On the Corner

by Robert Docter – 

We seem to image a relationship between giving thanks and family.

The Thanksgiving I remember best occurred about 50 years ago. The kitchen in the Docter household had been remodeled, and a beautiful new stove and oven installed. The family was to assemble with some very close friends for a great feast. The house was immaculate. My mother had arisen early, probably about six o’clock, and addressed the 24 pound bird now lying prostrate in the “ice box.”

As usual, there was much washing and stuffing and greasing down and tying together. Then, the future tasty morsel was plopped into the large, speckled blue roasting pan. Some quick calculations were made about the time of roasting in relation to the time of eating, and the oven was set with that new fangled timer. The turkey was in.

My mother stayed in the kitchen whirling and flashing, stabbing and peeling with a series of wicked knives –alternately boiling water, submerging vegetables, and getting the pressure cooker settled down. She had recently learned how to master the pressure cooker after decorating our newly painted ceiling with bubbles of congealing home made soup. It was a highly active room, and one got in the way at one’s peril.

What anticipation and delight was ours as the smells within the kitchen began to waft their way through the house.

My father always had plans on Thanksgiving day–and they usually included his sons and anyone else he could draft. These plans meant that we would all abandon my mother and undertake another project. My dad had appointed himself “guardian of the press” for that day. He assumed his primary responsibility was to feed every employee stuck in a city room in all five of the Los Angeles daily newspapers.

He had caused several turkeys to be cooked the day before and had purchased several loaves of bread. The red and white jars of mayonnaise and cranberry sauce blended nicely in one of the large paper sacks. The carving knife, fork and sharpener were wrapped in a clean dish towel and stored. Paper cups, thermoses of coffee and bottles of pop were added. Plenty of paper plates were available. He had his tall chef’s hat and his white apron loaded, and we all piled into the family Studebaker for the trip downtown.

When we arrived at a paper, we would storm into the lobby together. He had always taught me to “smile and keep walking” when confronted by guards. He would breeze into the elevator carrying a 20 pound turkey, his entourage following with all the “fixings” –sweep into the city room–and plop the turkey and its platter on top of a gingham tablecloth spread on the horseshoe-shaped city desk.

Even before he got to the desk, the shouts would ring out: “Doc’s here!” The telephone calls were made to friends within the building, and people would assemble at the city desk as he stood with his giant white hat stroking the knife with a rhythm and sound unique to him against the steel sharpener. He grabbed a turkey leg and hacked it off. He had dark meat in a second on one paper plate. Then, a few deft strokes on the breast and he had great slabs of white meat.

He seemed to know most of them by name, and the banter was hilarious. They made their own sandwiches while he kept carving. He would say something like: “The Salvation Army says ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ ” and we would all march out. Five papers and as many carcasses later we started home, ready for our own turkey.

Tragedy had struck.

The house was full of smoke. My mother met us at the door, wiping her hands on her apron, crying, shaking her head. She waved us into the kitchen where we found our Thanksgiving turkey to be nothing but a cinder. The new oven didn’t fit the calculations of the old one. Forever, it has been enshrined as the “Great Cinder of ’48.” She looked at my father, not knowing what he would think or could do.

He roared–his stomach shaking with laughter. My brother and I smiled tentatively, thinking only of food. The rest of the meal was fine, but what’s Thanksgiving without turkey? He went to the telephone, made one call–to a friend who happened to own the Hollywood Brown Derby–got in his car, and about 40 minutes later he walked in with the tastiest, biggest turkey we had ever seen–its golden skin glistening against the polished silver and sparkling crystal.

The “Great Cinder of ’48” has lived on at every Thanksgiving occasion in our home since.

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