Author’s Note: Today, in time for you to plan your Thanksgiving, I repost one of my most popular entries, the turkey preparation process flowchart, with some handy 2019 updates.
Perhaps someday I’ll write a book that is nothing but flow charts. They fascinate me! My Turkey Dinner flowchart encompasses everything you really need to know about preparing the meal from three days out, including a logarithmic scale. But, wait– I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take this step by step.
You can start with a simple set of process steps, which I show below to use as a building block for what is to come. When I show you the full, unadultered version, your head will explode. Bear with me.
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 will map out the standard meal with the basics: a stuffed turkey, gravy, and ancillaries to put the gravy on. Maybe a few vegetables, too.
In our house, we brine the turkey–which has its supporters and detractors I know–and we saute fresh green beans and mushrooms, rather than 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 as I do, you should know that “sous chef” is short hand for all the prep work that you do which doesn’t involve heating or freezing the food–chopping, measuring, mixing, and making room in the trash and compost for all the potato peels, onion skins, and turkey liver. No, you don’t eat the liver. I don’t care what your grandmother did. Gizzard, neck, and heart, ok; liver, no.
Recipe vs. Flowchart
First, let’s distinguish between a recipe, a list of steps in a process, and a flowchart. A recipe 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 is only boxes and arrows with steps, I’d agree that it is little more than just arecipe. The magic comes by augmenting the flowchart with other visual cues as I will now show off… er … illustrate.
For example, dimensional flexibility. We have at least three dimensions or attributes to show. Without any other visual cues, the flowchart ends up full of notes, just a recipe in pictures. But there’s (1) How you cook the various ingredients (2) When you cook them and 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. What’s the Wild Card for? Just wait.
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 because there has to be a technical term in flowchart programs. (Of course I have a flowchart program! For those of you who asked, it’s Microsoft Visio.) This is also known as a cross-functional diagram and can be very helpful, for example, for showing you where the bottlenecks are or where the cooks start arguing.
So far, this is still pretty simple. Handling the turkey on its own doesn’t create too many bottlenecks. We thaw and brine our turkey in an ice chest in the garage starting Tuesday, because it’s cool enough in November. Now, I am aware that fresh turkey is better than frozen. However, good luck getting a fresh turkey the size you want a few days before T-day. Not only can you not squeeze into a grocery store on Tuesday or Wednesday night, you can’t even 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 know the scale needs to be logarithmic. I told you logarithms were coming. If you don’t remember what logarithms are from Algebra, they are a way to condense large scales on a chart into something you can read. (They have other math-related purposes, but that’s their function here.)
I give advanced warning to the math sticklers out there who will point out that my next diagrams aren’t truly logarithmic as the calculations are not really exponential because TurkeyGravy<>102. Forget the calculations and concentrate on the purpose, which is that time has to be shown in changing intervals. I am mainly trying to make a point, but I admit that it is Not Mathematically Accurate. I apologize. Meanwhile, to those who still 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:
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 a little painful but illustrative. You get the gist.)
The turkey alone, even placed in the context of the cooking method and time scale, is easily handled. Notice how there’s 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. The issue is that you don’t eat just turkey. Oh, no!
It looks so easy when it’s all done, right? Well, here we go:
(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 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?
The key to disasters is through advanced contingency 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 wild cards must be accommodated there. What about a crock pot–can they prepare it in advance in a crock pot? There’s probably an open plug somewhere that they can use to warm up the dish from the time they arrive, describe the hellacious traffic, and start drinking to the time you sit down.
Desserts and cranberries? Oh, honey–night before, please! Notice that there’s a flurry of activity in that time swatch as well!
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 insane. 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. Your gravy boat is on the top shelf in the back, probably.
This year, our favorite guests are coming and have suggested bringing a couple of variations on vegetables, a corn casserole and some cinnamon-pecan brussels sprouts that sound heavenly. I haven’t gone over the
blueprints flowchart with them yet to ascertain exactly where heating will occur, but I have every confidence we can do it. Hmm, one’s a mostly-vegetarian, which necessitates a separate stuffing. We’ll have to factor that in, between complaining about the over-commercialization of the parade and wondering if we can fit in one last, brisk walk before the food cramming begins…
Ah, well, what’s the fun if there isn’t at least a little chaos? On the other hand, I think I’m going to need to find another color.