Oh, shit. Thanksgiving is here? Already?
So your Red Bull-devastated circadian rhythms conspired with your extended family's concerted plot to convince you that it's already February 2013 (I swear, a guy drunkenly urinates on the becandled familial Tebow shrine one friggin' time—one time!—and it's like he's a goddamn pariah!), and now Thanksgiving is upon you and you have: no plans, no invitations, no turkey, and also no clean underwear. How will you celebrate the holiday now that the grocery stores and supermarkets are already sold out of all the classic Thanksgiving goods and also you're not allowed in any of them on account of your persistently shirtless condition?
The answer: with aplomb! And chicken. The wonderful thing about chicken and turkey is that truthfully, their flavors aren't so different from each other that you can't swap them in a pinch. For that matter, enormous mass-farmed turkeys of the sort to be found on 95 percent of all Thanksgiving tables aren't all that flavorful anyway; what your Thanksgiving bird typically tastes most strongly of is the other stuff used to flavor it (butter, salt, sage, thyme) and dress it (stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy, the shrapnel of the other more exciting components of a Thanksgiving feast). This is great news for the shiftless slackers, because even the shiftless slackers invariably have some boneless, skinless chicken breasts in their refrigerator that they hate-eat with empty, despairing void-glares each week in grim tribute to their otherwise-neglected health.
And anyway, however prominently the turkey may appear in your typical Thanksgiving tableau, all golden-brown and glistening, I think we all know by now that the real purpose of the Thanksgiving bird is to provide us with a pretext for all the other stuff on the plate, like an ornamental figurehead dictator whose cult of personality props up the sinister machinations of his scheming nominal subordinates. In other words, it's a chewy raft for green-bean casserole and gravy. Textural window-dressing. Your improvised Thanksgiving will eschew the turkey and be better for it.
Or, well, that kind of self-congratulation is what you will offer yourself as the consolation prize for forgetting to reply to any of the two-dozen forms of internet messages your cousin sent you, inviting you to the Thanksgiving potluck at her mom's place. "I'll teach them to not hack into my Facebook account, RSVP for me, then shoot me with a tranquilizer dart and physically transport me to the festivities their damn selves!" you say to yourself bitterly, sizing up the jar of bread-and-butter pickle slices in the door of your refrigerator to determine whether it is part of the problem or part of the goddamn solution.
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Take heart, failed state of one: You can indeed wrangle together a successful Thanksgiving meal even at this frantic late hour, so long as we can agree, going into this venture, to define "successful" as "modestly tasty, and just reminiscent enough of a real Thanksgiving dinner to cut out in vivid silhouette exactly what it lacks and prompt some serious self-examination and a firm resolution to be a better son/daughter/grandchild/cousin/friend/Facebook user so that henceforth I can just make a friggin' side dish and schlep it across town to Aunt Louise's house like a moderately functional person for the love of God."
So conduct your sad, desperate, probably drunk kitchen raid mindful of the idea that if you have A) fowl, B) rich, starchy mush, and C) vaguely credible gravy, you can have a Thanksgiving meal that you could almost, almost describe to a coworker without causing him or her to make a sad face and put a comforting hand on your shoulder.
For starters, preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
First, dump some bread and stuff into a big bowl. Hopefully you have half a loaf you can donate to the cause, but use whatever you have. Don't worry about chopping it up or tearing it into pieces or toasting it or leaving it out overnight to become stale first—just dump it into a big bowl. You can handle that. Chop some onion really small (and, if you have ‘em, do the same with some celery and garlic, too) and add it to the bowl. Crack an egg in there, too. Raid your spice rack or cupboard. Do you have some dried thyme? No? Dried sage? Double no? In your imagination, have those things, and add some of them to your bowl, along with salt and black pepper. If by some miracle you should happen to have some powdered bouillon, a pinch of that will work nicely as well.
So you've got a big bowl of bread and onions and egg and seasoning and stuff. Add some water to it, and start mashing and tearing and mixing with your hands. I can't tell you exactly how much water to use because I don't know exactly what kind of bread you used or how much of it you have; add a little bit of water, start mashing and mixing and tearing with your hands, and add some more water if you need some more, and keep doing this until everything's all mushy and doughy and when you squeeze a handful of it, it comes slowly pooping out of the sides of your hand instead of compressing into a bready cannonball in your fist.
Now, wrap this heap up in aluminum foil. The way to do this is to tear off a big sheet of aluminum foil and plop your big mushy wad of bready crap in the middle of it. Put a couple of pats of butter—real by-God butter, not margarine—on top of it, and then fold up the ends and sides of the foil so that they meet in a big, ugly wrinkled mess at the top and look nothing at all like the attractive rolled-up envelope of goodness you were picturing. Set this thing aside for a few minutes, so that you can prepare ...
Still got the roll of aluminum foil out? Plop two boneless, skinless chicken breasts in the middle of a big sheet of foil. Top these with: some more of that (purely theoretical) dried sage and thyme, salt, black pepper, and a couple of pats of butter.
Now, fold the foil into another crinkled mockery of an attractive envelope.
* * *
You've now got two aluminum-foil packages sitting on your countertop: one containing stuffing, another containing pieces of the sad chicken whose final indignity is being forced to pretend it is another type of fowl altogether to appease the nostalgic itch of a human dumpster fire. You also have an oven that has been preheated to 375 degrees. Insert the former into the latter, close the oven door, and walk away for about 40 minutes, to, I dunno, would it kill you to pick up the place for once?
Forty minutes have gone by; your oven is emitting a pleasant odor along with all the smoke from not having been cleaned in several decades. Open the oven just long enough to open the top of the stuffing (or dressing or whatever) envelope, close the oven again, and walk away for another 20 minutes. You opened the stuffing (or dressing or whatever) envelope to expose its contents to dry heat for a while so that the top of your stuffing can turn all brown and crispy and wonderful. That was a really good idea you had there.
At the end of this last 20-minute stretch, both the "turkey" and the "stuffing" should be done. Give the pieces of fowl in particular a flip and a poke to make sure they're cooked. Thanks to the butter you put on top of them (and, to a lesser degree, whatever meager amounts of fat and juice these dour, ascetic skinless breasts discharged during their cooking), there ought to be at least a little bit of liquid in the foil pouch that contained the chicken; do not pour this into the sink or the trash or your mouth. Save it! You're going to use it to make ...
In a little sauce pot on your stove, mix some more of that powdered bouillon with a cup or so of water and the fat drippings from your aluminum foil chicken pouch; heat this mixture up until it's good and hot but not boiling.
(Note: If you do not have any powdered or cubed bouillon or canned broth, here, you can still make something that is not altogether horrifying—not too horrifying for consumption by a cheerily inebriated person, anyway—by using water and some dried sage, dried thyme, black pepper, and a big pinch of salt. If you don't have dried sage or thyme, I'm afraid I cannot in good conscience advise you to add chicken fat to artificially thickened saltwater and call it "gravy," or even "sad gravy." You will have to top your "turkey"-and-"stuffing" dish with your bitter, bitter tears instead.)
Using a sifter (ha!) or (let's be realistic here) your bare hand, sprinkle a little bit of flour or cornstarch into the pot while rapidly whisking the liquid with your other hand. Keep sprinkling in small increments and whisking like the dickens until the liquid in your pot has thickened into (what will likely be lumpy and unattractive but essentially recognizable as) gravy.
* * *
Voila! Heap some "stuffing" onto a plate; drop a piece of "turkey" on it; pour some "gravy" over everything You got yourself a goddamned feast right there. And hey, it doesn't taste altogether unlike Thanksgiving dinner, especially when you chase it down with lots and lots of bourbon, and it might even yield some leftovers, depending on how much bread you used. Also depending on how much bread you used: whether you will have two slices remaining on Friday when you make a Thanksgiving leftover sandwich, which, after all, is the reason for the season. Enjoy the food and the football; maybe prop a big mirror in the corner of the room so you can trick yourself into enjoying the company, as well.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org. Top image by Jim Cooke.