It’s Sunday morning after Thanksgiving and I’m scanning the refrigerator – and I’m not happy. Let’s see, there’s a quart of eggnog, orange juice, a gallon of milk, a bag of spring mix, a plastic container of rice, the usual mayo, mustard a collection of various hot sauces and containers of various leftovers. But on this particular morning I’m not feeling thankful. I’ve got a fridge that’s bulging full and I’m not happy about it. More on this later. Let’s go back to Thanksgiving Day.
The Thanksgiving spread laid out before us was superb. I started with achaar, a pungent mix of pickled vegetables. There were some light and tasty onion fritters called onion bhaji; there was chicken tikka masala and tandoori chicken. For my money though the best of the main dishes was the daal tadka, which at first glance resembled a tureen full of oatmeal but is in fact made of yellow lentils cooked over a long, slow fire. Dessert was a sweet treat that demanded that I go back for thirds; gulab jamun, deep fried balls of milk, flour and semolina bathed in a rose water syrup.
As I do every Thanksgiving, I crawled into bed with a groaning stomach, promising myself that instead of joining the Black Friday shopping madness I would hit the gym in the morning. And as I did last year I skipped the gym because I had to make stuffing for Thanksgiving dinner. If something seems out of order here you’re right – sort of. Back to the tandoori and the Black Friday stuffing in a bit.
Here’s the thing about Thanksgiving – it’s a holiday that’s as bound to tradition as Buckingham Palace; as traditional as tossing rice at the bride and groom or raising a glass of bubbly on New Years’ Eve.
So what about those traditions?
It’s customary for Thanksgiving to be a time of togetherness and communion with your fellow man and woman. And what better way to do that than to hit the airport on Thanksgiving weekend. If the airport isn’t in your plans then there’s always the supermarket on the day before the holiday. There are few sights as discouraging as walking into the store and seeing the checkout lines receding into the far reaches of the store. Hours of your life that you’ll never get back and you have no choice because it isn’t like you can just say, “Screw it we’ll just order in pizza. Any other day maybe but this is Thanksgiving; today you – are – stuck. So you’ve managed to weave your loaded and groaning shopping cart down the grocery store aisles, you’ve waited a lifetime to get checked out by the grocery checker, you’re home, the bags are unpacked, you’ve poured yourself a drink to take the edge off the experience and you’re just putting your stocking feet up when a question wafts out of the kitchen, “Did you remember to get the chestnuts?” “Oh God!” Back to the store for one, stinking item that you missed off the list and at this late hour might be sold out.
This year it was for a pound of sausage. I and my blood pressure were fortunate that the store was well stocked with sausage on the shelf and checkers at the counters. My blood pressure moment was put off until I got home when Scott told me that my rambunctious dog Lexi had a pre-Thanksgiving appetizer. I asked what. “Look at your laptop?” In horror I rushed to the kitchen table thinking l would find a computer with a few bites (not bytes) taken out of it. The computer was fine bu t on top of the computer was one of my caps with a chomp taken out of the bill. Well at least it wasn’t my Stetson.
On my way into the store I noticed a woman and a small child. The woman held a sign that asked for money for food. I purchased the sausage and got an extra 5 bucks in cash back which I gave to the woman. Maybe she needs the money or maybe she’s going to hop in a Mercedes at the end of the day. I follow my instincts and ere on the side of charity. I’m not here to judge.
It’s the same with the old grizzled guys on a cold street corner begging for spare change. I’m not here to judge the needy. I’ve been scolded for giving old grizzled guys any money, “They’re just going to go out and buy alcohol with it. Give ‘em a turkey sandwich instead.” To my way of thinking part of charity is to provide comfort and maybe the grizzled guy’s idea of comfort on a cold winter street corner is a half pint of Early Times. He’s probably sick of turkey sandwiches anyway.
Off the rails
Convention demands that any Thanksgiving dinner worthy of expectations should include at least one incident of one or more guests going off the rails.
Everyone’s gotta believe in something, I believe I’ll have another drink: There was that Thanksgiving years ago when one of our guests dove far too deep into his after dinner cups of Johnny Walker; far, far, far too deep and down to the depths, until he tossed his turkey dinner along with the trimmings, the better part of a fifth of Scotch and a bold zinfandel with hints of spice and notes of raspberry.
Thanksgiving goes to the dogs: Last year my daughter announced to my nephew that his dog “is an asshole.” An uncomfortable quiet ensued as we waited for that venerable old saying to be invoked that “you never, ever insult a man’s dog.” Luckily my nephew is as good natured a young man as you could ever find so the infamous slight was overlooked and everyone was able to return to enjoying the festive evening.
You %&*@#&! SOB: If there’s anything that can bruise and batter a Thanksgiving, it’s politics. Dad’s political views always clashed with his brothers and sisters and their spouses. The battles between my dad and his siblings are the stuff of legend. After dinner they would gather at the kitchen table for a game of penny poker and some friendly chatter. And then someone who just couldn’t help it would mention something of a political nature and, fueled by copious amounts of whiskey (usually Black Velvet), the discussion went from camaraderie to defcon 3 to total war in a matter of minutes. All out warfare usually reached its climax with an exchanged barrage of name calling and shouting and ended with everyone stomping to their bedrooms and the final explosions of slamming doors.
Fortunately our family and friends are all of a similar political mind so there are no political battles but what’s Thanksgiving without a donnybrook of some sort. So this year Cora got into an argument with our son and daughter about sponges; sponges. Don’t ask. It all got worked out.
Over the river and through the woods: To grandmother’s house we go. That was the song we sang in grade school as Halloween gave way to Thanksgiving. That’s the tradition right? Grandma and grandpa host the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to a traditional meal straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
For 35 years Thanksgiving was at my parents’ house until the year mom passed away and then Cora and I hosted for 27 years. My mom was a World War II war bride from Italy. When she arrived in America with dad, Thanksgiving must have seemed to her as some sort of mysterious tribal custom. I don’t know how or when she learned to cook Thanksgiving dinner but by the time that I came along there was no doubt that she’d perfected it.
A few years after she arrived, mom sponsored her mother into America. Nonna Maria learned how to cook Thanksgiving dinner. She never learned English but she learned Thanksgiving.
Cora is Filipina and when we married she was only a few years in America. She learned to cook Thanksgiving dinner by being mom’s assistant; chopping, schlepping and making mental notes. Cora never wrote any of it down but by the time that Thanksgiving was on us the dinner was as good as anything mom ever made. The torch is passed and with the passing traditions are transformed and so mom’s chestnut stuffing was replaced by my cornbread stuffing.
After mom passed, dad went from depression to dementia. Until he passed away Thanksgiving was one of those rare times in the year when a spark brightened dad’s eyes. He might not have remembered exactly what and why but as the preparations commenced something was recalled within the diminished recesses that this was something special. He would spend the hours before the arrival of guests alternately preparing himself and checking on the progress in the kitchen remarking how good it all smelled. When it was time to sit down to dinner dad would come to the table wearing his trademark felt hat looking for all the world like a grizzled old cowboy. On this day his nature changed from quiet and reclusive to gregarious.
Crisis hit the family five years ago when my daughter and her husband announced that they would be hosting Thanksgiving. Cora and I were stunned. What kind of heresy was this? We were at a moment of truth that had Cora and I in mid pout announcing that we would be celebrating our own Thanksgiving by ourselves in Reno. Well of course we didn’t follow through with our tantrum and we went to Jessica’s and they presented us with a wonderful dinner. It was the one and only time she hosted before she split with her husband. Looking back from this Thanksgiving I’m thankful that she got that one chance and I will be forever thankful when she gets the opportunity again.
Thanksgiving was handed back to Cora and I until three years ago when my son and his wife took the reigns. It took their ingenuity to make me realize that Cora and I were so hidebound to tradition that our dinner, while always good, had become trite. My son and daughter in law elevated Thanksgiving through necessity and imagination and creativity and a certain amount of guts.
Last year my son announced that he would only need a couple of hours to cook the turkey causing Cora and I to wonder if he knew what he was doing. That is until Matthew explained that he had butchered the turkey before cooking in order to save time to allocate oven space for other dishes. We didn’t have that Rockwellian traditional carving of the bird at the table but Matthew’s version of the turkey, in which the brine gets to more of the turkey in its butchered form could be the best I’ve ever had.
While we’ve always included the time honored side dishes; stuffing and mashed potatoes and cranberries and pumpkin pie our family Thanksgiving has evolved. This year my daughter in law, Florence, started us off with an artichoke soup. I’d never had artichoke soup until earlier this month when Cora and I visited the coastal town of Pescadero where I had this specialty of a little restaurant called Duarte’s Tavern.
I watched as Florence went through the time intensive process of breaking down artichokes to get to the heart. As she finished the first she turned the small remnant around in her hand and asked, “This is the heart? Its so small.”
“Yep, just scrape off the fuzzy stuff.” I said. Who has the confidence to try a brand new dish for a Thanksgiving crowd of 20? As I mopped up the last drops of soup from my bowl with a dinner roll, I turned to Florence, “This is as good as the soup at Duarte’s Tavern.”
My daughter Jessica is the designated baker so she’s taken on the desserts. She’s not one that’s going to be shackled to convention so this year she offered a cranberry upside down cake but made this old man happy by baking a pumpkin pie.
So back to the tandoori and Black Friday stuffing. With the split of my daughter and her husband, holidays presented the “who gets the kids” quandary. Fortunately the two are reasonable friends. On Thanksgiving Day the kids go with dad to his family’s celebration at a cabin in the Sierras. On Black Friday Jessica and the kids celebrate with us, Matthew, Florence, Florence’s parents and all of the other guests who would normally gather with us on Thanksgiving. So for the foreseeable future, Black Friday will be our Thanksgiving observance. And that’s just fine. While the rest of the nation is enduring shopping frenzy we’re enjoying the company of family and friends.
So what about the Indian food on a day that’s supposed to be reserved for turkey? Well, Cora and Scott and I were at loose ends on Thanksgiving day so, not having had Indian food in far too long I suggested that we go out to an Indian buffet. We found the Delhi Diner in nearby Albany. I think that Cora and I have found a new Thanksgiving Day tradition; let’s find a different ethnic restaurant each year.
And that refrigerator thing? I opened the fridge looking for all the required elements of another time honored Thanksgiving tradition; a turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce sandwich on white bread, all drowning in gravy. Turns out that since we no longer host Thanksgiving I can no longer horde leftovers like I used to and this year the only leftovers that we brought home was a container of cranberry sauce and a little wad of stuffing about the size of a tennis ball.
There’s one other important tradition that started at my son’s table. After dinner everyone at the table is asked to talk about what they are thankful for. This year it was easy for me. You see, two months ago my wife completed chemotherapy and for the fourth time has vanquished cancer and done so with a quiet and determined grace. Thank you.