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When I first saw Anna Kendrick in her Oscar-nominated role as Natalie Keener in Up in the
Air (2009), I found her as memorable and remarkable as everybody else. She played a character
who was completely out of her depth -- but it was clear that the actress was not lost on the
screen. She knew exactly what she was doing, and held her own in a movie dominated by
George Clooney and Vera Farmiga. After such an auspicious independent movie debut, I next noticed her in Pitch Perfect, where I
was surprised at her confident, dominant -- and, yes, pitch-perfect -- singing. She was the
reason that the Pitch Perfect movies were so much better than they had to be; better, in other
words, than Glee. Now, at the ripe old age of 31, Anna Kendrick has come out with a memoir with a perfect title:
Scrappy Little Nobody. Normally, when someone so young has an autobiography, it's an "as
told to" or ghost-written project, and it exists only to satisfy some vast army of fans. But Kendrick isn't that kind of actress and she doesn't have that kind of fan base. Instead, she
wrote the book herself, in a smart, quirky, ironic, self-deprecating voice that is charming and
insightful from beginning to end. I enjoyed every page of the book -- and, rarely for me, I read
the book with my eyes rather than my ears, so I didn't have Kendrick's voice to keep me
listening through the audiobook version. The words had to make it on their own. Though her family lived in Maine, when she was a child her parents allowed her to audition for
-- and perform in -- Broadway shows, sometimes at great financial sacrifice. If you're not the
star of the show -- in other words, if you're a child actor who is not playing Annie -- you not
only don't get rich, you don't even earn enough to pay for your parents to get a decent apartment
so one of them can live with you in the city. So her Broadway career was pretty much a money-losing proposition for her family, though in
1998, at age 12, she had the consolation of being nominated for a Tony Award for her role in
the musical High Society. In other words, Kendrick has earned attention and respect as an actress and singer from
childhood onward -- yet her memoir reveals a woman who is much more than a performer,
though of course a memoir is also a kind of performance. As I read, I couldn't help thinking of
my older daughter, who was also stagestruck and sometimes a bit resentful that we did not
provide her with the opportunity to perform on Broadway or in movies at such a young age. It's scary to turn your children over to the ruthless world of acting -- though I must say that
talented kids often have allies and protectors in theatre, whereas in professional dance, the cruelty
from adults is relentless almost from the start. Scrappy Little Nobody never shows Kendrick being impressed with herself; quite the
contrary. One of the best riffs in the book is her account of being invited by rich friends to attend
a weird Pirate Day celebration on Catalina Island, where she had her first experience with rough
seas; I got a little squeamish just reading about it. There was a lot of puking. Look, I could try to tell you some of her stories, but I wouldn't write them half as well as she
does. At one point in the book she comments that on film she comes across as much more
intelligent than she really is -- but the truth is, she's much more intelligent than she thinks she is.
This is a smart memoir, and it makes good reading even if you've never seen her perform. I think Scrappy Little Nobody instantly earns a place among the best show-biz memoirs, right up
there with David Niven's Bring on the Empty Horses and The Moon's a Balloon, and Charles
Grodin's It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here: My Journey through Show Business. Anna Kendrick's best performances are yet ahead of her, but her memoir gives me confidence
that she will not be corrupted by her success. She has not lost track of who she is and, despite
her powerful ambition, she has remained a decent person with a wry understanding of her chosen
profession. Good for you, Kendrick. Scrappy you are, and small in stature, but nobody?
Not anymore, kid.
When I first saw Anna Kendrick in her Oscar-nominated role as Natalie Keener in Up in the Air (2009), I found her as memorable and remarkable as everybody else. She played a character who was completely out of her depth -- but it was clear that the actress was not lost on the screen. She knew exactly what she was doing, and held her own in a movie dominated by George Clooney and Vera Farmiga.
After such an auspicious independent movie debut, I next noticed her in Pitch Perfect, where I was surprised at her confident, dominant -- and, yes, pitch-perfect -- singing. She was the reason that the Pitch Perfect movies were so much better than they had to be; better, in other words, than Glee.
Now, at the ripe old age of 31, Anna Kendrick has come out with a memoir with a perfect title: Scrappy Little Nobody. Normally, when someone so young has an autobiography, it's an "as told to" or ghost-written project, and it exists only to satisfy some vast army of fans.
But Kendrick isn't that kind of actress and she doesn't have that kind of fan base. Instead, she wrote the book herself, in a smart, quirky, ironic, self-deprecating voice that is charming and insightful from beginning to end. I enjoyed every page of the book -- and, rarely for me, I read the book with my eyes rather than my ears, so I didn't have Kendrick's voice to keep me listening through the audiobook version. The words had to make it on their own.
Though her family lived in Maine, when she was a child her parents allowed her to audition for -- and perform in -- Broadway shows, sometimes at great financial sacrifice. If you're not the star of the show -- in other words, if you're a child actor who is not playing Annie -- you not only don't get rich, you don't even earn enough to pay for your parents to get a decent apartment so one of them can live with you in the city.
So her Broadway career was pretty much a money-losing proposition for her family, though in 1998, at age 12, she had the consolation of being nominated for a Tony Award for her role in the musical High Society.
In other words, Kendrick has earned attention and respect as an actress and singer from childhood onward -- yet her memoir reveals a woman who is much more than a performer, though of course a memoir is also a kind of performance. As I read, I couldn't help thinking of my older daughter, who was also stagestruck and sometimes a bit resentful that we did not provide her with the opportunity to perform on Broadway or in movies at such a young age.
It's scary to turn your children over to the ruthless world of acting -- though I must say that talented kids often have allies and protectors in theatre, whereas in professional dance, the cruelty from adults is relentless almost from the start.
Scrappy Little Nobody never shows Kendrick being impressed with herself; quite the contrary. One of the best riffs in the book is her account of being invited by rich friends to attend a weird Pirate Day celebration on Catalina Island, where she had her first experience with rough seas; I got a little squeamish just reading about it. There was a lot of puking.
Look, I could try to tell you some of her stories, but I wouldn't write them half as well as she does. At one point in the book she comments that on film she comes across as much more intelligent than she really is -- but the truth is, she's much more intelligent than she thinks she is. This is a smart memoir, and it makes good reading even if you've never seen her perform.
I think Scrappy Little Nobody instantly earns a place among the best show-biz memoirs, right up there with David Niven's Bring on the Empty Horses and The Moon's a Balloon, and Charles Grodin's It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here: My Journey through Show Business.
Anna Kendrick's best performances are yet ahead of her, but her memoir gives me confidence that she will not be corrupted by her success. She has not lost track of who she is and, despite her powerful ambition, she has remained a decent person with a wry understanding of her chosen profession. Good for you, Kendrick. Scrappy you are, and small in stature, but nobody? Not anymore, kid.
One of my favorite moments in Scrappy Little Nobody came when Anna Kendrick spoke of holding a Harry Potter movie marathon -- which would begin, of course, with the third movie, completely skipping the first two.
Those first two Harry Potters were the ones directed by Chris Columbus with all his big-budget shallowness, so right there I have to say that it makes me feel so clever to have my opinion shared by somebody as smart as Kendrick.
When I heard that J.K. Rowling had written a screenplay for a movie set in the Harry Potter universe, but in the 1920s, before Harry was even born, I had my trepidations.
Rowling had already blown through an entire career trajectory in the Harry Potter novels -- the eager beginner with a bunch of lame but good-natured puns, the novelist who in the middle books stumbled upon real characters and relationships as if by accident, and finally the self-indulgent, pretentious bestseller whom no one could edit or advise, giving us the fat lumpy last couple of volumes.
Which of these versions of Rowling would show up for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them?
Fortunately, while the script has plenty of self-indulgence -- there are long stretches where absolutely nothing interesting happens, as Rowling shows off her "inventive" magical beasts, which wouldn't rate a footnote in any book by Larry Niven -- the director is David Yates, who directed Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and both halves of The Deathly Hallows. Best news: Yates is also listed as being attached to four more Fantastic Beasts movies.
You do not need to bring your entire brain to the theater, because then you might wonder why, if Newt could capture and control the escaped beasts with a flick of his wand, he didn't start with that move instead of chasing them and trying to catch them by hand, wrecking everything in his path. Leave that doubting brain-wrinkle to talk to itself and simply enjoy the movie, nonsense and all.
Despite the fact that Rowling resorts to so many hoary cliches -- naturally, the ostensible villains of the story are anti-witch Christians who are, of course, depicted as being just as cruel, judgmental, and hypocritical as, say, the Taliban or politically correct liberals of today -- the casting of this movie was so brilliant, and Yates's directing is so deft, that the movie is one of those rare films that are better than their script.
The pounding pulse of the movie comes from Eddie Redmayne as Newt, an English Hogwarts alumnus who arrives in New York City with a suitcase full of magical beasts that have, for no good reason, been outlawed by the American wizards' organization, with Colin Farrell as Graves, the chief investigator.
Newt is taken in by a couple of witches who watch out for him and, eventually, become his allies in fighting the bad guys of this time and place. More plot than that you do not need, because let's face it, Harry Potter fans are going to see this movie no matter what the critics say.
This critic, at least, says that those Harry Potter fans will not be disappointed, and Eddie Redmayne's energetic, sincere, boyish performance is so endearing that these movies will earn their own fans, despite the fact that there was no bestselling book to guide them to this story.
All the actors are very good, but I must especially point out Ezra Miller as the tortured Credence Barebone. Since Miller is in line to be very well paid as The Flash in more Marvel movies, and he has already proven his range in many roles, including as the kinky underage intern in Train Wreck, he isn't exactly an unfamiliar face. But if he had not had any of his previous roles, he would be memorable for what he does as Credence Barebone.
The beasts are adequately created on computer; the story is adequate to keep us engaged for the full 133 minutes; and it's clear that the Harry Potter universe can thrive without Harry Potter or Hogwarts on the screen. Good show.
Speaking of good shows, the Hallmark Channel once again has a slate of holiday movies, many of which premiered over the Thanksgiving weekend.
With so many slots to fill, the movies must all fit exactly within certain requirements. First, they must fill their time slot exactly -- which, given the number and length of the commercials, is considerably shorter than their two-hour running time.
Second, they must fit within their budget. Fortunately, the budgets are not equal -- some of the best of them clearly had more money to spend than the others. Some of the extra money went for celebrity casting, but mostly the money goes to location shots and crowd scenes.
Still, nothing on the Hallmark Channel is actually expensive, as movies go, so if one movie is going to be better than another, it has to be on the basis of script, direction, and acting.
And the quality of the script depends, first and foremost, on story -- on what happens in the movie and why.
The problem is that the Hallmark Christmas movie formula is pretty rigid, so that even the best scriptwriters have to meet certain expectations. First, there has to be a romance, with the first kiss almost always postponed until the very last shot.
Second, the central dilemma of almost every Hallmark holiday movie is that somebody has "lost their Christmas spirit." This becomes such a relentless theme that the phrase "Christmas spirit" would make a first-rate drinking game, for those who need excuses to drink.
You begin to think, after a few of these movies, that "lack of Christmas spirit" rates right up there with cancer, ebola, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy as a public health menace.
In almost every case, late in the movie we learn that the person who has suffered a Christmas-Spirit-ectomy passed through some long-ago tragedy (death of beloved spouse, death of parent, neglect by divorced parent) that permanently killed the Christmas Spirit. But because of experiences with Christmas cheer in each movie, a Christmas Spirit transplant takes hold and we know that the sufferer will be happy throughout the rest of the Decembers of his or her life.
Most of the main characters have a job that requires them to work closely with Christmas motifs: If they aren't managing a Christmas-dependent store, they're in charge of designing store-window displays or advertising campaigns or tv-news feature stories, so that despite their aversion to Christmas, they're up to their necks in it.
The villains are usually demanding bosses -- "Your job is on the line"; "you're up for promotion if you satisfy certain requirements"; "this store/factory/inn is going to be closed, which will shut down this town full of lovely people, unless you find a way to save the store."
Sometimes, though, the maguffin of the movie is romance itself. A married couple somehow get stuck with entertaining in-laws or being entertained by them; a longtime couple are only just realizing that they hate everything about each other, but fortunately much better alternatives just happened to show up exactly when needed; bad weather will keep someone from getting home for Christmas.
The shadow of Nora Ephron looms over all these movies, with You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle poised to offer inspiration to screenwriters whenever their keyboard falls silent.
I sound cynical about these movies, and, after seeing at least a score of them between last year and this, I am cynical. My wife and I start a movie and within a couple of minutes one or both of us will shout out, "Designer!" because the movie just identified a main character as having that astonishingly common career.
Or "Magical Santa!" and then we watch closely for the moment when a character looks around for the Santa they were just talking to, and realize that he has completely disappeared, like an anti-Dalek.
Yet when the writing and acting and directing are good -- or, anyway, good enough -- I watch through to the end, dabbing at my eyes with kleenexes because doggone it, even formulaic holiday movies sometimes touch on the core issues of human life, like love within families, reconciliation with lost friends or family members, or self-realization in a moment of duress.
My wife and I long ago concluded that the great Christmas movies are all quite dark at the core. It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, One Magic Christmas, even Love Actually -- they all take characters to the point of despair, only to redeem them by the power of love and, when convenient, God (through angelic messengers).
You've Got Mail doesn't save Meg Ryan's bookstore; in Sleepless in Seattle, Tom Hanks's wife stays dead; in The Bishop's Wife, David Niven doesn't get his cathedral and nearly loses his wife. The Shop Around the Corner -- on which You've Got Mail was tightly based -- is still miraculously good, though nothing can work out until everything in the story has gone deeply wrong. Miracle on 34th Street saves Kris Kringle, but leaves Natalie Wood in despair because Santa didn't give her the gift she asked for.
Even marginal comedies like Trapped in Paradise have to take the would-be criminals to the moment of confession, in which they risk losing everything they've come to value (though Trapped in Paradise does have Dana Carvey's only watchable post-SNL performance).
Then there are the loathsome "comedies" whose creators think they're resisting all the holiday cliches -- but invariably end up relying completely on the worst non-holiday cliches, as they die under the weight of their own pretensions. Home for the Holidays and The Family Stone are prime examples.
The only movie that makes an anti-Christmas idea work well is The Apartment, with Jack Lemmon and a still-sane Shirley MacLaine, but you can watch that any time of the year.
Holiday Inn and White Christmas are musicals, for heaven's sake. They follow a completely different set of rules. Trading Places is a comedy that would have worked just as well if set in any other season -- it isn't really a Christmas movie. Ditto with Die Hard. But Trading Places and Die Hard show that Christmas makes any good movie more emotional and moving.
Bell, Book, and Candle pretends to be a witchcraft fantasy, but it's definitely a Christmas movie in which someone has to give up everything in order to have Christmas work out well.
(As for raunchy "comedies" with holiday themes, or anything with Jim Carrey or Will Farrell, I can't comment on them because I will never see them.)
See what I did there? I just gave you a catalogue of great non-Hallmark-Channel Christmas movies. But now for Hallmark's 2016 offerings that I've seen so far (in alphabetical order):
Broadcasting Christmas gives us Melissa Joan Hart and Dean Cain as a couple of news broadcasters who were once in love when they worked at a small-market station in Connecticut, but when Dean Cain got the New York City anchor job that they both vied for, the romance fell apart.
Now the co-host of a hugely popular network show has left to have a baby, and the remaining host announces a contest among several contenders to replace her. Dean Cain is one of the contenders -- but Melissa Joan Hart, in her tiny media market, forces her way into the contest by making a really funny plea that goes viral.
The rest of the story is about the two of them competing but also helping each other, as romance rekindles. The writing in this story is so sharp and powerful that even the "news stories" they come up with are quite moving. You begin to realize that these characters really could put on a first-rate interview show. Broadcasting Christmas is entertaining all the way through.
In Christmas Cookies, Hannah (Jill Wagner) is sent by her Scrooge-like boss, a couple of days before Christmas, to an obscure small town to close the deal for National Foods to buy a small cookie-making company that provides employment for many of the citizens. Naturally, the plan is to close the cookie-making in that town and do all the baking and shipping in Buffalo, New York.
The owner of the local company, Jake (Wes Brown), doesn't want to sell, if selling means that it would put his town out of work. So Hannah has her work cut out for her. Complicating everything is the fact that (a) she has to get back in time for her repulsively selfish fiancé's annual Christmas party, and (b) she grew up visiting that town at Christmastime in order to eat those cookies, which apparently are the best thing ever baked anywhere.
You know how this goes -- the company won't be wrecked and the town will be saved -- but this movie is surprisingly clever about how they are able to bring this off. Plus, Wagner and Brown are some of the best, most engaging actors in this year's Hallmark Christmas movies, so we really want them to get together.
Christmas List starts with a young girl whose mother is a control freak who can't stand any of the mess of Christmas -- especially a live Christmas tree. The girl draws up a list of things she wants to have when she's in charge of Christmas -- including a real tree.
Flash forward to the same girl as an adult, played by Alicia Witt, a normally good actress who has acquitted herself well in many comedies and dramas. Unfortunately, the director apparently told her, "Play this character as if she were still that little girl." The result is an appallingly bad performance, as she poses and pouts like a child. The script is no help at all, so my wife and I gave up on this movie after twenty minutes of desperately trying to find any redeeming value. Put this on your list as a holiday movie you can skip.
I've known a few bridezillas in my time, and the premise of A December Bride sounds as though Layla (Jessica Lowndes) is going to make sure that everything goes her way in her December wedding. Except that Seth (Daniel Lissing) introduces Layla's fiancé to Jessica's favorite cousin, and guess what? Now the December wedding is between Layla's ex-fiancé and her traitorous cousin and Layla is not happy.
Seth knows that he really blew it, but Layla admits that she and her fiancé had already been drifting apart. She ends up going to the wedding with Seth as her fake date; but at the reception, Seth carries it too far, announcing that they're engaged.
Yeah, it's an idiot plot -- the kind of story where if somebody told the truth the whole thing would evaporate. (See: Every episode of Three's Company.) But the writer, Karen Berger (who was once in an episode of Three's Company back in 1977), does a very nice job of giving both Seth and Layla reasons not to tell the truth until they (inevitably) realize that they're a perfect match.
Along the way, Layla gets to be an interior decorator vying for a real estate developer to hire her to stage houses. As a demonstration, she has to stage Seth's still-empty new house for a Christmas display showcase, and she creates a traditional decor that entices no-Christmas-spirit Seth to join her in stringing popcorn and making other decorations and treats that will eventually lead Seth to reconcile with his distant father and ... you know the drill.
The script and the acting are better than they needed to be, and this is one of our favorite Hallmark Christmas movies this year.
But our very favorite, so far, is Every Christmas Has a Story. Kate Harper (Lori Loughlin, of Full House) is an anchorwoman who doesn't like Christmas. She normally plays along because that's her job, but a control room flub puts her statement that she "doesn't like Christmas" on the air. Now, in order to make amends and keep her show on the air, she has to go to a Christmas-crazy town in North Dakota and "find" her Christmas spirit (i.e., find a cure for cancer).
She expects to fake it, but falls in love with the town -- and also gets absorbed in the mystery of why the wealthy reclusive heir of one of the town's founding families stopped providing the annual town Christmas tree. Meanwhile, her producer, Jack Brewster (Colin Ferguson), who had been her college boyfriend, admits that he still loves her, while she tries to keep that door closed. Any guesses as to what happens?
But there are some wonderful supporting characters who help bring the town to life, so it isn't all perfunctory Christmas carols and ersatz "fun" -- this movie really does have something like genuine Christmas spirit, right down to a reconciliation with a distant father and a genuinely entertaining young would-be journalist. Call this a winner.
The Mistletoe Promise is not far behind. Based on a Richard Paul Evans novel, this story begins with a meet-cute in a mall food court, where two Christmas-haters, Nick (Luke Macfarlane) and Elise (Jaime King), start meeting for lunch to rescue each other from the most relentless and insensitive group of carolers in the history of film.
Elise is co-owner of a travel agency she started -- which her ex-husband, the other co-owner, keeps using as a device to promote his girlfriend in all their ads. Meanwhile, Nick is up for a promotion in a company that requires "family values" -- and his status as a single guy is really working against him. They "help" each other by making a business arrangement, a contract to pretend to be engaged to each other.
Again, an idiot plot -- but in this case, they come clean in the best confessional scene I've watched. Jaime King does not look like the usual Hallmark "working girl" heroine -- she actually wears a no-nonsense hairstyle all the way through the movie, which makes her appear convincingly brittle. By the end, though, we really care about both of them, and for once, a pretend-to-be-a-couple plot works from beginning to end. No doubt this is owed largely to Richard Paul Evans's original story, but it's also to Hallmark's credit that they didn't strip away everything good about the story in order to fit the formula. Good work, folks.
The director of The Mistletoe Promise, David Winning, also directed a Christmas movie that isn't on Hallmark Channel: The Rooftop Christmas Tree, which is being shown on UP, which happens to be the next channel up from Hallmark on Time-Warner Cable in Greensboro. It doesn't follow the Hallmark formula, but it's still a good Christmas movie.
My Christmas Dream stars Danica McKellar, 23 years after her role as Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years. She's credible as the manager of McDougal's flagship department store, and as the chain opens a Paris store, she's eager to impress the boss so she can go back to Paris and manage it. All she has to do is wow the boss with a brilliant Christmas display, for which she enlists the help of David Haydn-Jones -- whom she had allowed to be fired for a simple accident at the beginning of the movie.
Of course he's an artist and a single dad -- pretty much Danica McKellar's situation as governess to a young princess in last year's A Crown for Christmas, where the single dad who fell in love with her also happened to be the king.
The star of A Wish for Christmas, Lacey Chabert, first became famous in Party of Five, where she had to be convincing as the sister of Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt. The casting director did such a good job that every time I see Lacey Chabert in something, it takes me fifteen minutes to be sure it isn't Jennifer Love Hewitt.
But Lacey Chabert has a lot more going for her as an actress than looking so much like two other fine performers from the 90s. In A Wish for Christmas, she plays Sara, who works at a marketing firm. Her brilliant ideas keep getting stolen by her supervisor, who gives her no credit when the company's owner (Paul Greene) praises her marketing campaign at the office Christmas party.
A magical (i.e., disappearing) Santa at the party offers her one wish; half-believing, she wishes she had the spunk to stand up for herself. Granted -- for 48 hours only. She openly accuses her supervisor of stealing her ideas, and the big boss fires the guy. Then he insists that she accompany him to a Christmasy ski-resort town where the Scrooge-like would-be client for her big campaign keeps refusing to see them.
Her new-found pushiness saves the day -- until it wrecks everything. But we know that her handsome boss is bound to fall in love with her, and everything is going to work out right after it looks as if all is lost. The script isn't great, but it's adequate, and I have to say that Chabert and Greene are not only two of the best actors in this year's Hallmark Channel Christmas lineup, they're also the two most attractive. When you're filming a romance, having genuinely beautiful actors rarely hurts.
I'll still be watching more Christmas movies in the run-up to Christmas, but these are enough to make a good start. Enjoy -- and for heaven's sake, don't lose your Christmas spirit, because that can be a disaster.
I've been roasting, on average, four turkeys a year for about twenty years, with quite a few before that to practice on. I grew up in an aluminum-tent-turkey family; to me, "basting" was something you did to a hemline just to hold it in place until you could put in a real hem.
But as an adult, I learned about basting and far preferred the results to the turkeys from my childhood. I developed my own mix of seasonings (sage dominant, but lots of cinnamon, too) and my wife liked what that did to the turkey juices so much that she let it stand as the flavor of her always-perfect gravy.
In other words, I'm quite smug about my turkey-roasting. You can deep fry your turkey, you can smoke it, you can stuff it (our dressing is baked outside of the bird), and I'll bet yours is every bit as good as mine. But my version of roast turkey is the one we're used to, and so I don't introduce a lot of changes these days.
Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinner are pretty much the same menu for us. My wife's brother and sister have lived in Greensboro for many years, and the three families usually get together for both holidays. I roast one turkey the night before, carve it, and refrigerate all the meat in plastic bags, to serve as take-home leftovers so everyone can make turkey sandwiches after the holiday feast. Hence the four turkeys a year.
But there's always been one problem that nagged at me until this year I finally did something about it. It's the dark-meat problem.
Commercial turkeys today have been bred to have enormous amounts of white meat. And that's fine with me -- I don't hate dark meat, but I can leave it alone. Which is nice, because my wife loves the dark meat and my not having any leaves more for her.
More, but not enough. There I am with leftover white meat for days, but her dark meat, though she eats it sparingly, is all used up almost immediately. The ratios are all wrong.
So this year I was standing there in Fresh Market as they brought out the fresh turkeys we had reserved, and I noticed the separate turkey breasts that they were selling. What happened to the rest of those turkeys?
I asked, and the butcher, kindly trying not to let me see that he thought I was an idiot, pointed to the display right next to those turkey breasts and said, "You mean the thigh-and-drumstick roasts?"
Yeah, that's what I meant. They were right there in front of me, and I hadn't even noticed.
The fact that they existed suggests I'm not the first person to decide to supplement a full turkey with an extra portion of dark meat. But I don't have to be original -- I just have to solve the dark meat shortage.
I came home that day with two turkeys and two thigh-and-drumstick roasts. Each turkey went into the oven with one of thigh-and-drumstick tucked under one end of the bird, the neck and other bits at the other end, so they could all contribute to the juices that would become gravy and also help flavor the dressing.
In other words, I roasted three-legged turkeys this Thanksgiving, and it worked great. Dark meat is always more time-consuming to carve, but at least this year, when I was done with the carving, there was almost as much dark meat as white meat. No shortage this year!
In fact, with the day-of-Thanksgiving turkey, one of our guests pitched in to carve the dark meat off the drumsticks, so that I didn't spend the whole meal carving. I actually sat down and ate while the food was still warm. (Thanks, Jonathan.)
By the way, the giblets do not go into our gravy or dressing, except what I can get from the neck the night before. The rest of the giblets, uncooked, go out onto our patio. The crows have never let them rest there for more than a few minutes.
I figure, why let that meat go to waste, when it can return to the ecosystem by passing through the gullets of crows? And if the crows disdain it, I know our local raccoons and possums will carry the giblets away by night, when they visit our patio on their regular rounds. This lets a portion of the turkey, at least, return to the natural world.
Speaking of the natural world, this year I got curious about what turkeys used to be like, before we domesticated them and bred them to be so top-heavy they can hardly walk.
Having no interest in hunting in the field for wild turkey, I went to D'Artagnan Foods online (http://www.dartagnan.com). If you aren't a fan of The Three Mustketeers, and you don't speak French, you might not know that "D'Artagnan" is pronounced "dar-TAN-yun" -- to rhyme with "banyan."
The character of D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers is a Gascon, which means he's a Basque from the French side of the Pyrenees. (Why "Basque" became interchangeable with "Gasc" sometime in the Middle Ages is beyond me or my sources.) The name simply means "person from the town of Artagnan."
Since Basque country remained wild, and hunting was important long after most of the rest of France and Spain turned to settled agriculture, it makes sense for a butcher shop that supplies wild meat, game, duck, and other poultry to have a Gascon name.
D'Artagnan specializes in "heritage" meats -- that is, meats that are, or closely resemble, the "original" wild form of the bird or beast. This year, we ordered a heritage turkey, and it arrived the Friday before Thanksgiving.
It was about a quarter the volume of a moderate sized commercial turkey, but our plan was not to get a whole Thanksgiving dinner out of it. We simply wanted to know if the heritage bird tasted significantly different from the commercially bred turkey.
We invited some good friends and their two brave sons to come try the meat. I learned a few things. First, even though the meat is nowhere near as thick on the heritage turkey, the bones are pretty much the same size, and a turkey half the weight takes more than half the time to roast.
Second, the white meat tastes exactly the same, as long as I baste it and season it with the same spices.
Third, the heritage turkey provides nowhere near the juices that a commercial turkey gives us -- there was nothing to make gravy out of.
Fourth, despite rumors that the dark meat of a heritage turkey can taste "gamey," we detected no significant difference. Maybe my spices were enough to cover the gaminess, or maybe the dark meat simply tasted the same.
The six of us -- including the eight-year-old and ten-year-old -- had reasonable servings of meat, and then the bird was gone. No leftovers. No feeling of being stuffed full of food.
I can see why the wild turkey looked like a feast to the first European visitors -- it's bigger than a chicken or a duck, and only a very large goose could compete with it. So it's natural that turkey figured in American feasts right from the start.
But heritage turkeys are way more expensive than commercial turkeys that give far more meat. D'Artagnan prepares and ships the heritage turkeys very carefully, and they arrived in perfect condition. But there was nothing about the quantity or flavor of the meat that would lead me to recommend it over the hormone-free fresh turkeys that Fresh Market normally sells.
Still, it was kind of cool to see a turkey that more closely resembled what the Pilgrims would have seen and tasted on that first Thanksgiving. If you've got $150 to $300 for a fresh heritage turkey (or about ten bucks less than that for frozen heritage turkeys of the same sizes), you might enjoy making the same experiment we did.
And who knows? Maybe you'll find a way to roast it that brings out flavors that our friends and we missed.
Second notice: For those whose Christmas plans include giving someone a signed copy of one or more of my books, our local Barnes & Noble in Friendly Center is once again offering a selection of books that I will sign and personalize in time for the book(s) to be sent out before Christmas.
The orders need to come in by email. Then every Monday before Christmas, I'll come by the store, sign all the books ordered the past week, and B&N will either ship them out to the address you provided, or hold them for in-store pickup.
Shipping costs a little extra, but if you're picking up your book(s) there's no charge. My signature is free.
The best way to place your order is by emailing the store at email@example.com. Tell them the titles you want, the names of the people they are to be signed to, and the address to which the books should be shipped after signing. By using email, we can be sure all the spellings are as you want them.
Include your phone number, too, because a store employee will call you for payment information -- we don't want you to put such info in an email.
The books on offer will be hardcovers and trade paperbacks of the Pathfinder series, the Mithermages series (e.g., The Lost Gate), Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and The Swarm, along with Enchantment and Magic Street. These are the books Barnes & Noble will have in stock in the local store.
(This offer is from our local Barnes & Noble only. The national chain and the Barnes & Noble website have nothing to do with this, and won't know what you're talking about if you try to participate through them.)