Remember for a moment the scene in the movie "The Accidental Tourist," where Macon Leary enters the kitchen at night and peers suspiciously into the oven.
"140 degrees," he says with disbelief. "Certain death. What is she thinking? . . . Is this the Thanksgiving we all die?"
Julian, who was falling in love with sister Rose, was the only one who ate her turkey. And, Rose pointed out proudly, Julian didn't get sick.
Ah, but food safety authorities say that Julian was downright lucky. Every year people who eat improperly cooked turkeys do get sick. Some get really sick. And they often don't know why.
They blame it on the flu or on having too much to drink. Symptoms range from headaches to vomiting and diarrhea. They may, like a woman who called the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline, have no idea what they did was wrong. The woman was calling for a replacement for what she thought was a bad oyster stuffing recipe.
"In our conversation, I found out that she hadmade several errors," says Susan Templin Conley, hot line manager. "She prepared the stuffing ahead, she stuffed the bird ahead and she cooked it at too low a temperature. The entire family became ill. It was not the recipe that was the problem. It was what she did to the recipe."
Last year the hot line received 96,000 calls; 20 percent asked for help during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Although Ms. Conley says it is impossible to estimate how many people actually get food poisoning because of handling and cooking errors, she and her staff say five common mistakes can make you sick. Additionally, an unexpected problem -- power failure -- can create havoc.
Typically, many of these practices are handed down from generation to generation. Families like those in the "Accidental Tourist" are lucky they didn't get sick. Some people -- those who are very young, very old or have compromised immune systems as a result of cancer or AIDS -- are at higher risk of getting severe reactions to foodborne illness.
"Everyone reacts differently depending on their immune system," Conley says. "You can make some of these mistakes over and over and not get sick. A lot of times people become ill because they make several mistakes, compounding the problem."
Mistake 1: Defrosting at room temperature.
Some people buy a frozen turkey too close to the holiday dinner. Others say they forgot to start defrosting a couple of days in advance. Still others just don't know they are risking food poisoning if they defrost the bird on the kitchen counter.
Whatever the reason, don't do it, says Ms. Conley. Bacteria grows best in the danger zone -- between 40 and 140 degrees. The surface of the turkey gets warm and allows bacteria to grow before the inside thaws.
The remedy: You have two safe defrosting options. If you have enough lead time, the best bet is to defrost the turkey inside the refrigerator. Figure about one day for every 5 pounds of turkey. For example, it should take two days for a 10-pound turkey, four days for a 20 pounder.
You can cut the defrosting time to 10 hours for that 20-pound bird by using the cold water technique. Submerge the wrapped bird in cold water, changing the water or adding ice cubes every 30 minutes. Or you can combine the two techniques. Thaw the turkey partially with the cold water method and then put it into the refrigerator to thaw completely.
Mistake 2: Prestuffing the turkey the night before.
Never buy a prestuffed fresh turkey and never try to save time by stuffing the turkey the night before, Ms. Conley says. The only prestuffed turkeys that are acceptable are flash frozen and cooked from their frozen state. Otherwise, the stuffing can be warmer than the turkey, encouraging the bacterial growth that canlead to food poisoning.
The remedy: If you want to get a head start on the stuffing, saute the perishable ingredients and store them in the refrigerator. Dry ingredients can be combined in advance also. But wait until you are ready to start cooking the turkey to combine the wet and dry ingredients. Then stuff the bird and start cooking.
Mistake 3: Cooking at low temperatures overnight.
Many of the hot line callers say, "But Mom's turkey always cooked all night." It may be a family tradition, but it's a tradition worth breaking, says Ms. Conley. Many people think the slow cooking will make the turkey more tender, but she says for both safety and quality it is best to cook the turkey at 325 degrees.
The remedy: If you are having a crowd for dinner but you don't have a lot of time to cook, she suggests buying two smaller turkeys instead of one large bird.
Using an oven-cooking bag and cooking the stuffing separately rather than inside the bird will also speed cooking. For example, an unstuffed 20-pound bird will take about 3 1/4 hours to cook and the same bird stuffed will take 4 1/2 hours.
Mistake 4: Partially cooking a bird the day before.