It started when we moved the prize turkey down to the fridge.
Michael had dragged the wheeled cart out to Kroger to buy our week’s groceries, with a gift card from a generous friend. That’s how we do most of the shopping during the current COVID spike. Once in awhile we chance the bus, if it’s not crowded, and get cheaper groceries at Aldi or Wal Mart. But usually we drag the cart to the slightly more expensive place and walk it back so we won’t be sitting trapped in a vehicle with belligerent Steubenville folks who refuse to mask. Michael stuffed the cart with so many groceries at once that he qualified for a free turkey giveaway. And when he got to the freezer section, the only turkey left weighed nearly twenty pounds. That’s how we ended up with a gigantic headless bird in my tiny freezer in the first place. I was excited.
This is the first year we’re making just enough money to not qualify for government EBT benefits. I don’t have to spend the food assistance card. It’s wonderful, but it’s also a challenge, suddenly learning to meal plan without the monthly safety net. That much free meat for a special occasion is a great treat.
When I moved the turkey to the fridge to thaw for Thanksgiving, I must have knocked something loose in our ancient refrigerator. It never quite works properly. The freezer either fills with a thick layer of ice which causes the fridge to warm up, or else the freezer stays just below optimal and meat I put in to freeze takes several days to go completely solid. But getting the turkey out was the occasion for it to break entirely. Next thing I knew, the frozen vegetables went soft. A few nights before Thanksgiving, they were mush. Everything in the fridge was fine, just the freezer.
It was so hectic I made a mental note to tell the landlord sometime after the big holiday weekend. We were going to cook the remaining items in the freezer anyway.
And then I woke up on Wednesday morning to a tepid freezer and a near-tepid fridge.
The fridge was stuffed, not only with my turkey, but with eggs and milk and buttermilk and other goodies for Thanksgiving baking. I have to bake everything myself because Rosie and I are gluten free. I’d spent more than I meant to on treats because we’d been so frugal lately, and it was so much fun to have everything we needed for a great big Thanksgiving dinner. I feel about Thanksgiving about the same way I feel about the Fourth of July— it’s all based on a pleasant myth of what our country ought to be, and America doesn’t deserve a party this year. But Rosie, Michael and I have been through hell. We deserve a party. I wanted a treat.
Michael did everything he could to salvage the fridge, cleaning the coils and such, but it was dead. The freezer had turned into a cabinet, and the fridge was a fan blowing air onto quickly warming groceries.
I started to panic.
People who used to be food insecure and now are much better can tell you, this is a panic-inducing situation. It’s scary and traumatic to not have what you need. I flashed back to the absolute worst times in my life: Rose’s first Christmas when we had nothing, the times we had to beg friends for a little grocery money to get through the month, the times I made chicken stock with every bone and scrap not because I like too cook but because we were desperate to hoard every calorie.
I was halfway to full-blown hysteria when I realized that Rosie had slept in til noon undisturbed because I wasn’t running upstairs to order her out of bed the customary two or three times. I went back to panicking as Rosie dressed and watched Power Rangers on Netflix. Then she asked for something to eat, which is when I remembered that she’d have no breakfast if we couldn’t open the fridge to get the milk out. I hadn’t eaten yet either. So I boosted the tip jar online walked her to the shopping center for a hot meal.
Halfway through the twenty-minute walk, it started to rain.
We ordered Chinese food to go– fried rice is the one thing on the menu that never triggers our allergies. We sat in the Chinese restaurant foyer in our masks, trying not to be alarmed by all the plexiglass they’d set up around the counters for safety. Everything is scary and alarming this year.
On the way out of the Chinese restaurant, we found ourselves under an increasingly heavy downpour and had to run.
We dashed into Kroger, where we bought an on-sale cocktail shrimp ring, which was the one supper I could think of that could thaw on the counter for several hours and not go bad. We bought a bottle of cold brew coffee because I couldn’t open the fridge to get my pitcher of homemade cold brew coffee out. And then I went to the freezer case for a gluten-free ready-made birthday cake, the kind Rosie knows not to ask for because they are expensive and for “special occasions” only. The small Kroger trip cost a small fortune. We caught the bus home, which was far too crowded and scared me to death, but I didn’t know what else to do.
Meanwhile, Michael was frantically cleaning the downstairs so we could let the landlord in.
I ate the fried rice and birthday cake, my first meal of the day, in tears.
We spent the day cleaning up and waiting for a text or a call from the landlord– in vain, because it just happens to be the one solitary week of the year when the landlord is traveling and doesn’t see his texts. I know he’ll fix or replace the fridge right away when he comes back, because he’s always quick with repairs. but we slowly realized we were stuck for a couple of days.
We also realized that stuffing the fridge with sacks of ice would turn it into an old-fashioned ice box, a temporary fix. He dragged the hand cart to the grocery store and came back with fresh milk, forty pounds of ice, and a pile of scrap iron that used to be our hand cart. The weight of the ice had destroyed it when he was almost home.
We threw out nearly everything in the fridge: the condiments, the leftovers, the cheese, the old milk, some meat I’d put in the fridge to thaw and make soup with when the freezer stopped working and I thought it would only get that bad. I knew butter could stay fresh at room temperature and eggs last a long time, so we kept them.
Hoping against hope, I put the turkey in the sink and opened the wrapping. To my relief, it did not smell. It was completely thawed, but quite cold in the middle. I looked up how to slow-roast and threw the turkey with the aromatics in the oven to cook gradually overnight.
Michael stuffed our remaining few groceries on the middle shelf between ice bags.
I made patee brisee dough and ate shrimp.
When I woke up in the morning, the dough was chilled, and the milk tasted fine. The fridge’s fan blowing air over the ice did what a working refrigerator is supposed to do, though it also created a puddle on the kitchen floor. Pumpkin comes from a can and potatoes are shelf-stable, so I made pie and biscuits and mashed potatoes. I chopped up a loaf of gluten-free bread for dressing. I cooked all morning and into the afternoon, while Rosie and I watched the Macy’s parade and the Dog Show.
The turkey turned out better than any turkey I’ve ever made– so good, I’m going to slow roast it on purpose next year. Unless next year, the appliance that decides to break is our oven.
We’ll have to restock our whole fridge and freezer when the landlord gets back, which will be a huge pain. But for the moment, we have a functioning mini-fridge that works perfectly, though it’s soggy, as long as we replace the ice bags once a day.
So, what am I thankful for?
I’m thankful we saved the turkey, certainly. I’m thankful that, with help from our friends, we can afford to get ice and save Thanksgiving. I’m thankful that my penchant for disaster makes for fun story writing after the disaster is over.
I am profoundly thankful to have gotten this far in such a strange, challenging year.
Considering how bad things are, life is surprisingly good. And that’s a wonderful thing to be thankful for.
I do hope Christmas goes better than Thanksgiving, though.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.
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