People generally are very firm on how they celebrate certain holidays, like, whether they open gifts on Christmas Eve or wait till Christmas morning, or whether they serve ham or lamb or both (guilty) on Easter. But Thanksgiving, more than other fetes, engenders more steadfast holding to tradition. Usually.
I happen to be one of those people who never make the turkey and trimmings the same way. One year it might be a turkey roasted simply with salt, pepper and butter, with an outrageously rich gravy. Another year I might honor my mother’s southern roots and do an herb-and-mustard turkey with green-onion gravy, in which case you want a cornbread stuffing redolent of sage. Last year I think I served a cider-glazed turkey. The stuffing changes, except that it can’t include nuts because of an in-law’s allergy, so some years it’s got chestnuts, others sausage. The homemade cranberry relish might be savory or it might be sweet, and the side dishes are whatever looks most fetching at the market, done up with ingenuity. Only the mashed potatoes, laden with shocking amounts of butter and milk, my family’s way, bear witness to some stab at continuity. My youngest tells me, “Mommy, when you put the food on the table, it looks like a magazine.” I’ll take that as a compliment, even if I—so sorry—cannot remember a dish from three turkey days ago that a guest might want repeated.
While the menu changes, other things about Thanksgiving are sacrosanct. Take, for instance, the requirement that nobody, nobody enters the kitchen the morning of, but rather, that everybody head to the car bright and early for a diner breakfast. Well, almost everybody; the husband might be making pastry for a pie, or the sister might use the time to make her annual carrot soup, a dish that almost caused a family fissure when she insisted on adding it to my lineup. (I am happy to report that, for once, a cooler head prevailed; I let her make her chowder, and we all survived. Except our mother, who claims that the ginger in the dish caused her tongue to swell to the size of the turkey, but the jury is still out on that one . . .)
So, it’s a diner, where somebody else can cook and serve and clean up, then it’s home for the onslaught. Oh, wait, first there’s a pitstop in a swampy marsh or roadside field to get cuttings of bushy reeds and maybe some milkweed to make up arrangements, which look important, even as they probably set off somebody’s allergies. The week previous to the big day are spent cleaning the corners of every room with tooth picks, vacuuming, scrubbing, stitching tears in upholstery, window washing, ironing the table linens, polishing silver, along with any prep work I can do ahead. This is a great chance for the family to work together as a unit, readying their collective nest for the extended family. This is not what actually happens.
Most people salivate at the thought of turning leftover turkey into delectable late-night turkey-gravy sandwiches or, the next day, a pot of soup. Not me. The sight of leftover turkey, no matter how well wrapped, is like taking in an eyeful of an old man’s bare thighs. Wrong on so many levels. As for turkey soup, gag—and, no, since you’re wondering, I don’t have a bias against soup. My mother, an otherwise excellent cook, spent every day after Thanksgiving simmering the remains of the bird in a huge cooking pot, which, judging from its size, once did double duty as a wash pot for my grandfather’s farmhands. She’d add chunks of carrot and sliced onions and celery and lots of sage, and the thing that got me, in addition to the stench of boiling day old meat and the sight of bobbing bones, was the crud that swam to the top, which you had to skim off before serving. We’d have that soup for days. By the way, turkey soup is hard to hide.
We are not having turkey soup this year.
Pies are an essential piece of the Thanksgiving menu, and here I’ll allow the family to bring their same old same olds, which usually means an apple here and a maple-pecan there. Invariably, somebody always has to trot out something that was made back in June and frozen, and while it’s probably still good, nothing about peach or raspberry pie says Thanksgiving to me. My grandmother made seven pies every year, including a lemon meringue, which, like peach or raspberry, just doesn’t seem right in November—not like the tragically forsaken mincemeat pie. This mysterious dish, which originally was made with bits of venison, like the neck, over the years became a more vegetarian, if still insanely dense and sticky concoction, the taste of which bespoke secret adult pleasures. Like the first time you take a sip of your dad’s beer or coffee and decide, “Hell no—no way I’m ever gonna drink that,” the first taste of mincemeat might make you wrinkle your nose but, later on, its tangy thrall tempts you from the distance of time and memory.
The Thanksgiving table must be groaning with plates, even if the food on them is prepared in ways the family has never seen. None of the guests should complain about the abundance, and nobody better talk diet or vegetarianism.