tAMPA —We are confident Marianna Stephens will roast the turkey right side up this year.
It was just last Thanksgiving that the St. Petersburg woman found herself poking at the cooked turkey and wondering where the heck the meat was. We know this because her dear sister, Kathleen Finocchi, also of St. Petersburg, tattled to get Marianna a spot in Wishbone U., our annual Thanksgiving cooking boot camp.
As they peered at the bird on the day of the feast, Marianna, 41, whispered to Kathleen, "There's something wrong with it. It looks really bad." Kathleen, 40, concurred and Dad was called into the kitchen.
"Where's the meat? The meat is gone!" he shouted.
Turns out, Marianna roasted the turkey upside down and the bulk of the meat stewed at the bottom of the pan. The trio had been trying to carve the bony underside.
"We don't want a repeat performance, so if you could select my sister to attend your cooking boot camp we would all be very pleased," Kathleen wrote.
Wish granted, sister. And just so Marianna had some moral support we invited Kathleen to take part, too.
The sisters were among 13 students who graduated with honors in Thanksgiving dinner basics at the fifth annual Wishbone U. at Publix Super Markets' Apron's Cooking School in Tampa. Chefs Rich Norris and Scott Hill shared their expertise and recipes in the three-hour class that ended with the group eating dinner around a long table set with white tablecloth and cloth napkins. Just like the real deal.
The students ranged in age from 13 to 75. Some admitted to reputations as the Person Most Likely To Burn Water, two were new to the American Thanksgiving and several wanted to give Mom a helping hand.
The best sport was Rosa Shaw, 75, who was ambushed, in a loving way, by her son, Bruce Shaw of Riverview. She attended the class while on vacation from Augusta, Maine.
"My mother is dear, but she needs help. . . . I have had 43 turkeys this woman has cooked without saying a word," he wrote. "Sorry Mom. . . . Your stuffing is great."
Rosa swallowed her pride, tied on an apron and learned something new: Let cooked, naked potatoes sit in the hot pan to dry before adding hot milk (or heavy cream) and melted butter. This way they absorb more creamy goodness. "I never knew that," she said.
She is still talking to her son.
Instructors Norris and Hill focused on techniques for roasted turkey, homemade gravy, mashed potatoes, roasted winter squash and cranberry sauce. At the end of the class, the students were surprised how much was accomplished in less than three hours.
"I guess I don't have to get up at 4 a.m.," Marianna said. That's right, Hill said. "Thanksgiving doesn't have to take all day. Unless you want it to."
Students were also a bit taken aback by the amount of butter and salt used in some dishes. Norris reminded them that the hefty pinches of salt in the potatoes would be divided among a dozen guests.
"It's Thanksgiving, let's make some flavor," he said.
His students may not have known it at the time, but Norris gave them the best advice of all when he said, "Remember it isn't about the food, it's about the family."
Family was the reason two teenagers wanted to take the class. Filipe Sarmento, 13, of Tarpon Springs and Allan Withall, 19, of St. Petersburg, both had visions of helping Mom with the cooking.
"My mom has two jobs and if she works on Thanksgiving Day nobody else can cook the dinner, which would not be good," Filipe wrote.
Allan, a student at St. Petersburg College, has several younger siblings and wants to share the workload this year. "In previous years, my mom has managed to put together delicious Thanksgiving meals for us and our grandparents. It wasn't an easy task pulling it all together with the little ones running underfoot," he told us.
Filipe and Allan get high marks for being good sons. Wishbone U. administrators let out a collective "aww" when their applications were read.
This year's Wishbone U. included two immigrants seeking to master the all-American meal and one American who would like to impress his Cuban in-laws.
"I intend to show them the, until now, hidden joys of a traditional American Thanksgiving meal, and, more importantly, the unsuspected and unrealized talents of their 'gringo' son/husband/in-law," wrote Rex Baldwin, 61, of Tampa.
We have full confidence that Rex will wow the family. He was so excited to be selected for Wishbone U. he has taken a couple more classes at Apron's.
Alex Zielinski, 43, of Tampa is a native of Australia and a new U.S. citizen who asked to learn the traditions of Thanksgiving. Thuyen Herman, 57, of Belleair Beach has been married to an American for 32 years but is a French national who moved to the States in September. She's a good cook but American recipes are a little foreign and she wants to make a traditional feast without her usual "Western-Oriental fusion flavor."
"So far, a measuring cup doesn't mean anything to me and the oven settings are a guessing game," she wrote.
Rounding out the class were students with desperate, or just plain funny, stories. Among them:
• Sarah B. Kline, 53, of Tampa, who managed to finish medical school and has a successful practice in Tampa. Why, oh, why, she wondered, can't she cook a holiday dinner that someone will want to eat? Thank goodness for the microwave and takeout food, she says.
• Michelle Yeckley, 42, of Spring Hill, who has been accused of trying to kill her family with undercooked turkey. On the flip side, she has overcooked a turkey so badly that even gravy didn't help.
• Marla Spurr, 25, of Oldsmar, who wants her children to grow up with the taste of homemade food in their mouths. "I can make nothing from scratch," she wrote. Marla is the mother of two boys, 2 and 1, and has another child on the way.
• Kellie Ranalli, 42, of St. Pete Beach, who says her 4-year-old has been "known to shout 'Breakfast is ready' when the familiar sound of the smoke detector is activated."
• And then there's Stacy Wagner, 51, of Tampa, who started panicking a few months back about inviting friends and family to have Thanksgiving dinner at her house.
"I have never had a Thanksgiving disaster because I have never volunteered to make the dinner. Not once. And everyone, including my husband and daughter, seems just fine with that, as my limited skills have not gone unnoticed."
Well, it's time for them to take notice, Stacy. Like the other Wishbone U. grads, you've got mad skills now.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.