As I zipped along gray roads, under gray skies, to Coshocton, I listened to NPR’s food editor talk about planning Thanksgiving feasts.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said, “to mess with tradition, to shake things up a little.”
Hmmm, I thought.
Then she added, “But don’t shake EVERYTHING up. Some things are meant to be on the Thanksgiving table.”
She went on to talk about how they still fixed creamed spinach just the way her father had; it wouldn’t, she said, be Thanksgiving at all without Granddad’s creamed spinach.
Hmmmm, I thought again.
We have some spinach in the fridge, but I didn’t see creamed spinach being a hit at our Thanksgiving table.
It’s just as well that everyone’s tastes are different and therefore special.
But the food editor’s words gave me the permission I needed to stretch the lines. And my doctor’s injunction against wheat and gluten made stretching the lines a necessity.
So, we bought the turkey, a sassy little fourteen pounder. We got Idaho potatoes and frozen green beans and a jar of whole-berry Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. I even bought a bag of Pepperidge Farm stuffing because I couldn’t for the life of me think of a wheat-free alternative…and it would be blasphemy worse than that editor’s not creaming the spinach to skip the stuffing.
I bought the world’s tiniest pumpkin pie…none of us (sorry, pumpkin lovers) really cares for it. But still, it is not Thanksgiving to Mark without a crusty bit of pumpkin with a fluffy dollop of whipped topping. He enjoys that one small piece…and then spends the week after trying to get someone—anyone!—to take the rest of the pie off his hands.
So we were ready. I woke up on Thanksgiving morning and put on my hard-core cooking clothes—long-sleeved black t-shirt, black plaid flannel pants,—and went downstairs to sauté up some bacon.
Most of the bacon went onto a plate where Mark and Jim picked at it while they scrambled up eggs in the pan drippings. I rescued a good sized chunk, though; it was one odd, solid piece and both the boyos looked at it funny anyway. I hid that away for my shaking it up green beans.
And then, boyos out of the kitchen, I went looking for my pecan cookie bar recipe, and I couldn’t find it.
That put me in a little panic. The recipe is from an old, old Betty Crocker cookbook that my younger brother and I bought for my mother with carefully hoarded dimes and dollars way back in the late sixties. I remember feeling that zing of pure pleasure, knowing we had gotten something for Mom that she would just purely love, and I remember knowing just how precisely we had hit the mark when she opened it and didn’t say anything for a minute. Then she said, “Oh,no! You shouldn’t have spent so much!”
Which we translated into, “I really, really like this.”
I inherited the book after Mom died, and the first recipe I made was the one for pecan pie bars. They were good; they were so good that, when I pot-lucked them, I was inevitably asked for the recipe. I took it out of its official three-ring binder so many times that the holes turned from islands into peninsulas, and the page itself grew soft as cloth. I folded it several times, and the bottom of the page just detached itself and floated away, and I stuck that cookie bar recipe back in the old cookbook, right up front so I’d always know where to find it.
And then, this Thanksgiving morning, I opened the book’s cover, hanging by a thread to its binding, and the recipe just wasn’t there. I pawed through other cookbooks—maybe I stuffed it in the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook! Maybe I put it in with the handwritten recipes. Joy of Cooking? Julia Child?
But, no; it was gone. And it was Thanksgiving Day, and we needed a reasonable facsimile of pecan pie that I could make with my homemade AP flour substitute, and the bar recipe had the authenticity of family history.
Damn. I was kind of upset.
Finally, I got online and searched “Becky Crocker pecan pie bars,” and I pulled up a recipe. It was not THE recipe. It put granulated sugar in the crust instead of powdered; it added corn syrup to the filling. I printed it out, debated with myself a minute, and then harkened back to the NPR food editor.
Okay, I thought. This will be another shaking it up dish.
I warmed up the oven and baked the crust with the organic, gluten-free flour mix I made from flours bought at the bulk store. I poured gooey, corn syrupy, nutty filling over the hot crust and baked it again. I watched the bars carefully, and as soon as they looked brown and set, I pulled them out and put them on the old wooden chopping board to cool.
Then I slathered the turkey with olive oil and stuffed its poor empty belly with fresh herbs, rained salt and pepper down on it, tented it with foil, and grappled it into the hot oven.
Let, I declared, the cooking time begin, and I pulled out onions and celery and carrots, garlic and some almost-gravy-thick turkey broth made on Tuesday from the frozen remains of the last bird we’d enjoyed. I sorted through herbs and spices and gleefully pulled out jars and tins and plastic tubs and stacked them on the counter.
I made the stuffing in the cast iron skillet, redolent of bacon residue. The breading and the veggies sucked up a cup of that turkey broth, and, as the bird developed its own pan drippings, I scooped some out to drizzle on top. I peeled potatoes and put them on to boil,and Jim decided a crisscross potato might be even better than mashed, so I directed him in that preparation, (“Like this?” he said. “Am I cutting it right? How much butter? Is that too much paprika?”) and we found an old metal cake pan and got that potato dish ready to roast, too.
And, here we go! I thought. Time to shake up the green bean casserole, too!
I chopped a whole onion and put it on to caramelize, and I mixed up some bechamel with the non-wheat flour—which thickened, I was happy to see, right nicely. I grated some Vermont white cheddar into that, and I chopped the funny chunk of bacon and threw those tasty bits in with the browning onions. I poured the French-style green beans into the big metal mixing bowl and shook in the sautéed bits and shlupped in the thick sauce, and stirred it all together, thinned it just a titch, and spooned it into a casserole. My counters were dotted with casseroles and waiting pots, and the turkey was starting to get all kinds of fragrant, and there was nothing to do but wait until just the right time to start loading pans into the oven, reeling things out, hoping everything would be done on time.
And the turkey baked on, as we remembered to take the brown-n-serve rolls out of the freezer and put them on a pan, where Jim slathered their butty little tops with butter. And we remembered, this year, to decant the cranberry sauce into a pretty glass dish—some years we’d get halfway through dinner, and think, Wait. What’s…missing? and one of us would run to get the can opener.
And the turkey roasted up juicy and tender, and everything thing else bubbled right into the perfect finished state at just the right time, and we spread the brown and red plaid cloth onto the table, and Jim picked out fall-colored Fiesta ware, and Mark carved the turkey and, then, after hours of preparation, we ate.
In less than fifteen minutes, we were all full…full and happy. The dinner was just right. Traditional, with a twist or two, but all the things were there that connected us to Thanksgivings past, to stories we always have to tell, and to people we love and miss.
My sadly beaten phone hummed and buzzed from Wednesday afternoon through Friday; hummed with catching up texts and Facebook messages and emails and tweets. On Wednesday, two beautiful cards from lifelong friends dropped through the mail slot.
I grabbed the colored chalk and wrote “Giving thanks…” above the picture window on the chalkboard wall in the kitchen. Every now and then, I added thoughts. “…for homemade spaghetti sauce,” I wrote once. And another time, “…fireplace fires.”
The next time I went into the kitchen, the list had grown. “Family,” it said. And, “love.”
Jim came in to put his blue plastic cup into the dishwasher.
“Hey,” he said. “I just thought: well, somebody ought to say it.”
By Thanksgiving morning, he’d added a couple things more.
On Thanksgiving night, we went to see The Crimes of Grindelwald. A boy stopped us to rip our tickets; he was silent and a little surly, and I didn’t blame him.
“Thank you,” I said, “for working on Thanksgiving.” A smile broke out all over his face, and he was a little jaunty handing me back the tickets stubs.
“Theater TWO,” he said, “and I think you’re gonna like it.”
Is that little appreciation enough? I thought; just that little bit?
He was right; critics be darned. We enjoyed the movie.
We fixed up a full divided plate of Thanksgiving feast for Mark’s mom, and the next morning, Mark got up and packed up the car and took off: back home, to see his mom and his siblings, to see Matt and Julie and the girls. I ate leftover green beans for breakfast and lunch. And then they were gone. Jim had turkey sandwiches for brunch, lunch,and snacking. The mail came with a letter and a magazine that was all about the holiday light shows in Ohio, and we went to the library, where I couldn’t help it: I brought home three more books.
I divided up my schoolwork and tackled three papers, and Jim spread his math book and notebook and scratch pad on the kitchen table and worked his way, conscientiously, through two lessons.
For dinner, a little woozy from all that turkey, we stir fried pork and veggies and tossed them in General Tso’s sauce. And Mark texted to say he’d arrived, and Terry texted a picture of special memorial blocks in the newly opened tunnel at the Toledo Zoo; Shaynie sent me a message, and Larisa texted to say she had wound up the day and was warming her toes with a fuzzy blanket and her innards with a little sip of wine.
It struck me, just then, that, just like the dinner, everything had turned out just right.
When I was a child, I looked forward so eagerly to Thanksgiving: everybody home; even Dad, a lot of the time, didn’t have to work. I’d get up in the morning, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade would be on, and I’d watch for a while, floating a bit on the fumes of the enormous turkey my mother had stuffed and put in the oven. But, although I hated to admit it, the parade was kind of…well, BORING, and I would wind up in a chair with a book.
Many years, we would make Turkeys From Hell out of apples and toothpicks, raisins and green olives with pimento gobblers—one for each place. But that was pretty quickly done, and then what?
I waited for dinner, which we ate in the dining room, a lace cloth on the table, and somebody always slopped gravy on it, every year. And then dishes and everyone disappeared…to watch football, out to see friends, into a bedroom, and a long quiet lull reigned before everyone would have digested enough to eat dessert.
There’s nothing to DO, I’d complain to my mother, and she, who’d been DO-ing all day, snapped, Go take a walk.
And I would pull on my jacket and tie on my sneakers and slough down the sidewalk, thinking, drenched deep with disappointment, Where’s the HOLIDAY part of this holiday?
But now, finally and belatedly, I think I get it. There’s the chance to be grateful, of course; the opportunity to count blessings. And all tied into that, woven together with it, is the awareness of bonds…to new friends and old friends, to family here with us, and to family gone on.
So, traditions…a recipe from my mother’s book, a visit to a much-loved place, a pie baked like no other can bake it, –well, they are more important on this holiday. And all the communications, –a letter, an e-card, a phone call, a Facebook post, –they are all drenched in meaning. The TIME of Thanksgiving is no-pressure time; I don’t have to be gifting or caroling,partying or volunteering. I am free to make a phone call, free to remember, free to stare into the fire and search deep down for the better self that surely is hiding, way down there.
That food editor was right, I think. It’s good on Thanksgiving, to give traditions a little shake.
But just a little one. Shaken too much, the beautiful meaning behind those traditions might just be obscured.