The trash-can turkey
For rock climbers from California, the ideal place to spend Thanksgiving is Joshua Tree National Park. While the chill of winter threatens the rest of the state, Joshua Tree boasts an exquisite variety of climbs and comfortably warm temperatures. So when a group of us decided to spend Thanksgiving 2004 in "J Tree," I immediately took over planning for the event that was perhaps more important than the actual rock climbing: the turkey.
My vision was of a proper Thanksgiving bird—a beautifully browned, succulent masterpiece. The fact that we were camping, however, made achieving this vision a challenge in creativity. After considering and rejecting other ideas, I found a recipe for a "trash-can turkey" on the Internet. The authors swore by it. Why not, I thought, and I began planning.
The concept was as follows. In a barbecue pit, you hammer a piece of rebar vertically into the ground. On the top of that rebar, you affix a ball of tinfoil. After seasoning the outside of the bird, you place it onto the ball. If you wish, you can set foil pans underneath the bird to catch the fat drippings to make gravy. You then place a 10-gallon metal garbage can over the turkey, making sure that the bird does not touch the inside of the can. At the base of the can, you arrange a ring of charcoal. On top of the can goes another layer of charcoal. The bird, enclosed in this makeshift oven, cooks for 2½ hours, after which one (theoretically) has a beautifully browned Thanksgiving turkey dinner.
As I gathered the equipment for this cooking adventure, my big fear was that the turkey would be undercooked. I could visualize myself carving into pink, raw flesh on Thanksgiving night, scrambling to figure out how to cook the bird through, as people milled around cold and hungry. When talking to my dad (an excellent cook) about the plan, he suggested wrapping the garbage can in a chicken-wire collar, and sliding coals between the wire and the can so that they piled up vertically, encasing the can in heat. I loved the idea, and added chicken wire to the shopping list.
After a Thanksgiving morning of spectacular climbing, we knocked off early and headed back to our campsite to get dinner going. We lit some coals, assembled the setup just as the recipe told us to, and added our own special chicken-wire heat collar. As the bird cooked, we threw together some stuffing, drank wine, and watched the setting sun turn the granite boulders orange and red.
Checking the progression of the roasting turkey was no easy task since it was enclosed in coals and wire, but we decided that after two hours, we would see how it was coming and adjust the cooking time accordingly. We shone our flashlights in the barbecue pit, and the crowd eagerly waited as I disassembled the wire cage. I cleared off the charcoal from the top and base of the trash can, lifted the can up over the turkey, and …
The turkey had been completely obliterated. In its place hung charred flesh that resembled a character from a grotesque horror film. The pans that had been set to catch the drippings were filled with ash. For a moment we stared in shock at the ball of tinfoil and blackened turkey remains, and then burst out laughing. We had cooked a turkey in a trash can—we had just done it way, way, way too well. It was a good thing the stuffing was delicious.
–JENN BERNSTEIN, SAN RAFAEL, CA