15 Thanksgiving Dinner Disasters (And How to Avoid Them)
Cooking dinner on Thanksgiving is pressure enough without a calamity derailing the affair. Learn what not to do from these turkey day disasters—and how to recover if you happen to encounter any of them.
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 1: Storing things that aren't edible alongside food.
Jessica Sims, a poison information provider at the Illinois Poison Center, once received a call from a woman who had accidentally varnished a turkey. The caller's husband had put varnish in a plastic container and stored it in the fridge; she had assumed the varnish was a condiment, and used it to baste the bird. "All of the guests remarked how perfect the turkey looked, a beautiful deep golden brown," Sims wrote. "The left over varnish was made into gravy, which stuck to everything. Unfortunately the mistake was realized AFTER everyone ate this varnish." The lesson here? "We should never store household products or chemicals near food."
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 2: Not using a fryer properly.
In 2011, the Westcliffe, Colorado Wet Mountain Tribune assembled a slew of disaster stories, but one tale in particular stood out: the Fisher family's. Husband Gary had decided to deep fry a turkey, so he set up the fryer in the yard and got to work. According to his wife, Deborah, when dinnertime arrived, one part of the turkey was not well cooked enough, so they cut it off and put it back in the fryer. “We were all around the table enjoying our lovely meal,” Deborah told the Tribune, "when grandma exclaimed there was a pretty orange color outside.” The cooker had caught on fire, and the whole backyard was lit up. By the time the fire was put out, dinner was cold.
The Fishers were fortunate—fryer fires can often be disastrous. But there are a few guidelines you can follow that will make frying a bird safer. First, don't set up indoors! Make sure the fryer is on stable ground, so it can't tip and splash anyone with 350°F oil. Don’t overfill the fryer, and defrost the turkey completely before popping it in—combining oil and water (caused by melting ice crystals) will often cause an explosive blaze. Also, make sure you have a fire extinguisher that can handle grease fires. The National Fire Protection Association has more advice on what to do and what not to do here. The NFPA actually discourages "the use of outdoor gas-fueled turkey fryers that immerse the turkey in hot oil" and instead recommends seeking out "professional establishments, such as grocery stores, specialty food retailers, and restaurants, for the preparation of the dish, or consider a new type of 'oil-less' turkey fryer."
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 3: Using the wrong thermometer.
"Every year we get at least one call where someone uses an oral fever thermometer instead of a meat thermometer to check their turkey," Jessica Metz, a certified specialist in poison information at the Illinois Poison Center, wrote. Using an oral thermometer to check a turkey's temperature is a no-no: "A fever thermometer only goes up to about 110ºF, and a turkey needs to be cooked until at least 170ºF, so the glass can shatter and leak mercury," she writes. "Glass and mercury is not the kind of dressing your dinner guests are expecting."
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 4: Not checking the inside of the bird before you cook it.
Based on his column for The Somerville Times, Jimmy Del Ponte's Thanksgivings are nearly always an event to remember. Once, the bird was too big to fit in the oven. Another time, the heating element in his oven blew up, causing a fire and embedding metal shrapnel in the turkey. And twice, Del Ponte has cooked the bird with a few extra accessories. "When I was very young and newly married, I had the whole family over to my house to cook my first Thanksgiving Day dinner," he writes. "My mother, who was so sweet, tried not to look too disappointed when she opened the oven to check it out. It was breast side down with a little smoke coming out from where I didn’t even remove the [innards] bag!" And again: "The first time I had Thanksgiving Day at my house, I cooked the bird leaving a spoon and the bag of giblets in it. Then when we were cleaning up, I cut my finger and ended up in emergency room for stitches." So learn from Del Ponte's example: Check inside the bird before you put it in the oven, and be careful with sharp objects.
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 5: Cleaning the turkey with soap.
“My girlfriend, brought up by her mother and live-in grandmother, never learned anything about cooking,” Kathy Tarmasewica of Westminster, Massachusetts recounted to Yankee Magazine. Still, she wanted to make Thanksgiving dinner. After reading the directions in a cookbook, she cleaned and stuffed the bird and popped it in the oven. “After a few hours, she checked on the bird and found it foaming all over the oven,” Tarmasweica said. “She had cleaned it with Ivory Soap.”
This mistake is easy to avoid—don’t wash your turkey at all. According to USA Today, those instructions are “a holdover from long ago when poultry routinely arrived with bits of blood and pinfeathers still attached. Cooks were instructed to wash the carcass well and use tweezers to remove any feathers that didn't get plucked. With today's modern processing, none of that is necessary.” Washing the bird can spray harmful bacteria that can make people sick—like Salmonella—up to 3 feet away.
If you absolutely have to wash the bird, the USDA (which says “the only reason” for this step is for brined birds) recommends removing everything in and around your sink, then covering the countertop with paper towels and placing the roasting pan directly next to the sink. Clean the sink itself with hot, soapy water; rinse it well and fill with a few inches of cold water. Place the bird in the sink and rinse it with cold water gently. When you’re done, hold it up to drain, then place it in the roasting pan. Finally, remove the paper towels and clean the sink and the area around it with hot, soapy water.
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 6: Letting the animals hang around while you're making food.
It might seem like common sense to lock up your pets when cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, but in the chaos of arriving family members and other distractions, it's easy to forget. Take Frank Gunsberg of Ramsey, New Jersey, who was hosting a dinner for 20 guests when he realized both his golden retriever and the turkey were missing. He found them behind a cabinet—the bird on the floor, unmarred but for a few puncture wounds. Though his wife protested, Gunsberg wiped down the bird and served it anyway. "Those guests are hearing this story for the first time," he told NorthJersey.com.
Then there was the case of a chihuahua that climbed inside a bird. "A frantic new mom hosting her first Thanksgiving feast had a chihuahua that climbed up onto the kitchen table and into the turkey, and she couldn’t get the dog out," writes Todd Sigg on the Illinois Poison Control Center blog. "I told her to pull really hard and yank the little guy out ... I could understand the awesomeness of it from the dog’s point of view, a meat room."
It's not just dogs you have to worry about. In a 2012 call for Turkey Day disasters, one commenter told a story about walking away from the sink and coming back "to find out that the cat had pulled the thawed turkey out of the sink and onto the floor and had chewed off a large portion of the breast!" And when Tina Pyne's then 9-year-old nephew decided to play a prank on her at their family's Thanksgiving dinner by putting his pet iguana on her head, the iguana took off, through all the food. “Every person there was covered in flying food,” Tina told West University Buzz. “We went out for Chinese.”
The takeaway is obvious: Keeping your pets away from your meal not only ensures you have a meal to eat, but also protects your pets from eating foods that might be poisonous to them. (This is also a good reason to avoid feeding your animals at the table, which encourages bad habits.)
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 7: Thawing a turkey in non-fridge locations.
Sue Smith, co-director of Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line (yes, it’s real; you can find out what it's like to work at the hotline here) told Esquire that most of the questions they receive have to do with how to thaw a turkey last minute. (Ideally, it should be done ahead of time, but many people don’t plan for that.) "We've had someone call because their turkey was in the hot tub, and asked how long it would take," Smith said. "We're like 'oh, you don't want to do that.'”
Another time, Smith answered a call about a multi-tasking dad. "This dad's duty was to bathe the twin boys and thaw the turkey,” Smith said. “The mom called and said, 'I just went up stairs and there are my twin boys taking a bath with our turkey.'” Smith told her, “No, you cannot thaw your turkey with your children.”
Thawing your turkey incorrectly can lead to food poisoning. According to the USDA, there are only three safe ways to thaw your turkey: In the fridge, in cold water, or in a microwave. If you need to do it last minute, Smith says, go with cold water—you’ll need 30 minutes for every pound, and the USDA recommends changing the water every 30 minutes.
You can read more Butterball Hotline tales here.
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 8: Storing the turkey unprotected outside.
Tony B., a certified specialist in poison information at the Illinois Poison Center, wrote in 2011 that someone called him after she had stored her turkey outside in near-freezing temperatures because she didn’t have room in her fridge. When she went out to grab the turkey for cooking the next morning, she discovered that the wrapping had been scratched off. “The caller said that they did in fact have a ‘mouse problem’ but was hoping it would be okay for her to cook and serve the turkey anyway,” he wrote. “I told the caller no, it would not be a good idea to serve the ‘mouse leftovers’ to her family.”
The caller wasn't pleased—she had spent a lot of money on the bird and was expecting a lot of hungry guests. “I had to convince her not to cook this potential health hazard, so I told her the simple truth,” Tony wrote. He told the woman, “If a mouse was on your turkey, then the mouse’s butt was on your turkey. The mouse. Dragged its butt. Across your turkey.” That did the trick: “She shrieked and said, ‘okay, okay! I’ll throw it out!’”
Animals are probably your biggest worry if you’re storing a bird outside unprotected, but weather can be a problem, too. Smith told Esquire that she once received a call from a grandmother who had left her bird outside—and then there was a snowstorm. "She was like, 'I can't find the turkey. We just had a snowstorm and my turkey was outside. Now the kids are outside with shovels looking for it,'” Smith recalled. “I just imagined some kids outside digging around for a turkey." Thankfully, the story had a happy ending: The kids found the turkey, and Smith was able to give them some advice for how to cook the bird more quickly, thereby saving Thanksgiving.
If your turkey is too big for your fridge, and you live in a suitably cold environment, don’t leave it exposed to the elements—or any hungry critters that might be lurking in them. Instead, pop the bird in a cooler with icepacks and keep it in a safe, cool place, like a garage or a screened in porch. While you’re at it, you can brine and thaw the turkey simultaneously using this method demonstrated by Alton Brown.
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 9: Clogged garbage disposals and drains.
Food scraps shoved into garbage disposals can cause it to malfunction. Starchy foods and bones are a no-no, as is warm grease, which congeals and turns into a pipe-clogging blob. Paul Abrams, a spokesman for the Roto-Rooter plumbing company, told The Washington Post that the day after Thanksgiving, a.k.a. Black Friday, calls for plumbers at the company go up 50 percent. “When you work for Roto-Rooter, everybody knows you don’t get the day off,” he said. “It’s the one day you don’t ask off. Black Friday, it’s all hands on deck.”
And even when it’s flushed clear of your pipes, it can cause sewer overflows down the line. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission recommended in a PSA that cooks should pour grease into tin cans, let it cool, and throw them away in the trash.
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 10: Clogged toilets.
Many guests and a lot of food can be a recipe for a toilet-related disaster. One Buzzfeed reader recounted a poo-related Thanksgiving horror story:
“One Thanksgiving at my house, I had to go to the bathroom and I accidentally clogged the toilet. I was so embarrassed and I didn't want to do the walk of shame to get the plunger from the garage and return to the bathroom, so I just locked the bathroom door. A few minutes later without me noticing, my dad had to use the bathroom and unlocked it. He then asked me in front of our entire family and guests why I locked the bathroom and didn't unclog the toilet.”
But it’s not just poo that can clog your toilets—things like baby wipes and cotton balls can do that, too. Experts recommend leaving a wastebasket in full view so guests won’t toss things into the toilet. Ditto a plunger, so they can take care of the problem themselves rather than having to ask for help. And you should make sure to resolve any toilet problems ahead of time so you can avoid having a guest flush a toilet that shouldn’t be flushed.
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 11: The turkey is done too early.
Kelsey D. told Redbook that one year, when she couldn’t find her grandma’s turkey recipe card, she turned to the internet to figure out when she should put the turkey in the oven. “The internet lied. My turkey was ready about three hours before people were even scheduled to arrive!” she said. Thankfully, her grandmother was able to help: “She diagnosed me like Dr. House, asking all these diagnostic cooking questions: How long did you have it in for? What temperature was it at? How big is the turkey? What color is the skin now? What are you basting it with? She talked me down and we rigged a tin foil moisture response system to keep it warm.”
If you find yourself in this situation and don’t have to cook anything else, you can leave the turkey in the oven at 200°F for a while; place a pan of water underneath to keep the bird moist. If you still have lots of cooking to do, experts agree with Kelsey’s grandma: Cover the turkey, pan and all, with foil. It should stay warm for up to an hour that way. Need more time? Cover that foil with a towel to increase insulation.
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 12: The turkey is still totally raw when it's time to eat.
The first time Full Frontal host Samantha Bee cooked Thanksgiving dinner for her whole family, it was kind of a disaster. “I had to make each dish individually, so we ate in waves,” Bee told Food & Wine. “And the turkey was sort of uncooked in the center—I think the oven didn’t get hot enough—so that final dish was raw turkey. Everyone was really, really nice about it, but it was kind of a nightmare."
If you cut into a bird and find it to be raw, don’t worry, you can fix this! Eating Well recommends covering the entire turkey with foil—which prevents the skin from burning—and cranking up the oven heat (just not above 475°F, which might cause the turkey to burn) to get that bird cooking. And, “if you’re cooking in an oven with the heat source on the bottom, any bits in the roasting pan may burn when you increase the temperature, so add a cup or two of water, turkey stock, or wine to the pan to avoid any burning.”
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 13: Cutting yourself while carving the turkey.
“Imagine the scene,” one commenter wrote on a PBS post about Thanksgiving disasters. “Hours and hours of elaborate cooking, the table is gorgeous, the family is gathered. The turkey is brought out, it is glorious. I begin to carve, steam rises, the slices fall beautifully. My knife hits the meat thermometer which I have somehow neglected to remove. It glances aside and hits my left thumb. Blood, blood, blood. I am rushed to the emergency room.” When the commenter returned hours later, their family had dined, left all the dishes on the table—and there was still blood everywhere. “It looks as though [Lizzie] Borden came for the holidays,” they wrote. “I love my family, but they are still unforgiven for that.”
Cuts while carving, slicing, and dicing during Thanksgiving are all too common. Do all your slicing and dicing with sharp knives—dull ones require more force to cut, which increases the odds of slipping, and they’re still sharp enough to cut you—on sturdy surfaces, and make sure you stay focused on what you’re doing. The American Society for Surgery of the Hand says to avoid cutting toward yourself or putting your hand underneath where you’re cutting to catch the meat. Kitchen shears should be used to tackle any cutting of bones. You can find instructions for how to properly carve a turkey here.
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 14: The turkey won't fit in the roasting pan.
Marge Klindera, who has worked at Butterball’s hotline for more than 30 years, once received a very memorable call: A man who couldn’t make his turkey fit in his roasting pan. Undaunted, he had wrapped it in a towel and proceeded to jump on it until enough bones broke that he could put it in there. “He solved his own problem,” Klindera said, “but he just had to call to tell us about it. It was OK, I suppose.”
If you have this issue and don’t want to stomp your turkey into submission, don’t fret—you have other options. Consider spatchcocking the bird, cutting it up into pieces to cook, or cooking it on a grill.
Thanksgiving Disaster No. 15: Messing up the recipe.
“A couple of years ago, my younger sister decided she was finally brave enough to join in the family tradition of everyone making a dish to bring to Thanksgiving dinner,” Kerri from Ewing, New Jersey wrote to Bon Appetit. “We suggested she make a green bean casserole since it is easy (the recipe is right on the can) and inexpensive (a little condensed soup and frozen green beans).” On Thanksgiving Day, Kerri’s sister arrived with a giant roasting pan, which held “a gray, gelatinous, green-specked mass sprinkled with a few fried onions on top,” Kerri recalled. “I calmly asked, ‘sweetheart, did you follow the recipe?’ ‘Yes!’ she replied, ‘I just can't believe how much soup it takes to make it!’ I grabbed an extra can of green beans we had to see what had gone wrong and there it was: (2) 10oz cans cream of mushroom soup. Without much experience, she had thought it said 10 cans, not 10oz cans!”
Forgetting an ingredient, missing a key step, or misinterpreting the directions is a common Thanksgiving disaster theme. People have neglected to put sugar in their pumpkin pie, used salt instead of sugar, or accidentally added vanilla to the gravy. So don't get fancy. Keep your recipe nearby, and follow it closely—and don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions.
And while you're at it, make sure you have the right equipment: a good meat thermometer will help you avoid trying to plate an undercooked or frozen bird, and big, deep pans will keep fat and other turkey fluids from dripping all over your oven (which might smoke out your guests). Last thing: Check for expiration dates and keep your bird within the proper temperature range so you don't accidentally make people sick.