That time of year came when I took my old 1940s electric roaster out of storage and started it up for the annual turkey roast. The generations of home cooks in my family who have done this before me are long gone, but that old Nesco Roastryte carries on and anchors me back to this season that I have occasionally disconnected from when losses or upheaval came along. Every time the red light comes on, I’m a little more grateful.
“Years and years of turkey in this roaster,” recalled my father-in-law Kevin Hennessy recently. “I don’t think we ever had to fix it.”
Milwaukee-based National Emailling and Stamping Company released the first iteration of their portable electric roaster in 1931, which was then shipped to rural parts of the state by the Wisconsin Electrical Company to encourage the use of electricity in homes that until then relied on wood-burning stoves . (Today, by the faster name, Nesco makes all kinds of slow cookers and pressure cookers, meat grinders and dehydrators, and a sleek line of porcelain-walled roasters that barely resembles these early models.)
My family’s roastryte – a solid enamelled steel stove whose date of manufacture we unscientificly put sometime in the 1940s – has lasted and counts for four generations. My husband’s late grandmother, Sean, a no-nonsense Irish American named Pat Hennessy, likely inherited the roaster from her mother Margaret McGuire. Pat, in turn, passed the roaster on to her son Kevin and his wife Betsy (my husband’s parents) when they were hosting Thanksgiving at their Chicago suburban home that barely had room in the oven for Betsy’s legendary cakes. So she balanced the stove on a card table in the study, amid baskets of knitting utensils and stacks of Kevin’s historical non-fiction books that came off the bookshelf. Sometimes when space was tight in the living room, the roaster was relegated to the basement – the delicious, muted scent of the bird wafted up the wobbly staircase.
When I first saw the roastryte, I brought my parents and sister to my future in-laws for our first Thanksgiving together. I was sweating anxiously through my high-necked polyester dress and sat on the couch across from the roaster, the window lid of which was stained with condensation, while a twenty-pound turkey sizzled in it. Though the living room was reminded with memories that this was no place to cook, this disembodied stove with its chipped facade eagerly undermined that order. Something about that encouraged me. I later associated this image with the ingeniously subversive owner of the roaster at the time, Betsy, whose snowman turtleneck and sweater-vest sets belied a deceptively progressive core.
A few years later, just under three weeks after Thanksgiving in 2009, Betsy died of ovarian cancer, and Sean and I inherited the roastryte somewhere in an endless haze of grief. We put it in a locker while trying to get through a Christmas season that was all for us with pain and loss.
In 2012, after Kevin remarried and Sean and I bought our first house in northwest Chicago, it was our turn to host a newly knit family for Thanksgiving dinner, served on Betsy’s toile-pattern china . Oven space was tight due to my cluttered selection of starters and side dishes, so we took out the roastryte and set it on a wooden end table in the office.
When I opened the lid of the machine an hour later to check the turkey’s temperature, Betsy materialized in my head amid the burst of steam to float appreciatively over my shoulder in her favorite frilled apron. She happily told of a year when the baster misfired and sprayed the carpet instead of the turkey.
I wasn’t sure if this story was real or imagined, but I felt comforted anyway, my shoulders relaxing a few inches – new carpet, damn it! The stove belonged wherever it was and toasted the heart of a feast. And in the end the bird came out flawless – the skin golden and crisp, the flesh wonderfully moist. The rest of the dinner flopped spectacularly, however. Someone didn’t like the wine; someone else had too much and decided to get into politics. Or was it religion?
The following year, Sean and I flew to Palm Springs for a Thanksgiving Steakhouse with prime rib and ice cold martinis. The roaster slumbered for a few more seasons while we spent the holidays away from home – a Christmas, gifts and skipping everything to fly to Austria with my sister and brother-in-law; Drive to Taos, New Mexico for another Thanksgiving to grill stuffed chickens. But inevitably, Sean and I would return from those trips craving a stuffed holiday turkey and pocket the roaster for a feast in late January. His lights would go on to register his approval for another year with burnt turkey fat adorning his already flavorful interior.
On the roastryte’s shiny gold temperature display, you will find a whole range of temperature suggestions for the many dishes that you can prepare with the device: 275 degrees Fahrenheit for baked beans; 325 for poultry, custard; 375 for onions, cakes, and fish (my favorite level); 400 for cookies and apples. Every year when we bring out the roaster I announce that this time I will cook something other than turkey in it. But I never do.
When I asked Kevin if previous roastryte owners had ever used it for roast pork or a cobbler, for example, he answered firmly: “The roasting pan was only used for turkeys. It had a turkey radio. “
As another Christmas season approaches, the roaster hibernates again in a warehouse about 2,500 miles from its longtime Chicago home, along with the rest of the life that Sean and I took to southern New Mexico last fall. We’ll get it out just in time for Christmas, but our new high desert home, buried in boxes, isn’t quite ready to house it yet.
This year it is my sister’s turn to call her very first Christmas on the good Talavera china in her yellow adobe house in Las Cruces, New Mexico. My parents will stop by on the way to Tucson, and of course there is stuffed turkey. She worries that there isn’t enough room in the oven, but I don’t.