|Libby & Gunnar Jacobson at the cabin on Grindstone Island in 1991.|
With the Posse, I’ve eaten turkey at some of the best barbecue joints in Texas, including Franklin Barbecue in Austin and Stanley’s in Tyler. Their turkey breast is first rate, no question, just like their other smoked meats.
But the most memorable turkey I’ve ever eaten still remains Walt Scheela’s, cooked at his cabin on Grindstone Island.
The ambiance is important. One of 1,600 islands in Rainey Lake, Grindstone is located about 10 miles East of International Falls, Mn. Look one direction across the water and you see Canada. Look another and you see Voyageurs National Park.
One winter long ago, we skied across the frozen lake and spent a cold night (20 below or so) in the cabin, waking every couple hours to stoke the fire in a Franklin stove, our only source of heat. But that’s a story for another time.
With Thanksgiving upon us, I want to tell you how Walt, the long-time coach and athletic director at International Falls High School who died in 1979, taught me to cook turkey during our holiday stays on the island. This is a tribute to him and all the grill masters and pitmasters who pass along the tradition.
I married one of Walt’s granddaughters. In her family, getting your first Weber kettle was a rite of passage to adulthood. And watching Walt was how we learned to use the machine.
The ritual would begin in the morning as he started the charcoal. Bill and Walt Jr., Walt’s sons, say that early on their father used kerosene to light the charcoal. It smelled worse but was cheaper than starter fluid. By the time — 1971 — I joined the family, though, he had switched.
By 9 a.m. or so, the coals, a few stacked on one side of the kettle providing indirect heat, would be white and Walt would place the whole bird on the grill. Then he put the cover on the kettle and adjusted the air vents.
When everything was right, that usually meant it was time for a beer and to start the first bocce ball tournament of the day.
Every hour, precisely, Walt would add a few briquets.
Last Thanksgiving, at my brother-in-law’s place in Kansas, we cooked turkeys, ham and beef loin on three different machines — an offset stick burner, a Kamado and a standard Weber. Actually four, if you count the turkey in the kitchen oven as well. My brother-in-law also learned, in part, from Walt.
Over the the years, my basic turkey technique hasn’t changed much. It’s still Walt’s.
Oh, now I sometimes brine the bird ahead of time in a salt and sugar bath. And I add wood chunks (hickory and/or apple and/or pecan) to the charcoal for smoke flavor, and some herbs to the butter baste. But those are small tinkerings.
The main thing I learned from Walt is the importance of constant vigilance, regularly adjusting the vents to keep the temperature right, adding charcoal and wood when necessary, checking the bird every so often. Its color and smell will help tell you how it’s doing.
Often accompanying all that vigilance is a beer. That’s an important part of the ritual, too.