Funny Thanksgiving cooking disasters: fires, cats and other critters

(Tara Jacoby for The Washington Post)


We asked readers to share their horrific and hilarious stories of Thanksgiving meals gone awry — and the results were as delicious as a golden-brown turkey (unlike the charred birds that featured in some readers’ tales). From exploding oven doors to critter encounters (raccoons, squirrels and one particularly ravenous Labrador puppy), your misadventures made for delightful cautionary tales and mysteries. (How did that dish towel wind up inside the main course?)

Some themes emerged: For one, it’s almost always the blasted turkey that trips people up. Maybe because they’re often large (both unwieldy and tricky to cook all the way through) and not something people prepare on a regular basis, turkeys are the once-a-year encounter that proves particularly perilous.

Another commonality was even more universal. So many of you ended your tales with some variation of this: “That was 43 years ago, we love that memory and still laugh about it” or “To this day, when either one of us sees a turkey in the oven, we say ‘Remember when …’” These are stories told and retold over the decades — sometimes, I assume, picking up dramatic details along the way, at least if your family is anything like mine — forming shared lore that creates bonds and a collective identity. Which is, more than any perfectly prepared meal, something we should all be thankful for.

From turkey to pie, all your thanksgiving questions, answered

Here are some of our favorites, which have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Dinner was all ready, and the spread — Cornish hens and all the sides — was warming in the oven, said Lauren Krouse, a 30-year-old writer from Harrisonburg, Va. She and her husband were having a quiet holiday, just the two of them, when “for some reason, and we don’t know why, my husband flipped on the self-cleaning function.” The oven door locked, with their Thanksgiving feast inside. Frantic Googling ensued. They unplugged the oven, but still couldn’t get the stubborn beast’s door to open.

Though she was tired from all the baking and cooking, Krouse soon switched functions herself and whipped up an alternate menu of steak with mushrooms and broccoli. Coda: That oven door never did open. Even repairmen tried and failed. Eventually, they moved the stove, which had started to stink, onto the porch while they waited for a replacement. “I like to think that somewhere, in some landfill, our Thanksgiving dinner is still encased in that darn oven: a beautiful fossilized feast,” she said.

“I was in the living room watching football and we heard a loud BANG! in the kitchen. We all ran in expecting the worst, only to see our father standing there with a confused and slightly terrified look on his face,” wrote Andrew Billhardt of Chicago. “Apparently, he decided that he wanted to flavor the turkey drippings with bourbon; a little while later the bourbon ignited and blew the oven door off the hinges and sent it flying into the cabinets on the opposite side of the kitchen. He reattached the oven door and the turkey turned out fine, but we have never let him live it down.”

“My fiancees’ extended family said their turkey smoker would make the ‘best ever’ turkey. The bird was a 24-pound fresh turkey, and they designated midnight as the start time,” recalled Paul Moe of Jacksonville, Fla. “Around 9 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, one of the brothers checked the progress. Someone forgot to plug in the smoker. Since the overnight temperature was in the low 60s, we decided it wasn’t a good idea to cook this bird. All they could find was a frozen turkey. It was almost 11 p.m. when everything was finally ready. Worst Thanksgiving ever.”

About 30 years ago on Thanksgiving, a neighbor knocked on Kevin Thomas’s door with a question: Was he missing his turkey? Thomas, 70, now retired and living in Wilmington, N.C., replied that no, theirs was safely defrosting in the garage atop the chest freezer. “He asked, ‘Are you sure?’” They checked, and indeed, the bird was missing and the garage door had been accidentally left ajar. “His Labrador retriever puppy had been chewing on a turkey that wasn’t theirs,” Thomas said. The neighbor insisted on replacing it, but all he could find was a massive 25-pounder.

Dinner was late and the family had weeks of leftovers, he said, but he and his now-grown kids still laugh at the memory. “There’ll be three dogs at dinner this year,” Thomas said. “We’ll keep an eye on them.”

Diane Harlan of Portland, Ore., was helping her mother carve second helpings for their family dinner. “We went into the kitchen and to our absolute horror, there was a black tail coming out of the turkey cavity,” she wrote. “We literally had to pull the cat out of the turkey by the tail and he was clawing like mad to stay right where he was. We got him out, but he was covered in turkey juice and the remnants of stuffing.”

“My late husband and I had our parents join us,” wrote Diane Ashworth of Clayton, N.C. “It was the first time that everyone had met each other. Everything was made from scratch, and I had worked for two days preparing it. The guest of honor was a 23-pound turkey which looked like it could have been the picture in a cookbook. Just as I was carrying it from the kitchen to the dining room, my toy poodle ran in front of me. Down I went! My platter was broken, my beautiful turkey splattered on the carpet, and me with my less-than-gracious entrance in the horizontal position on the floor. End of story: We ate everything else, and a couple of years later, it became funny (to everyone but me). The carpet still has a faint stain at the scene of the crime — a memento of the best Thanksgiving there never was.”

What’s inside that bird?

“I kept putting the stuffing in the turkey. More and more. It was called stuffing,” wrote Lupe Morales of El Paso, describing her very first attempt at preparing turkey. “As we finished setting the table and making sure there was enough ice, I heard it. Pouff! Pouff! Then the smell. A small stream of smoke started to come out of the top of the stove. My beautiful turkey, slathered in five pounds of butter, was a little on fire! My turkey was exploding! The stuffing was shooting out and slamming into the sides of the oven! Stuffing everywhere. I had never witnessed such a display of culinary chaos in my life! I managed to clean the stove and salvage what was left of the exploding stuffing into a casserole dish. The dinner was tasty, and no one got salmonella.”

“Years ago, I spent Thanksgiving with my college roommate and her family,” wrote Lynda Webster of Washington, Va. “Her dad did the cooking, and as he was preparing the big meal, asked us if we had seen his dish cloth. None of us could find it. Odd. A few hours later, we heard a huge thud coming from the kitchen. We raced to the kitchen to find dad on the floor, doubled up and laughing. Upon removing the turkey from the oven and taking the dressing out of the big bird’s cavity, he found his missing dish cloth.”

“I was a nurse, working another holiday, when my late husband decided we should host Thanksgiving dinner after I finished my shift,” wrote Beverly Hine of Sun City Center, Fla. “I prepped as much as possible, put things in containers in the fridge and left written instructions. I came home to the turkey in the oven, with the cavity showing the cheesecloth lining, just as I had instructed. But where was my lime jello/cabbage salad? Not in the fridge, but stuffed in the turkey! His comment: ‘Well, the stuffing you always make has lots of green things in it, and that was green.’ I managed to remove his ‘stuffing’ with the assistance of the cheesecloth, and get the real stuffing baked. The memory of this is such a strong family story that it was told during his memorial service with even my daughter and I chuckling through our tears.”

What your guests don’t know can’t hurt them, right? That’s clearly the attitude of many readers, whose Thanksgiving meals included a side of subterfuge.

It didn’t take long for Kevin Rochlin, a now-retired engineer from Seattle, to settle on his game plan. As he had done in previous years, he had placed his turkey in a large stock pot to brine, and since the temperature was cold enough and his refrigerator not big enough, he secured the lid with twine and left it outside overnight to work its magic. One year, though, some marauding raccoons gnawed through the rope and helped themselves to the turkey that had bobbed to the surface. “It was surgically precise,” Rochlin said, confined to one drumstick. He quickly thought through his options, and decided on the easiest path. “I lopped off the leg, and no one was the wiser,” he said.

He kept the secret by carving the turkey first rather than presenting it whole, and his younger daughter only discovered it later in the evening when she overheard him discussing it with his wife. “She was horrified — she was like, ‘Dad, you could have killed us!’” he said. “The tale has been told for years after, as the two of us try to get family members to take our side on what should have been done,” he said. An epilogue? Both his daughters, he said, are now vegetarians.

“The turkey slipped away from its trays and landed in the parking lot,” wrote Peter Rodnite of Solomons Island, Md. “The five-second rule was in effect, and I quickly brushed off the bird. I decided not to tell my friends. On my first bite of turkey, I came close to breaking a tooth as I bit into the smallest piece of gravel. I quickly looked around and was relieved that my friends were not sharing my gravelly experience. My friends did later tell me they found the turkey ‘a little crunchy,’ but were kind enough to not mention it. I eventually spilled the beans, and we still laugh about it.”

“It was time to make the gravy,” wrote Melinda Bates of Woodstock, Va. But when she dumped some flour into the pan of turkey juices, “To my horror, I saw a bunch of little black bugs. It would be impossible to remove them individually. I took a quick look over to the living room, and no one was paying any attention to the kitchen. I picked up the pan and dumped the contents into my blender, added the water and turned it on. I figured the bugs were tiny enough to not impact the flavor and hopefully not poison the guests, so what they did not know would not hurt them. The mixture came out nice and smooth, and when poured back into the pan it cooked up into a delicious gravy that everyone enjoyed. My little secret. Until now.”

“At Thanksgiving dinner sometime in the 1940s,” wrote Lucy Davidson of Dawsonville, Ga., the turkey slipped off the platter and skidded across the floor. “My grandfather, as host, was unperturbed and instructed, ‘Bring in the other turkey.’ The wayward bird was retrieved and back inside the kitchen, discretely replated. Then, this ‘other’ turkey made an equally ceremonious but undramatic presentation to the table. For the remainder of his life, my father greeted any culinary or serving mishap with, ‘Bring in the other turkey.’”

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