awry?

The odd thing is, the family dinner was surprisingly satisfying otherwise.

No one browbeat me. We ate a few scraps of turkey that didn't kill us and some fast-food chicken. The mashed potatoes were great. We snapped pictures and watched football. I worked a puzzle with my great-niece Morgan. I drove plates of food over to John and Cassie.

Maybe — I never thought I'd say this — Thanksgiving turned out not to be about the meat. For me, this year it was, more than anything, about having people who welcomed me in the door even when I'd turned out to be a bigger turkey than the one I'd insisted on baking.