A Tale of Two Turkeys
by Mary Houts
A couple of turkeys – birds, not people – were key players at the start of the relationship between my husband, Peter and me. The first turkey was responsible for the fact that we met each other at all, the second one helped me to realize how well suited we were to each other although it came within a hair’s breadth of ruining our nascent relationship. Since then, during the course of our long marriage, turkeys have not played a role of any significance.
During my first semester of graduate school, in the fall of 1958, I lived in a rooming house and ate my dinners at a student cooperative where we all did kitchen or dining room chores as partial payment for our meals. At first, in spite of the fact that the co-op was run by a group of happy-go-lucky undergraduates, all went well. Jobs were carried out with enthusiasm if not finesse. Dinners were edible. Kitchen and eating areas were kept relatively clean and tidy. As the semester went on however, things started to go downhill. Table tops became noticeably sticky. The floor went unswept. Dishes piled up in the sink. Foods overlooked in the back of the refrigerator began to dry out or became fur-bearing with mold.
It was at this co-op that the first turkey came onto the scene about a week before semester finals. The cooks had roasted it for Sunday dinner. After they took the meat off the bones they left the carcass in a pot on the back of the stove. Their plan was to make soup. I was away for a few days after that, but when I got back a highly unpleasant smell was emanating from the kitchen. Everyone had forgotten about making soup and the turkey carcass had been quietly deteriorating in the pot. No one seemed to notice. This was the last straw for me. I decided that it was time to make other eating arrangements. Thus it came to pass that the sorry remains of a turkey catapulted me into the path of my future husband.
I was able to join a different co-op with some redeeming features right away. It was located in the Friends meeting house which was close to my rooming house and to campus. It provided both lunch and supper and was run by graduate students who would hopefully be more mature than my former co-op associates. A bonus which I discovered soon after I joined the new co-op was that Peter, one of the members, turned out to be an interesting person to talk to, and he was helpful, too. He usually hung around after lunch on Tuesdays while I was doing lunch clean-up and he was waiting for his ride to his work-study job. On my first Tuesday I couldn’t get the multiple straps of a voluminous apron fastened correctly, so I asked him if he would help me. He mistakenly thought I was asking him to help me take the apron off and he said, “Sure, I’m always happy to help undress a lady.” I was surprised. In the mid-west in the 1950’s that was quite a risqué remark to make to someone you hardly knew. Now he began to intrigue me. After a few weeks it dawned on me that he was always the person sitting next to me at meals, and our friendship began to grow.
It was on a Sunday some months later that turkey number two showed up and my now burgeoning relationship with Peter almost foundered. Sunday dinner clean-up was another of my weekly assignments at the Friends Co-op. It was the most elaborate meal of the week so there was always an extra amount of work to be done. Peter was one of the Sunday dinner cooks and not a particularly efficient or tidy one. But that Sunday, when he and his fellow cook prepared a turkey dinner with all the fixings, things really got out of hand. Chaos greeted my clean-up partner and me when we went into the kitchen. There were dirty bowls, measuring cups, and pots and pans all over the tables and counters. Spilled ingredients decorated the floor. But what really topped off the scene was the sight of a large patch of greasy turkey juice that had somehow spattered onto the ceiling and was dripping down one of the walls. It turned out that when Peter had taken the turkey out of the oven and started to carve it, the piping hot juices that had built up under its skin had burst out and upwards. He and the other cook thought the whole thing was hilarious. What’s more they didn’t stick around to help clean up.
Memory plays funny tricks. Neither Peter nor I remember if he apologized for the extra work he had caused, but I do remember I was not amused. As I worked with my partner to clean up the ungodly mess, I remember thinking briefly of never speaking to Peter again. But I also remember thinking that having to scrub turkey juice off a wall and ceiling was insignificant compared to the friendship of a person whose company I enjoyed so much. I also remember deciding that if we ever got married it would be a good idea for me to do the cooking and for Peter to do the clean-up – and that’s exactly what happened.
Before moving to Brooklyn, Mary and Peter Houts lived on a farm where, in addition to their day jobs, they raised children, chickens, sheep, goats, pigs, bees and a cow, but not turkeys.