How Gruesome Was My Thanksgiving! (A Baltimore Fishbowl Contest)

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Remember the time Uncle Philbert, freshly released from “the facility,” volunteered to eat all of the fallen mashed potatoes off the kitchen floor…wearing only a jockstrap and gingham apron?

What about the year your entire extended family voted to skip the tradition of a home-cooked meal and instead travel from multiple Maryland cities to meet at a beloved, always-open Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Baltimore, only to discover upon hungry arrival that the restaurant actually closed shop on this one, single day of the year and no other? By then, your bulimic brother-in-law Jerry, already in the throes of hypoglycemic hysteria, tears trickling, was screaming at your sister: “I just wanted moo goo gai pan! I lost my job this year. Is moo goo too effing much to ask?”

Or how about the Black Friday your snotty cousin Dierdre gave birth to twins during the pre-dawn line-up outside of Costco? You never thought you’d bond with that gal, but never say…

Have we jogged your horrid holiday memory yet?

All terrible stories should take place on or around Thanksgiving. Deadline: This Wednesday at 5 p.m.

Word count: 500 max.

Winner to be announced/published Thanksgiving Day! Let us hear by posting a comment below. (The gruesomer the better.)

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  1. All of my Thanksgiving memories are mediocre. Not good, not bad, just overall, run-of-the-mill average. And, in the scheme of things that are the worst, but really aren’t actually that bad (in the Larger Scheme of things), that’s the worst. I mean, the absolute worst, right up there with cold toilet seats and running out of bananas the day you really kind of would have liked to have had a banana.

  2. I was twenty-something the first time I cooked Thanksgiving dinner. I had just moved in with a guy we’ll call Clark Kent. I was madly in love, and determined to demonstrate my domestic prowess. We invited my grandmother, aunt, uncle, and bunches of friends. We invited his mother from out of state.

    That Thursday morning when I began cooking the meal, Mrs. Kent ensconced herself in a chair beside the stove to supervise.

    The turkey had to be browned on all sides, she said.

    I knitted my brow at her, still smiling. What do you mean?

    On the bottom, she said.

    Oh, okay–wait, what???

    She crossed her arms. You have to turn the turkey upside down in the pan and brown the underside. You don’t want the bottom of the turkey to be pale and blah.

    Still smiling, me: B-b-b-but, Mrs. Kent, if the bottom of the turkey is on the platter, who will see it?

    She, her lipstick forming a hard, red Maginot line: I’m not eating a pale, blah turkey. And neither will anyone else. It’ll look sickly.

    I glanced at Clark, who shrugged.

    She smoothed out her skirt. Clark, I want to go to lunch.

    Now? asked Clark.

    Yes, now. Take me to lunch. Jennifer is doing fine in the kitchen and obviously doesn’t need MY help. I’m hungry. And there’s not telling when we’re going to have anything to eat around here.

    Mom, Clark offered, I’m kind of in the middle of helping. How about if I make you a sandwich? You know, just to tie you over.

    Fine, she said. But Clark, tell Jennifer to turn the turkey over and brown the bottom. I’m not eating a pale, sickly turkey.

    She wouldn’t let up. I don’t know what it was, the long flight, arthritic knees, the fact that I was the wrong ethnicity, or just a case of the old lady stubborns, but Mrs. Kent was going to get her upside-down turkey, and even at twenty-something I knew if you’re serious about a man, you do not-not-not face down his mother. Ever. Even in your own kitchen.

    So I caved.

    I wrestled the slippery, impossibly heavy half-cooked bird and splashed it, breast-side down, into its grease, shoved it back in the oven as Mrs. Kent sat with her smug smile. As the turkey continued to cook, the skin over the turkey breast, instead of growing golden and crispy, soaked, and slid off in the pan. What I ended up bringing to the table was a denuded, pallid monstrosity that somehow managed to be greasy and dry at the same time. My poor grandmother, at her last ever Thanksgiving feast, looked at me with dark, puzzled eyes.

    Mrs. Kent, to my disoriented guests: I think Jennifer did a fine job with her first Thanksgiving meal.

    Then, to me: You can see why it certainly takes practice, can’t you, dear?

    Ten months later, Clark dumped me. We had just flown back from his aunt’s funeral, and he told me there was someone else, and besides, he never really saw me fitting in with his family. At the time I was completely crushed. The only thing that eased my young heart was the knowledge that I would never be asked to roast a turkey upside down again.

    • I like how gruesome. I like how powerless Clark Kent. And I’m grateful you’ll never have to roast again in that position, Jennifer. Thank you for the story.

  3. I know I’m not in the running for this contest, but I thought I would share anyway. One year I had an Amish organic turkey shipped to my girlfriend’s mother’s house. We opened the box Thanksgiving morning to find that it was about ten pounds larger than expected and still frozen solid. The solution involved a chainsaw and a second oven (in the vacant bed-and-breakfast next door).

  4. Turkey and homemade gravy, marshmallow sweet potatoes, broccoli casserole, cranberries, stuffing—we all love Thanksgiving. I did too, until about three years ago when I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Thanksgiving had been my favorite holiday not just for the delectable bites, the coveted pumpkin pie, and the entertaining sibling rivalry, but for the family it brings together. And now all I could eat was the damn bird—my least favorite indulgence.

    I was twenty-two, eligible for the “adult” table even with only ten cousins. We used the good china with reused table cloth, torn at the edges and depicting phony images of pilgrims and Indians. We passed around the macaroni and cheese, my aunt’s infamous oyster stuffing, even my grandpa’s mayonnaise-butchered coleslaw. The only healthy thing on the table was green beans, and even that had bacon bites in it. With no history of diabetes in the family, it wasn’t hard to see where genetics was going.

    But I had a choice—pass up all this palatable food for the sake of my health or just have a “bad” day. If they could give up their health for the sake of thanks, then why couldn’t I? I chose to have a “bad” day. Two hours later, only my grandmother and I were left at the table. I hadn’t eaten so much food in one sitting since my diagnosis six months prior. My grandmother edged the pumpkin pie closer to my side of the table. No, I shook my head, admiring the glossy baked pumpkin top and slightly burnt crust. Even the whipped cream was calling my name because there was nothing like pumpkin pie with globs of sugared nothingness on top.

    My diabetes wasn’t going to win this battle. How did one more slice hurt? The pie barely made it down my esophagus, the last gulp before the volcano exploded. Two minutes later, I rushed to the only bathroom in my grandparents’ 50’s-style home. There was a line, of course. As soon as I found relief with my head over the toilet, I could hear my teenage cousin yelling to the rest of the family, “Tracy’s throwing up! Everyone, Tracy’s throwing up!” she giggled. Sweating on top of my own vomit, I thought this is what Thanksgiving is really about. Denial. But when I emerged from the bathroom, none of my family members commented on my moment of weakness. Nobody judged me for my high blood sugars, either. Thanksgiving—a feast for genes.

  5. Feliz Dia de Accion de Gracias!

    Thanksgiving 2009. Like all American families, we were planning a traditional holiday…planning a menu with mashed potatoes and stuffing…driving to grandma’s…planning our Black Friday shopping strategy. No, wait. We weren’t doing any of that. We were flying to Mexico.

    My in-laws invited my husband and me to travel with them, along with my brother-in-law and teenage sister-in-law, to Puerto Vallarta. They were members of a luxury vacation club and had to use up some of their travel days. And, apparently, the vacation club property in Puerto Vallarta was hard to reserve on holiday weekends. So even though there is nothing like my own mother’s Thanksgiving dinner, and even though one of my college friends was getting married that weekend, we took them up on the offer and celebrated the most quintessential of American days by leaving the country.

    Our villa for the weekend was lovely, and the clear blue sky, white sandy beach, and palm trees swaying in the warm breeze were delightful after the grey cloudiness back home, where all the leaves had aged past their bright orange blaze and those still clinging to dry branches had turned crispy and brown. But, as is often the case in dramas, the characters in this story overpowered the setting.

    We had Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant in the nearby Four Seasons hotel. I should have known things would not go well when my father-in-law got mad at my sister-in-law for wanting to order turkey, even though a “traditional Thanksgiving dinner” was prominently displayed on the menu. This minor exchange seemed to have the same effect as a match falling onto a line of gunpowder leading to a pile of dynamite. My mother-in-law shot back a snide comment, my sister-in-law sulked, and my father-in-law growled back a nasty reply. This shooting/sulking/growling pattern continued, escalating in both intensity and volume, and nobody gave any sign of calling a truce. Silverware was slammed. Tears were shed. Food grew cold. One of them would storm away from the table, then come back, then another would leave. My husband, brother-in-law, and I were trying desperately to pretend that nothing was out of order. We chatted too loudly about music festivals, or work, or…well, anything that seemed neutral. But we couldn’t drown out the din of the conflict at the other end of the table.

    As I stared into my ratatouille, I became acutely aware of the fact that this was different than the usual family discord in one glaring way—we-were in public. Not only were we in a crowded restaurant, we were seated at a table in the very center of the outdoor dining room. Like gravy that has escaped the mashed potatoes and spilled over onto the turkey and green beans, our family drama had infiltrated the holidays of the other families around us. And those families did not look pleased.

    The rest of the holiday was awkward and tense, as everyone either placed blame on someone else or tiptoed around each other or pretended nothing had happened. We drank a lot.

    I do have one fond memory of that Thanksgiving, however. After dinner, I retreated from the drama to my room and watched the most classic of American films, Casablanca, in English with Spanish subtitles. I read the subtitles aloud to myself, my words a few beats behind those of Bogart and Bergman, just to hear how they sounded in a language I couldn’t understand. It was the best conversation I heard all weekend.

    • Thanks, Lisa. I love this line: “As I stared into my ratatouille, I became acutely aware of the fact that this was different than the usual family discord in one glaring way—we-were in public.” And the “cinematic” finale!

  6. Psychic Wounding over Hoisin Sauce

    By the time she was putting earrings on the turkey, Miss O’Leary sensed, deep down, that dressing the bird meant something entirely different. She was straddling the thing in the tub. She’d bathed it, wrapped it in a red checkered, dishcloth-shawl, pinned a lovely broach, and affixed a brilliant set of bronze and emerald earrings to each side of its skinned, headless torso. The way she explained it (this would be quite different from how she would tell it to me years later), whiskey tumbler in hand, when her family arrived, went like this: “Ain’t it grand the wind stopped blowing.”

    Unlike my friend, I cannot recall a specific Thanksgiving morning of my own. I can, however, subpoena images: soft white light bulbs, clay-colored candlesticks topped with tall, handsome flames, okra popping in a wide-mouthed pone on the gas range stove, fingertips smelling of peeled and quartered russet potatoes, and the wicked aroma of German chocolate cake sweltering in the gas burning oven. Had someone put earrings on Turkey, I could surely recall that. But mine run together through goblets of Hush Heath Estates Chardonnay and faceless family friends. As 1.5” sliced bread, my Very Important November Thursdays have been seen through the carving window of the Transcontinental Railway, a smear of images (my mother…my mother’s thinning hands always wiping the kitchen counter) and sounds (petite tea spoons tapping at the edges of ceramic saucers), so that I cannot stop the train, cannot call it into a station, cannot stop and say, yes, that day, that year, yes, that means something.

    It is Thanksgiving Morning and Miss O’Leary is, quite soberly, cooking right now. I know because she told me. She does that now, tells the truth and uses the oven. And I believe it, because, like a heavy moment, a heavy, steam engine train whose squared windows cut into the countryside, slicing our history into simulacra, it is easier to let the station go by than to to carve out a split second – that ruin (be it an ear-ringed turkey, a missing bottle of Chardonnay, a psychic wounding over hoisin sauce, a prizefight, carnage) over which families and nations-states wage war – and say yes, the wind has stopped blowing, and this is where it makes sense.

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