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By Florence Holub
Nowadays, when preparing for a Thanksgiving feast, we have only to go to the market to purchase a bird that has already been plucked, drawn, and readied for the oven. Compare this with the Pilgrims, who had to hunt their turkeys in the woods with firearms. But I remember one Thanksgiving when our turkey had to be chased and captured--without the aid of a weapon--making those involved feel somewhat akin to the early settlers of America.
This happened in the late 1930s when my parents' lodge for Swedish-speaking Finlanders, the Star of Finland, held its annual "Turkey Whist" party at Dovre Hall on 18th Street.
Each October, the lodge ordered more than a hundred turkeys from a farmer in the San Joaquin Valley. They then printed up a few thousand raffle tickets and doled out the tickets to lodge members and their families so they could sell them to friends. I recall the feeling of relief when I sold the last of my large allotment.
On the big night of this particular Turkey Whist, the ticket stubs were put into a large box, shaken well, then drawn by hand. The names of the lucky ticket holders were announced between card games. Winners of the whist games (an early form of bridge) also won turkeys, so the hall was filled with tables of eager players.
As each winner was called, his or her name was written on a tag that was then tied to one of the many crates--each containing a live turkey--stacked in the entrance of Dovre Hall. During the long evening, the crowd gradually thinned as each winner claimed his gobbling prize and carried it away.
My good-looking older brother Mike, who was then 21 and working on Montgomery Street, did not attend the early part of the Turkey Whist because of a heavy date with a blue-eyed beauty, Margaret Schudel, who lived on Elizabeth Street in Noe Valley. Mike and Margaret dropped in at Dovre Hall after their date, but by the time they arrived, there was only one turkey crate left in the entrance.
When my brother glanced at the tag, he was astounded to see his name written on it as a raffle winner. Unprepared for this good fortune, he had to borrow a rope to tie the large crate to his Ford V-8 coupe. Then he carefully drove his date home--even though the evening was still young. (This was the only time that Margaret had to play second fiddle to a turkey.)
The next day back at the house, my father began to build an impromptu pen for the bird in the yard, using assorted pieces of wood and a woven wire bedspring for the top. The pen seemed big enough, but my father questioned its security.
His brother Ed, however, reassured him, saying, "The turkey can't get out of that pen."
Uncle Ed, a shy, silent man except when he'd had a couple of drinks, had spent the early part of the day at the Pilsner Bar on Church Street near Market, so he was feeling talkative, and his Swedish accent was more pronounced than usual. "Det turkey von't go anyvhere, Yohn," he declared.
When the task was completed, we went into the house for a coffee break. It wasn't long, however, before my younger brother Warde burst in, shouting that the turkey had escaped and was headed for the hill. My father and brothers ran out in pursuit, but the hill was covered with dry grass and gopher holes--making it difficult terrain to maneuver--and the turkey had a good start.
The three figures sped unevenly up the slope while I watched breathlessly from the window and Uncle Ed gave a blow-by-blow account: "Vhat a race! Det turkey iss vun qvick runner--but Yohn and de boys are pretty qvick too. Oh no! Yohn vent down (tripped by a gopher hole), but he yumped up again! De tree fellas are catching up. De turkey's vaiting at de top of de hill--no, he's spreading his vings. Yumping yimminy, he's flying avay! Vell, I warned Yohn det turkey vould get avay."
And that's what happened.
At the top of the hill, the bird spread his wings and disappeared over the crest, the three men still after him. As they followed, they watched the turkey soar down and over the nearest rooftops, heading for a street edged with bungalows--a perfect landing strip. But by the time they got to the street, the fugitive was nowhere to be seen. After searching every front yard in several blocks, they finally found him huddled under a bush, gasping for breath.
The three hunters, each gripping a section of bird, marched to the butcher shop nearby, where our exhausted escapee was promptly immobilized, de-feathered, and put in cold storage.
On the day before Thanksgiving, we collected our turkey and began preparations for the feast. Since we had lost our mother to cancer a year earlier, and I was the only female in the family, it became my duty to cook the dinner. I was 18 at the time and had never had anything to do with a turkey before; it could have been a disaster but for the kindness of a good neighbor, who helped me with the dressing and baking directions the night before.
In the morning, I stuffed, baked, and served that turkey, along with the traditional fare of mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, corn, salad, and--from Plate's Bakery on 24th Street--pumpkin pie. Gathered around the dinner table was our family of four, my brother's girlfriend Margaret, and a very quiet Uncle Ed.
All six of us had been acquainted with the entree, and remembered the great effort expended by those powerful thighs, so we feared the meat would be tough, but it wasn't.
In fact, of all the Thanksgiving turkeys I've sampled over the years, this remarkable bird was the most delicious, the most memorable, and the most appreciated for his sacrifice!