Houston, We Have Turkey

An astrophysicist engineers the perfect bird

By Kellie Evans

Published on November 6, 2014

For the past few Thanksgivings, I've been a guest at the home of the Silvers, parents of my best friend, Alexis, in Needham, Massachusetts. Each year I look forward to the spread of oyster and sausage stuffing, Brussels sprouts, apple cake—and one particularly fast-cooking turkey.

For me, timing the holiday bird just right has always meant starting it in the oven at least 4 hours before dinner. But Alexis' father, Eric, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has a method for cooking his turkey in a fraction of the time.

Long after the sides are done—and way too late in the day for my peace of mind—Eric steps outside to light the grill. Alexis' mother, Marjorie, sets the turkey atop a rack inside a disposable aluminum pan and rubs it with olive oil, herbs, and spices. A halved apple and lemon and the last gasps of fresh parsley, rosemary, and thyme from the garden go into the cavity. Then we hand off the bird to Eric, who presides over a blazing hot grill that he's stoked to 900 degrees using a deep bed of natural hardwood lump charcoal.

Eric nestles the pan into the glowing coals, making sure to heap them all the way up the sides of the pan, and lowers the lid. On occasions when the weather has been especially cold, he has insulated the grill by lining the bottom and sides with grill bricks that retain a kilnlike heat. But one time the grill got so hot—around 1,400 degrees—that it set the bird aflame, he told me, so now he keeps a careful eye on the foreshortened proceedings and finishes the preparation with a stint in the oven.

Eric takes a peek at the bird now and then, reaching a gloved hand into the grill to wrap foil around the wings, which are always in danger of burning. After about 45 minutes, he raises the lid to reveal the turkey, now a bronzed beauty, and ferries it to the house. In the short time that it takes for the bird to conclude cooking, the family assembles in the dining room and starts enjoying a parade of sides. When Marjorie and Eric present the carved turkey, cheers erupt. We dig in. It's fantastic: crisp-skinned, juicy, and smoke-kissed from the grill. I lean back in my chair, full and happy. Thanksgiving may not be rocket science for everyone, but it is here—and I love being a part of it.

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