You’re probably wondering why anyone in their right mind would buy ten turkeys even with Thanksgiving approaching? Leaving the right mind part out of it, I confess that I found myself with ten frozen turkeys in my freezer last year. I tried to justify this absurdity by listing all the reasons it made sense to purchase an entire rafter of these Thanksgiving birds.
At that time, I worked as a private chef, and I had a bazillion recipes I could make that featured turkey as an ingredient. Further, justifying my purchase was the fact I love to cook. Roasting a flavorful and tender bird was something I rarely had the opportunity to do. However, despite my convenient and albeit creative excuses as to why I keep my pantry and freezer full of food, I eventually realized that none of these things honestly had to do with the reason I bought ten turkeys.
My ten-turkey saga began innocently enough. I arrived at the Stop & Shop early one morning last October with a shopping list on my iPhone notepad. My daughter, who lives on campus at a local college, asked me to pick up some sliced turkey or ham for her lunches. As I stood at the deli counter, I saw that Boars Head Simply Turkey breast was on sale. Then I saw the $10.50 a pound price tag and realized it just wasn’t in the budget. I knew from experience that the store brand was made with all the preservatives and fillers I avoid like the plague. The ham wasn’t much cheaper, either, and it was a brand full of nitrates. As a founding member of the food label reader’s guild, I am painfully aware of what’s in most processed food. No sodium nitrates, BHA, or BHT for my kids! I handed my ticket to the next person in line and began cruising the aisles looking for the other items on my list.
Soon I had almost everything on my list except something for my daughter’s lunches and something to cook for our ritual Sunday dinner. As I headed towards the back of the store, I decided to purchase a chicken and thought about all the ways to prepare it. I imagined the magical flavors a marinade of buttermilk would unlock. I delighted in thoughts of adding a bit of olive oil, minced garlic, and parsley. Twenty-four hours in the fridge and it would be ready for salt and pepper before popping it into a 400-degree oven to cook. My mind was made up when I recalled I still had to buy something for my daughter’s lunches. Maybe she’d like some yogurt. I headed back towards the dairy aisle.
And that’s when I saw it! A whole freezer case of turkeys for just thirty-eight cents a pound. These weren’t your basic Butterball, Shady Brook, or Jennie-O frozen turkeys. These were the store’s premium brand, fed an all-vegetarian diet without growth hormones!
What’s the catch? I read the sign more carefully, sure I missed something. Did I need a particular coupon? Did someone make a mistake when they posted this sale? I looked around, as though I was taking advantage of someone’s colossal error.
After some quick calculations, I realized a small turkey would less than what I was prepared to spend on the whole large chicken. So, I put one into my cart. Reason began slipping away when I turned back and grabbed another. Why not?
Because my family always travels to my in-laws for the holidays, I’ve never once hosted a holiday meal. On Thanksgiving, we’d sit down to a catered meal that comes with all the various side dishes followed by store-bought cheesecakes, pies, or brownies for desserts. Ditto on Christmas and Easter. Sometimes the dinner featured a turkey, sometimes a ham. Delicious? Yes. But it’s pretty much the same meal every holiday; perfect in every way.
Therein lies the problem. There’s nothing magical about it. No one takes burnt rolls out of the oven or laughs about forgetting to serve the cranberry sauce. There are no lumps in the mashed potatoes, no golden-brown crust on a pie, and no taste to the gravy. I put the third turkey in my shopping cart.
As I stood in the checkout line, I dreamt about all the things I could do with the turkeys, joyful at the possibilities. I had visions of recreating my childhood Thanksgiving dinner. Memories of the foods I grew-up on flooded my mind. I fantasized about serving this magnificent bird with all the trimmings for our Sunday dinner instead of the boring old chicken I’d salivated over just moments before. I’d have my daughter invite her roommates over and decided I’d call a friend or two to join us. I could have bread stuffing instead of meat stuffing. Oh, and those little pearl onions in butter sauce too! I’d make a green bean casserole and turnips just so my kids could learn why no one eats them. The pies would be made from scratch and the cranberry sauce and gravy too. Lost in the fantasy of stuffing and basting my bird, the lady in the back of me had to nudge me along as I floated towards the cashier in turkey heaven.
I could almost taste the Turkey soup, White Bean Turkey Chili, and Turkey Croquettes on the ride home. I could serve open-faced Turkey Sandwiches with homemade gravy the following week.
When I got home, I made room in my upright freezer, added two of the turkeys to the third shelf, and put one in the refrigerator to defrost. Then I texted a close friend with my big news,
“S&S has NP turkeys on sale. (Thumbs up emoji.) 38 cents a lb. Cooking one 4 dinner Sunday. Do you want to come?”
“Wow,” she texted back. “Can’t. Visiting Annie. Can you pick me up a couple?”
“Sure!” I responded with a smiley face that didn’t reflect my true feelings. I returned to clean out my freezer to make room for her turkeys.
Later that day, I went back to the store to purchase two more turkeys. Instead of just buying the two for my friend, I put four in my cart. I was about to leave, and impulse took over, and I wheeled my cart around and headed back for more. By the time the day was over, I had ten turkeys in my freezer!
Did I ask myself, What the hell am I doing? Or Do I really need these? No. My ability to be rational was wholly absent, and the turkeys stayed in the cart.
As I tried to fall asleep that night, I wondered why I felt a need to buy so many? Yes, they were a bargain. Sure, I’d only spent a little over seventy dollars for the entire lot. Still, I began to wonder what was the real motivation behind this indulgence. Maybe it’s a wise-tale that the tryptophan in turkey makes you sleepy. Before any of this registered, though, I was in dreamland.
The next day, thoughts of my recent, slightly irrational purchase (okay, completely irrational) faded as I attributed my actions to taking advantage of a great sale. Eventually, however, I began to unravel the reasons for my behavior.
Self-reflection is a funny thing. Sometimes it takes a long time to see ourselves. Sometimes we never do. Often the things that are so obvious to others eclipse our vision, and we go through life, never knowing something others know about us, and we never discover about ourselves. Maybe because every time I opened my freezer, the sheer quantity and size of these birds forced me to connect the real reason, I now had ten turkeys. I was still feeling the effects of the food insecurity I experienced when my husband died of cancer, leaving me to raise our twins alone.
I was woefully unprepared for the financial upheaval that his unexpected death caused. Unreliable transportation, a terrible economy, a knee injury, and my patchwork resume left me without a means to earn a decent income. The rent alone for our tiny apartment left me paying half of my social security benefits on rent each month and another chuck on utilities. It left little for food and clothing. I was always so frightened that I wouldn’t be able to take care of my kids. The only way I made it through was to stretch an already tight grocery budget tighter. Recalling that time in my life caused a great deal of anxiety. But reflecting on those days also helped me understand why I was obsessed with food items on sale.
What made me feel even more vulnerable was when I did a bit of research trying to understand how to cope with these feelings. I learned that the U.S. has roughly 40 million other people who also face the same problem. Even though it was less of a me thing and more of an us thing, I couldn’t wrap my head around the facts. How come so many people in the world’s wealthiest country suffering from this complex issue?
And like many others, my experience at that time lead to other problems, like health issues. Because I could not afford sufficient nutritional foods for our family, I went from being a borderline diabetic to being a full-blown diabetic. I wasn’t eating or preparing “junk food.” However, the simple carbohydrates in the pasta, rice, and other starchy and cheap foods that I relied on to stretch my food dollar added to these health issues.
I was lucky to have realized this early on so I could make better choices. But leftover bills from my late husband’s illness, food, or rent, left me unable to escape the cycle for years. The stress of the situation didn’t help either. When I thought back on those days, it still causes concern. I guess that’s why the impulse to grab things on sale never left me. Even though life is so much better, I am still only one paycheck away from disaster… (another thing I share with millions of Americans.) So, I decided I had to permit myself to stockpile a reasonable amount of food if it meant that it provided the security I needed to cope.
I also realized the experience taught me a lot about humility. I was once a person who looked down on those who needed help to get by. It never occurred to me that one day, I too might need help. I used to make a six-figure income and had a beautiful home, and could afford to buy whatever I food items I wanted. Seeing someone use food stamps to purchase something like ice cream sent me over the edge. Until I was the one buying ice cream with food stamps because it was the only thing my husband with Esophageal cancer could eat.
Looking back to last October and those pre-COVID-19 days, my perspective changed entirely, and it continues to change as I learn from the hardships of life without the same sense of financial stability I once enjoyed. As weird as it sounds, these difficulties have helped me understand things I might never have otherwise.
I might not have much in my bank account these days, but I’ve learned to appreciate everything I have and then some. This is especially true now when so many in our country are faced with the same food insecurity.
So what did I do the next weekend last October? I bought three more turkeys. As I place them on the belt, the cashier looked at me quizzically. I laughed, half-embarrassed as she scanned them.
“I’m bringing these to a food bank for their Thanksgiving Day baskets,” I explained.
She laughed and replied, “That’s what I thought. I mean, why else would anyone buy three turkeys?”
I smiled as I left the store, imagining all the left-overs these three turkeys would make for a struggling family.