Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving As Published 25 Years Ago


Every fall when Thanksgiving rears its feathered head, my autumnal anxiety begins: where to celebrate, with whom, and why? My mother stopped cooking Thanksgiving dinner 12 years ago when I graduated from college and she and my father moved to a small apartment. I can`t blame her. She`d produced, for an average of 20 people each year, 25 consecutive perfect meals.

``It`s time for me to be a guest,`` she explained, passing the culinary torch to me and thus initiating a long line of eclectic, basically senseless dinners. My dinners weren`t senseless because of the food; genetic programming enables every woman to cook an exact replica of her mother`s Thanksgiving dinner, just as it enables men to pour drinks. No, my dinners were sabotaged because I was not hosting them from a nuclear family`s upper- middle-class home.

I did not own a mahogany dining table with extension leaves. I did not have china. Worst of all, I did not have a consistent guest list except for three constants: my parents and Doris.

Doris was my high school best friend; she used to spend every holiday with my family because of her own parents` unsavory politics. Home from college for Thanksgiving vacation in 1968, Doris told her mother after dinner that she`d just eaten enough to feed an entire Vietnamese village. She hasn`t been welcome at home since.

My auxiliary guest list always included a man, if I was associated with one that particular year, and various orphans in the holiday storm. These orphans were usually victims of divorce, separation or some other romantic quandary that rendered them temporarily homeless.

There was always a faint ``heartbreak hotel`` sensibility to my Thanksgivings: dislocated adults drinking quite a bit of Scotch. Every year I`d ask my date to carve the turkey; every year, regardless of who he was, he`d refuse.

``Men our age don`t carve turkeys,`` Doris explained to me. ``It`s too much like a commitment.`` So my father and I would hack at it together, chortling over our ineptitude, while my mother and Doris orchestrated the thickening of the gravy and the lonely-hearts-club members opened the wine. A Norman Rockwell painting it was not.

``Why don`t we go out to a restaurant?`` I suggested one year. Every Thanksgiving, envy engulfed me as I watched my neighbors get into their car and head for a fancy dinner. While I was lacerating my thumbs peeling chestnuts, all they had to do was dress and locate the Visa card. Was this fair?

This idea brought my father as close to hysteria as I`ve ever seen him. ``All I know,`` he said with the slowest deliberation, ``is that I have three daughters, and if I have to go to a restaurant on Thanksgiving, then I just don`t know what.``

My father is not really a demanding person, not like Doris` father -- who actually threw the turkey out the window one year when he discovered the dinner plates hadn`t been warmed. He just wanted to spend his holiday in comfortable home surroundings where he could take off his shoes and loosen his tie.

I saw his point. If I wasn`t giving him grandchildren, couldn`t I at least give him candied yams? I never mentioned restaurants again.

THE SECOND SIGNIFICANT Other in my life spent four years trying to change our Thanksgiving menu. ``Turkey is bourgeois,`` he`d start complaining in early November. ``Why don`t we poach a salmon?`

I mentioned the salmon to my father. ``If we don`t have turkey, I`m not coming,`` he announced.

I reminded myself that Significant Other Number Two had been born in Central America and knew not the blasphemy of his suggestion. While going to a restaurant approached barbarism, altering the home menu might well be the most heinous crime of the 20th century. (``Men love the rituals of domesticity,`` Doris mused. ``It calms them.``)

Doris was right. The rituals of domesticity are at the heart of the Thanksgiving tradition. They begin the moment your mother lets you tear apart whole loaves of unsliced bread for the stuffing. It is all very magical from a passive, indulged child`s point of view: intoxicating smells, intoxicated adults, turkey-baster hilarity, and no school.

Significant Other Number Two never dropped the poached salmon issue -- he`d follow me around for weeks telling me how rigidly stupid family holidays were. ``All right, let`s go to your cousin`s house next year,`` I finally challenged him, ``and see if she poaches a salmon.``

And that`s how we had our first Guatemalan Thanksgiving two years ago. Sitting down to a pre-dinner ritual of tequila, lime and salt, I remembered the joys of being a guest. All you have to do is dress; you don`t even need the Visa card.

We stuffed ourselves with turkey and tamales and listened without complaint to a Guatemalan comedy album after dinner. While everyone else at the table exploded into hysterical laughter at 90-second intervals, my monolingual parents and I smiled inanely and ate more pie.

A short time later it came to me that if I had opted to cook a Thanksgiving salmon, I would only have been berated for deviating from tradition. The impact of this realization was undeniable; it brought the following year`s guest list back to the basic three. Then, to top it off, Doris moved to another state.

SO LAST NOVEMBER found me searching, more frantically than ever, for friends in the Familial Twilight Zone. Instead of finding, I was found.

Miriam, a co-worker from the past, called me. She was recently divorced, and both her mother and grandmother had been widowed within the last 18 months.

``All the men in my family have vanished,`` she said. ``It`s horrible. Even the male cat ran away.``

``Great,`` I told Miriam. ``We`ll join forces. My father will be the only man, but he`s getting used to that.``

The trouble began when we sat down to write the shopping list. Our respective family traditions collided repeatedly.

It started with the turkey itself.

Miriam`s family bought theirs fresh each year from a farm. It was free of preservatives and cost close to $2 a pound. Myself, I`ve always bought inexpensive, frozen birds.

``You can`t taste the difference in an expensive turkey,`` I insisted. ``Nothing that`s been roasted for five hours even remembers its original state. With the money we save on the turkey we can have oysters on the half shell before dinner.``

``I loathe oysters,`` Miriam said.

I lost that battle, but won on the cranberry sauce and creamed peas and onions. Miriam`s family had always depended on the kindness of Ocean Spray and Bird`s Eye for these dishes.

``I will be personally responsible for making these from scratch, as God meant them to be made,`` I said.

``What about a green vegetable? Or a salad?`` Miriam asked, innocently, and here I grew impassioned. Everything I believed about Thanksgiving suddenly came to the fore, and I was moved to stand up and deliver this speech:

``Thanksgiving dinner is essentially a child`s food fantasy. It is soft, sweet, and starchy. It is unhealthy and wonderful. It has the texture of a Mexican meal -- cheese enchiladas and mushy refried beans -- and the colors of Van Gogh`s palette: brilliant oranges, reds and burnt siennas.

``Green vegetables and salads are therefore gratuitous; they have no rightful place here and no one ever eats them. The only greenery should be the peas peeking through their cream sauce.``

I think my fervor frightened Miriam. ``All right,`` she said, ``no green beans. But my grandmother`s baking the pumpkin pies -- that`s non- negotiable.`` This was fine with me; I never did learn to bake.

We shopped, cooked, and finally gathered around Miriam`s table, my father at the head.

Miriam and I carved the turkey (``I figured out years ago that it`s just easier to learn to do it yourself,`` she said wisely) and my father recited his traditional grace: ``Good bread, good meat, good God, let`s eat.``

We divided the leftovers among us so that we might all, while individually suffering our Friday hangovers, enjoy Thanksgiving`s finest gastronomical moment: the huge turkey sandwich on French bread slathered with mayonnaise and just a hint of cranberry sauce.

I was in the midst of exactly this ritual when Miriam called me. ``Pencil us in for next year,`` she said. ``Now that we`ve worked out the politics of the menu, we`d be crazy not to do it again.``