Doing It the Way the Pilgrims Did It

By Felice Prager

When asked, we tell people that we do Thanksgiving the way the Pilgrims did it, although I doubt Pilgrims used propane, disposable pans and barbecue grills. Still, when our children were young, we convinced them that since the Pilgrims cooked their turkey outdoors, that this was as close to a traditional Thanksgiving a family could get without dressing up as Pilgrims. We started cooking our bird on the grill after discovering the idea in a local newspaper. The article is folded into one of my recipe books, and every Thanksgiving our morning starts with a mad search for that twenty-plus-year-old newspaper clipping. Doing it the way the Pilgrims did it frees up my oven and allows me a less stressful holiday with more time with my family. There is none of that shuffling of pots and pans on my stove and in the oven or wondering if everything will be done on time. With the bird cooking slowly on the grill outside, I have control over my kitchen appliances, and the messy cooks stay out of my way.

One of the side effects of doing it the way the Pilgrims did it is that our neighborhood smells great. Our neighbors have come and gone over the years, but each year, someone new rings our doorbell and asks if the delicious smells are coming from our home. We invite them in and share our turkey trick. Most of my neighbors now do it the way the Pilgrims did it because of us. After Thanksgiving, with each new convert, we have received comments like, “We have never had such a delicious turkey! We’ll never go back to making it in the oven.”

Living in Arizona makes outdoor bird preparation easier. Over the years, we have had guests from other parts of the country taste our birds, and they have also become converts. When they are back in colder parts of the country, they don coats, hats and gloves and do it the way the Pilgrims did it – but with 21st century thermal insulation!

In my family, we have always shared in the Thanksgiving preparation. From the time my sons were small, everyone had a job. The biggest job, obviously, is getting the bird cooked. At least that’s what my husband thinks since the bird has become his job. The truth is that once the bird is on the grill, it becomes the easiest part. The hardest part of it is getting up early because the turkey cooks a bit more slowly on the grill than in the oven. According to my husband, without a perfect bird, everything else is gravy. (And he leaves the gravy to me.) That’s debatable, but since I don’t have to do the bird part, I let him live on Fantasy Island.

The actual preparation of the turkey is simple:

1. Buy the bird – the bigger the better.

2. Defrost the bird.

3. Make sure you have enough propane or charcoal or that you paid your utility bill.

4. On Thanksgiving morning, wake up your husband.

5. Watch your husband clean the bird.

6. Say, “Oh, darling, you are such a marvelous cook!”

7. Repeat #6 several times throughout the preparation.

8. Use a heavy disposable metal pan. Modern Pilgrims do not recycle on Thanksgiving.

9. Put a turkey lifter at the bottom of the pan.

10. If your turkey is large, find a strong assistant to help your husband get the bird on the grill.

11. Season the bird. (My husband goes to my seasoning cabinet and pretends he’s the Iron Chef as he chooses his seasonings. When Emeril was more popular, he did his “bam” here and “bam” there with his seasoning. A lot of his bamming here and there wound up on the floor – but I compensated by knowing my hands never touched the inside of the turkey.

12. Using the instruction booklet that came with your grill, if you can find it, use the settings suggested for preparing fowl or large roasts. If you are given an option, use the slower method because the turkey comes out better when it cooks longer and more slowly.

13. Make sure you have a back-up tank of propane or extra charcoal just in case you run out midway. That would be a Pilgrim Catastrophe.

14. Place the pan on the grill and close it.

15. Once every hour or so, send your husband outside to baste the bird with the juices that have dripped out of it. My husband sometimes adds a little orange juice mixed with canola oil. (I don’t ask questions. He’s the turkey pro.) I think he also adds wine. No one complains.

16. Watch the parade.

17. Watch a football game or two.

When is the bird done? It’s visual. When the skin is deep brown and your stomachs are growling, the bird is done. A 20-pound bird takes us about six to eight hours. With outdoor turkeys, bigger is better since you will most definitely want leftovers. Bring the turkey inside, and let it rest on the counter for a half-hour before cutting it. Shoo away all cats since some pretend to ignore the big bird on the counter – until everyone is busy watching a touchdown or eating appetizers.

Then be ready for an unforgettable Thanksgiving.

You will never go back to cooking a turkey in your oven again.

Would a Pilgrim lie?


About this writer

  • Felice Prager Felice Prager is a freelance writer and multisensory educational therapist from Scottsdale, Arizona. She is the author of five books: Waiting in the Wrong Line, Negotiable and Non-Negotiable Negotiations, TurboCharge Your Brain, SuperTurboCharge Your Brain, and Quiz It: ARIZONA. Her essays have been published locally, nationally and internationally in print and on the Internet. Learn more at

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