A Christmas Turkey Tradition

This article was published in the December 2015 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.

Many Christmases ago in Belfast, I remember walking into my mother in-law’s kitchen to find a 30-pound turkey on the kitchen table. It stopped me in my tracks. I’d never seen a turkey that large, the aluminum-cooking tray straining to hold in its’ fleshy colored body. I glanced down at the small European oven wondering how the bird will fit in the appliance, one that was clearly cut out for smaller jobs. Somehow, my mother-in-law made it work.

For me turkey and Thanksgiving go hand-in-hand, but in Ireland turkey is the star of Christmas dinner. Because of the turkey’s celebrity status planning begins early, sometimes as soon as August. Text messages and video calls shoot across the pond.

“Has the turkey been ordered?”

“Are we having prawn cocktails for starters?”

“How are you cooking the potatoes?”

The answers to these questions are always the same. Dinner starts with prawn cocktails, which are prawns over a bed of iceberg lettuce topped off with Marie Rose sauce (I think it comes out of a jar). It seems potatoes number in the hundreds, but it’s only because there are many options: boiled, mashed and roasted in duck fat. Carrots, parsnips and Brussels sprouts find their way onto the already crowded table. I eat them all.

When I called my mother-in-law to ask her for the turkey recipe she agreed to share it.

“First you start by opening a bottle of wine,” she laughed and proceeded to explain the hours of work that go into the Kearney Christmas turkey.

Against some health rule, the Kearney family stuffs one end of the bird with pork sausage and the other end with a traditional sage and onion stuffing. The bird goes into the oven at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve, but not before being slathered in butter and covered with strips of streaky bacon. My mother-in-law keeps vigil through the night, because if you want to cook a 30- pound turkey you must put it in the oven 10 hours before serving it at Christmas dinner.

One of my favorite parts of the meal doesn’t even involve food, but something called Christmas crackers. They look like large Tootsie Rolls wrapped in holiday themed paper. Before everyone tucks into overloaded plates of food you turn to your neighbor, who grasps one end of the roll while you grasp the other, and then you pull…pop! The cracker splits apart revealing a delicate paper crown, a small toy and a joke on a small piece of paper. Almost in unison, the crowns go on our heads and we continue our festivities.

This year my mother-in-law will put up her feet while her youngest daughter and son-in-law prepare the epic meal. The Christmas torch is being passed to the next generation, but Mummy (as I call her) will be nearby to help ease the transition.

Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year to you.

Christmas Turkey

The Kearney family Christmas turkey.

Kearney Family Christmas Turkey 

20-30 pound turkey (preferably from a local farmer)

half pound of streaky bacon

butter

pork sausage

box sage, onion, parsley and thyme stuffing (make a version from scratch if you prefer)

1 large aluminum tray (found at most supermarkets)

aluminum foil

220 C for 1 hour then decrease temperature to 180 C for remainder of cooking time

Place the turkey in one of the large aluminum trays breast-side down. Mix the sage, onion, parsley and thyme stuffing according to the instructions on the box. Place the pork sausage in a bowl. Once both stuffing types are ready, stuff pork sausage in the bottom and the sage and onion, etc. in the neck. Slather the bird in butter and lay streaky bacon across the top. Once the oven reaches 220 C, wrap the turkey in aluminum foil and set the tray in the oven. Check the turkey every two hours to baste it with the juices that accumulate in the bottom of the tray. For the last hour of cooking, turn the turkey breast-side up and remove all the aluminum foil for the final browning of the bird.

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