Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, a Full House in poker, a Triple A bond, Chocolate Mousse cake, and shares the platform with the Fourth of July. The American Settlers’ Harvest dinner with a parade, a familial day inclusive of orphaned relatives and friends, strays― old and new join the festivities with minimal inconvenience to the host. A turkey, the centerpiece over 20 pounds an easy entrée, with accompanying side dishes and humor. Besides, both holidays have a low-expectation-level, no presents. A single parent most of my child rearing years with seven children, pas besoin de expliquer.
Thankful and grateful for my roots― an American woman, my ancestors courage, taking the risk to migrate to this eminent land of my birth― a holiday to celebrate a cornucopia of love— and the year’s harvest and sort. A Thanksgiving card from a friend recently divorced runs through my mind, “This Thanksgiving I got rid of a turkey.”
At twenty-two, college diploma in one hand, wedding ring a month later on the other, I discover to be a good cook is to read, follow directions and add spice. Betty Crocker’s Complete Book of Cooking my first purchase, dog-eared, stained, torn, worn and later lost, but I learn. The language simple as the ingredients, I find the preparation of food sensuous, full of color and play. I teach my children to cook as soon as they can stir, stand on a chair and understand hot. Desserts or breakfast pancakes.
I’m not talking about the chopping, antiseptic, “sous chef” assistant to my mom, a Françoise Pope TV show aficionado— but Mamma in the sixties interpretation — Maria Montessori ala Julia Child with frequent finger tasting. Montessori’s philosophy of independence and confidence and my father’s words,” teach a man to fish, feed him for life.” Teach a child to cook; he’ll eat. Or…don’t do anything for a child he can do for himself. Take the time, the energy, and the risk— allow imperfect results, and help clean up the mess. In small steps of independence the child experiences control, power, and learns to give. This can be a challenge for the parent in letting go of control.
Applied to their bedrooms: close the door!
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Thanksgiving, 1998, dinner is at my house, I missed these family parties living in California— I’d fly back to celebrate, but it wasn’t the same. I love the energy a party gives to my house, especially since I’m living alone. I thrive on the people chaos twenty-nine for dinner can create. One tradition for the friendly feast is everyone must make something, the men equally enthused— preferably an exhibit of culinary skill, a new recipe.
We are at the point of creative overload, to come up with variations of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Last year my son Greg and granddaughter Olivia won ‘Best of Show’ with an appetizer tray, a ‘turkey’ made of rolled roast beef, corned beef, salami and cheese feathers with an olive body stuck into a covered grapefruit base with a head of smoked scarmorza, a strip of pimento for the hanging waddle under the beak. I’m sure I left out some details but have a picture… somewhere. The challenge is to find a delicious dish someone hasn’t made before and now the grandchildren are in the act. A punch list of categories ranged from antipasto to zabaglione — appetizers, side dishes and desserts needed to complete the dinner. People have chosen, and the dessert list for the perpetually-late has tripled.
Two people signed up for the stuffing!
I have a brainstorm.
Greg has a smoker he uses during the summer, smoking chickens, salmon, corn on the cob for a crowd, and garners rave reviews. Why not smoke the turkey? He agrees.
I prepare the house with flowers, linens, candles, crystal, dishes, starter music, chairs, ice, cigars, soda, wine, liqueurs, and chocolate, the accessories. My daughters Tara and Polly come the day before to set-up. My granddaughter Melodie, seven, posted her computer printed list:
THANKSGIVING FEAST RULES
#1. Remember your manners.
#2. Be nice to one & other.
#3. Any messes you make you must clean up.
#4. Smile for pictures.
#5. Abosulety NO sour pusses allowed.
#6. Don’t talk with food in your mouth.
#7. Wipe your mouth with your napkin.
#8. Help by serving others.
#9. Have fun!
Prince blares “Little Red Corvette” for dancing while we work. Tables lined-up, extra chairs, place cards titles of Pilgrim, Pumpkin, Stuffing, Mincemeat, Pocahontas, General Custer, Martha, George, Pineapple, Washington, Nina, Chief, Ham, John Smith, Indian, Columbus, et al, are set above each plate. A duplicate name pulled on arrival decides who sits where (negotiable.) Tara invited friends from Italy, a professor from the University of Chicago, his wife and two children, for their first Thanksgiving in America.
This year the children will sit in the dining room in crystal splendor and the adults banquet style at one continuous multi-leveled table connected by a harvest gold tablecloth stretching across the living room. Greg delegated to smoke the turkey—I stuff my crystal punch bowl on the dining room window ledge with orange tissue wrapped Beanie Babies instead. I’m ready.
The guests start to arrive. The Italian couple arrives before Tara; no one else can speak Italian. I wished I’d learned as a child from my grandparents. We smile a lot and nod our heads with much animation. They probably hope it is the right house. A crowd hums around the kitchen, munching appetizers, drinking wine and missing the savory aroma of a turkey in the oven, too polite to comment on it when Greg arrives.
“Adagio, I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Greg acting frustrated carries in the turkey covered to protect it from the elements—and he’s not his usual jovial party self. This behavior is unusual for him, especially for a party. Something’s up— especially when I see Ivan, AKA “Sarge”, a Marine ROTC drill sergeant at Northwestern, following Greg, laughing to the point of tears. A Marine in tears— according to Sarge, Marines can’t even use an umbrella!
A quick group gathers around Greg. What’s so funny? What happened? Expecting a Greg joke.
“Adagio, I take no responsibility for this!” Greg’s mad, really mad.
Is he kidding? Sarge is hee-hawing by now, pointing at the covered turkey. I know by Greg’s expression this is no joke. With the finesse of a magician ready to reveal a rabbit from under a scarf, Greg pulls off the cloth. The twenty-six pound turkey is black!
Black as a magician’s hat.
It looks like a prop from Lucy cooking for Desi and the prop girl went too far. A pair of dried-out-black-leather-Steve-Manning-platforms stick in the air. A chorus of disbelief and everyone starts to howl and tease. “That Greg.” “Where did you find this?”
“Did you spray paint it?”
The little ones start to cry, the turkey’s so ugly. “Do we have to eat it?” Their mother’s reassure them, it’s an Uncle Greg joke.
But Greg’s not laughing.
He’s a good sport and a great cook, but he doesn’t like being whatever he is at the moment, and I didn’t know what would save the day. I knew the turkey would taste fine; what I didn’t know was because of the size the outside would get so black. It didn’t happen with the chickens, salmon, or corn.
Above the teasing I hear a shriek in a little persons voice. Fire! FIRE! FIRE! —From the dining room. Seven-year-old Veronica is standing on a dining room chair mesmerized, screaming. FIRE! Pointing— at the punch bowl ablaze with flaming tissue-wrapped Beanie Babies!
Earlier Veronica asked if she could light the candles with the butane lighter, she has done this many times before…I use a lot of candles. I knew she knew how—from all our camping-in-the-yard experiences. And there were adults everywhere. But at this moment they are all in the kitchen making fun of the ‘smokin’ turkey.
I remember the wax sculpture candle— an entwined couple, under the punch bowl, I never think of it as a candle—to me it’s sculpture. Veronica saw— wick. The candle couple’s flame ignites the tissue-wrapped Beanie Babies in the punch bowl alongside it.
I run to the kitchen for a pitcher of water. Tara whizzes by with a box of kosher salt. I am frozen, standing at the sink, waiting for the damn water to fill the pitcher and my mind reels back to a Thanksgiving in the early seventies.
* * *
Francois and I had taken the boys to the zoo mid-morning, leaving the girls home in peace to create their specialties for the meal. When we return from our hour at the zoo we turn off Sheridan Road down Greenleaf to the sight of a Police blockade and Fire trucks. My heart raced, stopped and dropped.
Our house, the fire engines are at our house. We pull up. “Officer, it’s our house.”
Tara was preparing cannoli shells in a hot frying pan and got a phone call, the phone plugged into the upstairs jack. The kitchen went up in flames— but everyone including the cat is safe. And the fire was “out by the time the firemen got here.”
Firemen and strangers stand outside, talking. Our neighbors and children inside, scrubbing soot― trying to clean the smoke damage from the dining room walls, solicitous, hoping we won’t be shocked: they obviously are. My daughter Nancy Megan holds a saltshaker. The kitchen destroyed. Everything burned except the twenty-pound turkey safe in the insulated oven.
We have to eat out for months…I gain 10 pounds.
* * *
In a time warp… I’m still standing at the kitchen sink thinking about fire… waiting for the damn water to fill the pitcher… when the Marines come to the rescue. Sarge pours his beer on the fire and Polly is yelling “Don’t use the beer, don’t use the beer.” What’s her problem, there’s plenty of beer? She explains she was afraid the alcohol would accelerate the fire. The beer extinguished the fire.
The Italian family I’m sure will not forget their first American Thanksgiving and the bootblack Thanksgiving turkey (rosy-pink tender with sweet-smoky flavor once the skin was removed in the kitchen, but not for Thanksgiving dinner) with two different kinds of cornbread- jalapeno dressing.
My sons-in-law win in their request for a traditional meal in the future. But, it won’t be next year— Regina and Frantz enthused after a Caribbean cruise are talking Jamaican Jerk Turkey. Bob and Kristin host this year, and Bob already went deer-hunting.
I’m bringing an appetizer, I want to be early for this party. And Roasted Roots…
“The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” Albert Einstein.