Trash Can Turkey With White Wine

It’s been my experience that people under stress generally respond in one of two ways: they either shut down, sleep more, become lethargic and gain weight; or they become frantic, insomniac, impossible to calm and they lose.

I’m a loser.

When my first husband left our family — out of frustration and addiction and through little fault of his own — I was in my last year of grad school and I found myself, suddenly, the single, unemployed mother of three. Nights were particularly scary; I lay awake and panicked. Mealtimes made my stomach clench. So I paced and pushed the food around on my plate and ran miles each day in an attempt to burn away the fear.

I dropped 20 pounds in less than 8 weeks. About half my hair fell out, I failed a bone scan, there was a long sore on my back from where my bones poked through my skin. It pains me to tell you that women would stop me on the street to tell me I looked fabulous and ask me how I’d managed to lose the weight. The men I knew, by and large, asked if I was OK and plied me with food. I suspect it is no coincidence that my son, Maxwell — a caretaker even at 10 — became a great cook that year.

On Sunday mornings, he made authentic Irish scones, which he served with tea and cream. Evenings, it was vegetarian Thai curry, pasta stuffed with pumpkin, and once, an authentic Cuban meal of black beans, peppers, hot sausage, and rice. Max got so good, friends of mine would hire him to make appetizers or desserts for their dinner parties. He watched the Food Network and talked about his plan to attend either Johnson & Wales or the CIA.

At Thanksgiving that year, it was just the four of us. I had no idea how to roast a turkey — this had always been my husband’s area of expertise — and it really wasn’t in me even to try. But before I could even investigate alternatives, Max announced he was planning to brine a 20-pound bird. He had me buy him a brand-new 5-gallon trash can, then filled it with sugar, salt, peppercorns, red wine vinegar and water, and slipped the turkey in. He set his alarm and at 4 a.m., he got up briefly to stir.

"Because it’s an aqueous environment, the vinegar and salt get into the pores of the turkey," Max told me. "It helps moisten the meat." I have no idea where he learned to speak this way. . . .

The meat was, indeed, excellent, as I recall. Though I’m pretty sure anything this stoic little boy had put on the table would have filled me with pride. And I remembered that November of seven years ago today, when I ran across a recipe for Brined Roasted Turkey Breast with White Wine Sauce from Chef Ethan McKee of Rock Creek at Mazza, in Washington D.C.

For me, life got better. I found a job, bought a house, got my kids into a great school system, started dating again, and published a book. Thanks in large part to Max, I put the 20 pounds back on (plus a couple more); my hair grew back, my skin healed, and my bones somehow survived. More important, I watched my kids pull together and I learned that a brave ten-year-old who’s just lost his father can find the wherewithal to make a holiday turkey in a can meant for trash.

Over time, Max’s plans have changed. When he leaves for college next fall, he’ll be pre-med rather than a student at a culinary school. But I’m struck by how similar theses courses are: he’ll be taking care of people one way or another — feeding them or healing them. It’s very much the same.