The students and staff at Mt. Vernon Middle School have their own recipe for the juiciest Thanksgiving turkey around, and it doesn’t involve a fryer or an oven.
All you need is a turkey bathed in butter and stuffed with ice cubes, a roaring bonfire to produce hot coals, plenty of foil, a shovel and a deep hole.
It’s a recipe that has worked since 1986 for the alternative school, which celebrated its 31st Turkey in the Hole Day on Tuesday with 20 turkeys and assorted fixings for 400 students, parents, school staff and community guests.
“Once we got the hang of it, it’s something that we didn’t not want to do,” said Rob Harris-Cannon, a retired Mt. Vernon seventh-grade social studies teacher. “It’s too much fun. We get the kids involved and they just love it.”
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Harris-Cannon said he started Turkey in the Hole to teach students about Native American cooking styles. Some modifications are used, such as foil instead of leaves to protect the turkeys from the dirt.
Harris-Cannon started with six turkeys the first year. He retired in 2014, but he returns each November to supervise the event.
On Monday afternoon, Mt. Vernon’s staff and students dug a 3-foot deep hole in the back of the school’s campus and started a bonfire that burned the oak into coals. They lowered the turkeys into the ground using wire hangers attached to the foil. The birds were left to baste overnight.
Turkey in the Hole has become both a school- and community-wide event at Mt. Vernon, which has only 70 students at its west Raleigh campus. Like many of Wake County’s alternative schools, Mt. Vernon isn’t often in the spotlight.
Most of the students were referred to the school because they weren’t having academic success at their regular middle school.
The turkey event is a chance for the students to shine. They all have a job to do, including helping to dig the turkeys out Tuesday morning after they had cooked on the coals for 15 hours.
We want to get everybody involved. It’s a celebration we all work hard for to enjoy.
Beth Campbell, a seventh-grade Mt. Vernon science teacher
“We want to get everybody involved,” said Beth Campbell, a seventh-grade Mt. Vernon science teacher. “It’s a celebration we all work hard for to enjoy.”
Tyler Gromow, 14, an eighth-grade student, was among those who dug out the turkeys.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Tyler said. “I hadn’t done much digging before.”
Mt. Vernon relies on volunteers from other Wake County schools and the school district’s central office to help prepare the 300 pounds of turkey and 120 pounds of sweet potatoes. Paul Moore, a senior administrator for online services in the school system’s community services department, has been helping cook the sweet potatoes for at least eight years.
“We don’t get to interact with kids much, so it’s a real treat for us,” Moore said.
Community is a big part of Mt. Vernon, where the small enrollment allows teachers to give more attention to students.
“It’s a small school,” said Robert Gupton, Mt. Vernon’s principal. “But it’s a good environment. The students love being here, especially on days like this.”
Ke-Andre Jenkins, 14, an eighth-grade student, said coming to Mt. Vernon this year has been good for him, and the teachers help him focus on school. His mother, Tia Davis, said Ke-Andre has gone from not doing well to getting grades of As and Bs.
“Not only do the students care, the teachers care,” Davis said. “The teachers care about the students here.”
Davis, who comes from a family of chefs, was also impressed with the quality of the turkey served Tuesday.
I expected school lunch, something freeze-dried, something you add water to or stir. But actually it’s good.
Tia Davis, Mt. Vernon parent
“I expected school lunch, something freeze-dried, something you add water to or stir,” she said. “But actually it’s good.”
Harris-Cannon and Campbell reassured the students about eating the buried turkeys by bringing them to the hole in the ground. Students watched the educators uncover the golden brown turkeys and saw the meat falling off the bones.
“That turkey just looks like he was snuggled up all nice in some charcoal overnight while you guys were home in your bed,” Campbell told one group of students.
Campbell said they’ve learned some practical lessons over the years.
Staff and students now lay out on the ground the foil wrappers as a visual reminder of how many turkeys they’ve uncovered and how many are still left. One year, they dug out the pit to place the wood and discovered a leftover turkey from the previous year.
“We didn’t want to see what it looked like,” Campbell said.