Steps, Missteps and Revisions: Cooking Turkeys and Writing Essays

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NOTE: I tell the following story with the intention of working to alleviate small frustrations in the contexts of times when writing, teaching, and learning might feel terribly fraught, if not irrelevant and impossible, even though acknowledging historic and contemporary atrocities and offering sympathy is not enough. Given the cataclysmic and too often unspoken dimensions of the Thanksgiving story, it remains critical to keep in mind the catastrophic and deeply distressing challenges of our current historical moment. 

Autumn in New York: A One Way street sign is framed  by blue sky and a tree with red leaves and bare branches. Not shown: two people lugging home a ten-pound frozen turkey  on a 6-block walk home.  Photo by Susan Bernstein November 2023Autumn in New York: A One Way street sign is framed by blue sky and a tree with red leaves and bare branches. Not shown: two people lugging home a ten-pound frozen turkey on a 6-block walk home. Photo by Susan Bernstein November 2023

 

How is cooking a turkey like writing an essay? I never thought I would ask that question because I never planned to cook a turkey. Nevertheless, by the end of Thanksgiving weekend, I had revised my perspective. But first a story that helps to illustrate the processes of changing my mind.

The week before Thanksgiving, my partner and I won a ten-pound frozen turkey in a raffle at the senior center. We bought the tickets to support the center, but we never expected to win a turkey. Our number was called and we were incredulous. My working memory immediately hit overload. My partner and I had a quiet holiday at home, just the two of us. What would we do with a ten-pound turkey?

“We will eat it,”  said my partner. 

“But who will cook it?” I asked. 

“We will cook it,” my partner said. But I did not know how.

Because my years in junior high school coincided with second wave feminism’s call for liberation from poorly compensated and unpaid housework, it was a point of pride that I had nearly failed home economics. At the time, home ec was required for girls only; we were taught how to sew and cook and furnish a home. All of these tasks required following very intricate instructions to the letter–something that, as an undiagnosed neurodivergent tween, I could not do. My working memory (although I would not have called it that at the time) often flooded with frustration, and defaulted to DIY (“Do It Yourself”) mode. DIY was not the preferred option in home ec, and all these years later, my working memory rebelled at the thought of all the intricate instructions involved cooking such an immense turkey.

 

First we had to carry the turkey six blocks home. Half-way there, I wondered if we should have called a cab. A ten-pound frozen turkey is not ten pounds when it is frozen solid. The turkey came in a plastic shopping bag, and the bag handles broke very quickly. Between the two of us,  we traded off holding the frozen bird in the broken-handled plastic bag on fairly deserted residential streets. Finally, I remembered that I had a cloth shopping bag in my backpack, and the turkey fit right in. Between the two of us, we eventually managed to lug our turkey home.

More drama followed. Would the turkey fit in our small freezer (It did.)? Would we be able to find the right pans and utensils to cook the turkey? (We did, after several trips to grocery and big box stores.) How would we know when it was completely defrosted and ready to cook? (We didn’t. I used all my upper body strength to pull out a giblets package and turkey neck covered in frost and seemingly stuck inside the body cavity. We let the turkey sit in cold water afterward.) Should we brine it, or baste it, or rub it with olive oil? (We didn’t, for simplicity’s sake.) Did we really need a rack? (We didn’t. We covered the bottom of the pan with raw carrots and celery stalks.) 

And so on. 

The unexpected force needed to remove the turkey neck caused a revelation. Is this what students feel at the beginning of the semester when faced with writing their first college essay? That completing an essay now involved a significant, and often much longer, focus on process including discovery, drafts, missteps, and revisions? That the fixed set of rules students have shared with me over the years were now much more complicated? That writing no longer involved following intricate instructions (as students often explained) to yield a standard product?

Over the years, students have recounted what this product was supposed to look like (approximately): Five hundred words, five separate paragraphs, 100 words for each paragraph, and five sentences per paragraph. Nice and precise, and be sure to not use “I” or to include your own opinion. DIY modifications would generally not yield finished products that students needed to achieve high scores on the many required high-stakes tests that seemed to determine a successful future. 

But college writing isn’t usually like that, and, for many of my students, college writing is a giant step outside the comfort zone. Suddenly process matters just as much as product.

Did this analogy hold? Was process as important as product?  While I did not expect our turkey to look like the ones I saw on the Food Network website, I also did not want us to contract salmonella poisoning.

So I did what I imagine students do when they try to figure out how to write for college courses: checking the internet (looking up different recipes for cooking a turkey), watched YouTube (videos of chefs demonstrating various steps of turkey preparation) crowdsourced with more experienced friends (contacting folks who I knew liked to cook),and even a judicious use of AI for further assistance with directions (texting the turkey company’s chatbot when the built-in meat thermometer didn’t pop out after four hours of cooking in a properly preheated oven).

There was drama, and there were missteps and steps revised. My partner and I made up the revised steps as we went along. We realized we had probably not cooked a whole frozen turkey in this millennium, or at least in many many years. But in the end we had dinner, and the next day I made turkey stock soup from the bones and the drippings, only loosely following the very helpful recipe a friend texted me the day before Thanksgiving. In the end, what I thought would be a disaster felt more like a sense of accomplishment in completing a task that seemed inconceivable in the beginning. 

In working to stay focused in these last weeks of fall term, my aim is that students feel a sense of accomplishment. In taking on tasks that seem impossible at the start, no outcome is ever guaranteed. Yet learning to mitigate the trials and tribulations of the writing process remains key to undertaking the goals of first-year college writing. Through steps, missteps, and revisions, and hopefully with much less drama than my turkey story, students can begin to recognize what it means to learn and to continue to grow as writers.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.