Flow, Turkey, Flow

I have family coming up for Turkey Day, so I need to get my act together. Everybody seems to like a good flowchart, so it seemed a natural to create a Turkey Dinner chart for this week’s blog and publish it a few days early. By Wednesday morning, I’ll be deeply involved in planning the tryst between turkey, stuffing, and butter. (Hmmm, should that really be menage?…)

Turkey cooking flowchart
Turkey specific flowchart, by kajmeister.

Clearly, everyone has their own T-day traditions, whether it’s deep-frying the turkey (dangerous but popular) or serving crab (very San Francisco) or canned cranberries (really?). I have aimed to map out the standard meal with the basics: a stuffed turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, yams, and cranberries. Our household variation is to brine the turkey–which has its supporters and detractors I know–and to saute green beans and mushrooms, rather than to bake them in a soup. Plus deviled eggs because it’s not T-giving without deviled eggs. By the way, if you don’t waste spend loads of time watching cooking shows like I do, you should know that “sous chef” is my short hand for all the prep work that you do which doesn’t involve heating or freezing the food–chopping, measuring, mixing, etc.

The simplest chart would have only a few steps, and I show it above to use as a building block for what is to come because if I showed you the full, unadultered version at this point, your head would explode.  Bear with me.

(Also, I had to adjust the chart image size after the fact. If you have an email version that won’t show images, then try the website version, or enlarging the charts on your devices. Charts, like life, are complex.)

Turkey recipe acc to kinder kids.
How to Cook a Turkey, courtesy of Blessed Trinity Regional Catholic School by Mrs. Pfeiffer’s kinder kids.

Recipe vs. Flowchart

First, let’s be clear about the difference between a recipe, a list of steps in a process, and a flowchart. The list of steps is a simple verbal sequence, amply illustrated by Mrs. Pfeiffer’s Blessed Trinity kindergarten class above. Their recipe’s inclusion of french fries and the magic appearance of the mashed potatoes and corn at step 10 are a nice touch. A flowchart, in contrast, is a picture; if it’s just boxes and arrows with the steps in it, I’d agree that it adds little more than just the recipe. The magic comes by augmenting the flowchart with other visual cues as I will now show off… er … illustrate.

Thanksgiving flowchart
Basic Thanksgiving flowchart, by kajmeister

For example, dimensional flexibility. We have at least three dimensions or attributes which we might want to show. Without any other visual cues, the flowchart ends up full of notes,  just a recipe in pictures. Consider that there’s (1) How you cook the various ingredients as well as (2) When you cook them. Thirdly, there’s the (3) Variety of ingredients themselves. We can start using rows, columns, colors, and other visual cues to let the chart show how to proceed. (Is my Edward Tufte-obsession showing yet? ) What’s the Wild Card for? Just wait.

Color-code flowchart
Color-code Ingredients, by kajmeister

Turkey Cooking Methods and Swim Lanes

Aside from color-coding the food, we can divide our chart up into rows for the cooking methods. The technical term is swim lanes (my flowchart program uses the one word label “swimlane” which I don’t think is correct). (Of course I have a flowchart program! )  This is also known as a cross-functional diagram and can be very helpful for showing you problems with a process. For example, if you charted a process across different people, this might help show who has to do most of the work or where the bottlenecks are.

Turkey cooking method chart
Turkey flowchart with Swimlanes, by kajmeister

So far, this is fairly simple. Handling the turkey itself doesn’t create too many bottlenecks. We thaw and brine our turkey in an ice chest in the garage because it is a cool, dry place. I am aware that fresh turkey is always better than frozen. However, good luck getting a fresh turkey the size you want a few days before T-day, if you live in a populated area. Not only can you not squeeze into a grocery store on Tuesday or Wednesday night, but you can’t drive down the street in less than two hours. This necessitates buying the turkey days in advance. That brings up another key dimension we need to add: time.

Logarithmic Time Scales

As soon as you factor time into the picture, you realize the scale needs to be logarithmic. Now, I say that with the advanced warning to the sticklers and mathy people out there who will point out that my next diagrams aren’t truly to a logarithmic scale. I am mainly trying to make a point, but I admit in advance that this is Not Mathematically Accurate. I apologize. Meanwhile, to those who don’t know what I mean by logarithmic–and, yes, I do like just typing the word logarithmic, which rolls off the tongue like quintessential and antediluvian–anyway… the point is that the time in the kitchen has to be illustrated on a sliding scale. More to the point:

The last 30 minutes in the kitchen is where chaos ensues

Because of this chaos, the last 30 minutes carries as much activity, which must be shown in as much detail, as the previous 90 minutes or three hours or day and a half. As I’m hinting, I decided to use roughly a rule of three. The size of the last 30 minutes on the chart is about the same as the size of the previous 90 minutes, three hours, nine hours, and three days. (Yes, I know, it’s not exact, and it hurts me, too. 3×90=270 which is not three hours. Also, the rule of three isn’t really logarithmic. Again, the fuzziness is painful. You get the gist.)

Turkey Logarithmic flowchart
Turkey Flowchart with Logarithmic Time Scale, by kajmeister

The turkey alone, even placed in the context of the cooking method and time scale, is easily handled. Notice how there’s also that relatively long time stretch between when you stick Gervaise (what we always call our turkey) in the oven, and when he comes out to rest. That’s when you cook everything else, hence the craziness of the last half hour.

It looks so easy when it’s all done, right? Well, here we go:

T-day flowchart
Full T-Day flowchart, by kajmeister

(If that’s not visible when you enlarge it, here is a pdf version:   20181118 Big T Chart

Where the Cooks Bump into Each Other

Here is where all hell breaks loose, in my diagram labeled “All Hell Breaks Loose.” Notice, in the enlargement below, that even though I created ample visual space for that last 30 minutes, it’s almost not enough for what has to take place on the stove and oven. The Wild Card is typically where a guest shows up and says, “Oh, I just need to pop this in the oven for 30 minutes…” well, do you have room in the oven? What if it’s 45 minutes? Turkey’s still in there… and when do you make dessert?

Turkey dinner last 30 minutes
T-Day chart, last 30 minutes, by kajmeister


All process variations can be handled with proper advanced planning. You probably have a microwave; encourage guests to use that for heating. Microwaves don’t tend to be needed for most of the traditional foods, so any wild cards must be accommodated there.

Desserts are best made the night before, as are cranberries made from scratch or gelatinized. Notice that there’s a flurry of activity in that time swatch as well!

Turkey day the Night before
T-Day flowchart the Night Before, by kajmeister

Right after the turkey goes in the oven is a good time to create a few munchies and deviled eggs.  Do that before you start peeling potatoes because once you start smelling roasting turkey, you will go slightly mad. The block of time after that is good for pulling out dishes, cleaning the carving tools and giant forks, and going on a treasure hunt for the gravy boat. It’s on the top shelf in the back, probably.

This is a working draft that I’m going to print out and use this week. I probably will need to make adjustments.  If you have suggestions, please include in the comments. Flowcharts always improve with input by the users.

One of my guests told me her traditional dish involves pearl onions and cheese. I hope it doesn’t need to bake more than 30 minutes. Plus, I think I’m going to need to find another color.

10 Replies to “Flow, Turkey, Flow”

  1. As one of the guests at Maria’s for Thanksgiving this year, I can hardly wait to see the flowchart spread out on a large wall! Presumably we can check off with a big marker when we’re done with something and see if we have come up to the requirements of the swim lane diagram… 🤗

  2. Okay, you gotta copyright this and print on a) place mats b) tablecloths, c) giant refrigerator magnets, d) dishtowels, e) posters f) puzzles g) skywriting.

Leave a Reply