Roast Turkey in the Woods

Turkeys and dogs have some wonderful attributes… especially when combined with a little human ingenuity. This, in fact, is what I did when my camping buddies and I decided to celebrate Thanksgiving in the woods.

Thanksgiving is a time to be spent with family. Therefore, once we decided to celebrate the holiday at a campground, we invited our children and grandchildren to join us. In so doing, we increased the number of campers to more than twenty and created a major problem. How could we cook a turkey large enough to feed that many people without the convenience of a kitchen oven?

Being creative and welcoming the chance to impress my friends, I accepted the challenge and told everyone not to worry. I had a plan. I would take care of the bird!

I arrived at the campsite the day before the holiday with my daughter, my dog, a twenty-five pound turkey, and various other items I thought I would need. Al Gallagher, one of the more outspoken members of our group examined the contents of my truck and said, “All right, you got the bird. But how do you plan to cook it?”

As I let my dog out of her wire mesh pen, I simply smiled and said, “Trust me.” I then strutted over to exchange greetings with the others, secure in the knowledge that my turkey was going to make this a truly unforgettable Thanksgiving.

I wasn’t at all surprised that everyone wanted to know how I planned to cook the turkey. It was the major topic of discussion. As more friends and relatives arrived, the pressure on me to divulge my secret increased, but I refused to budge.

I was loving it! I was milking it for all it was worth. The more they probed, the more determined I became to keep the information to myself.

Following an evening of jokes, speculation, and every imaginable attempt at persuasion from my skeptical friends, I went to bed knowing I had succeeded in becoming the center of attention. I expected somebody might get up in the middle of the night to take another peek into the back of my truck to find any clues that might solve the mystery. But I was confident that, regardless of what they saw, no one would be able to figure out my total plan.

When I arose early Thanksgiving morning, a few people were already up and had made coffee. They tried to bribe me with the coffee, but to no avail. When I brought out my own coffee pot, they relented.

After I drank my first cup, I quietly set about providing the answer everyone seemed so desperate to know. I retrieved a shovel from the back of my truck, dug a rectangular pit, filled it with charcoal and lit it. I was soon surrounded by a curious crowd trying to guess the remaining details of my plan. There was a mixture of laughter and disbelief as I pulled my dog’s pen out of my truck, removed the bottom, and proceeded to wash it thoroughly. As usual, Al was the most vocal. “Don’t tell me you’re…”

He didn’t finish. He didn’t need to be told. In fact, I don’t think he wanted to be told! Carefully, I wrapped the pen in aluminum foil – making sure the door and the top could be opened. Then I placed my “oven” over the bed of charcoal.

As my oven began to pre-heat, I asked some of the women to help me make the stuffing. As I expected, they were happy to oblige and, also as expected, they did it all themselves. When they finished stuffing the bird, the one major question remained unanswered. How was I going to cook the turkey in my oven?

Returning to my truck, I pulled out a spit and rotisserie motor. I placed the turkey on the spit and slid it into the now very hot dog pen. I attached the motor and plugged it in.

The turkey began turning and rendered my friends speechless. They were either highly impressed by my ingenuity or repulsed by the idea of their dinner being cooked in my dog’s pen. Perhaps they had visions of picking hair and fleas off their food. I didn’t question their silence. I preferred to assume they were simply awed by my resourcefulness. With an air of superiority I sat down, poured myself a second cup of coffee, and said, “I told you not to worry.”

However, my self-satisfied smile didn’t last long. The fat dripping from the turkey onto the hot charcoal soon burst into flames, and my bird was on the verge of becoming a burnt offering. Luckily, my inflated ego didn’t stop me from recognizing the limits of my inventiveness. I knew I couldn’t recreate the Phoenix rising from the ashes.

Therefore, I enlisted Al’s help to lift the bird, dog pen and all, off the flames. While the flames died out, I fashioned a drip pan from aluminum foil and set it under the turkey so the juices would flow away from the coals. Then we put the bird back over the charcoal and I assumed a somewhat less arrogant stance as I returned to my coffee.

For the next few hours, my plan went well and my cockiness returned. From time to time I added more charcoal and checked the meat thermometer I had cleverly remembered to bring. My self-proclaimed brilliance was overshadowed only by the heavenly aroma emanating from my bird. Even without a kitchen oven we had one of the great delights of Thanksgiving – the anticipation that comes with the bouquet of a roasting turkey.

From time to time my dog looked at her pen as if wondering if it would ever again be suitable for her habitation. Otherwise, everything was right with the world… until the rotisserie motor fell apart. The weight of the turkey had put too much strain on the small motor and caused the screws to work themselves loose.

Quickly, I delegated some of the younger members of the group to turn the turkey by hand while I tried to solve the mechanical problems. I gathered up the motor pieces and sadly discovered that the plastic housing had melted somewhat and the screws would no longer hold. However, with the help of the duct tape I always carry with me, I was able to get it to stay together and start running again.

Unfortunately, the tape was not strong enough to overcome the damage, and the repair lasted less than five minutes. There was no choice but to ask everyone to share the chore of turning the spit.

That untimely mechanical failure removed the last vestiges of my conceit. My turkey had become community property.

In hindsight, the motor breaking was a blessing. Turning the spit was like Tom Sawyer white-washing the fence. Everyone, especially the children, wanted to have a hand in it. And I, like Tom, was perfectly content to sit back and watch.

This, of course, led to a renewed volley of good-natured barbs sent my way. The interesting fact is that when, in response to the barbs, I offered to take a turn, I was told to sit still. In truth, my friends were enjoying the task of turning the spit. Even more, they were enjoying making jokes at my expense. That was fine with me. I was enjoying the entire experience.

When we finally removed the golden brown bird and placed it on a carving platter, all took pride in what we’d accomplished. And the best part was in the eating. The skin was crispy and delicious. The meat fell off the bones and was moist, tender, and equally delicious. Everyone agreed it was the tastiest bird we had ever eaten.

I don’t normally feed my dog table scraps, but my friends insisted my dog be rewarded for her sacrifice. The wagging of her tail, licking of her chops, and the “Please could I have more” look in her eyes indicated that she agreed with us. And when the pen was restored to its original state, the time she spent licking the mesh suggested that she wouldn’t mind if I used it as an oven more often.

I’ve often thought of selling my “oven” to Coleman or some other manufacturer of camping gear. If I ever do, rest assured I’ll equip it with a hand crank. I’m convinced the entire Thanksgiving in the woods was made more memorable by having everyone involved. Come to think of it, perhaps I should equip it with a motor guaranteed to break so everyone can make fun of the owner as they share the chore of turning the spit by hand.

Of course, if I want others to have an experience just as memorable as mine, I should also include a dog.

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