Growing up the holidays were a really big deal in my house. The season started with my mom hosting Thanksgiving, aka Turkey-givings Day. My parents had bought the house from my grandparents, a six bedroom, ONE bath three story behemoth that was hard to heat, time consuming to clean and always in need of repairs, where my grandparents has raised seven kids and sheltered several extended family members and the occasional stray. It was the “family ” home. Aunts, uncles, cousins and the random friend/girlfriend/boyfriend would descend upon the house on the 4th Thursday of November to eat too much, drink too much, smoke various brands of cigarettes and (mostly) avoid talking about politics or anything more controversial than when the Drambuie would be served.
Sounds like fun, right? I’m sure it was, if you were a guest. If you were the eldest daughter of the host, prone to endless worrying, with a borderline obsessive need for cleanliness and organization it was not fun. At all. My mom claimed to cherish this annual ritual of food and family, and she did, but even for the the most patient person there were challenges. With a crowd that fluctuated from 12 to 22 depending on the year you would think that people would help and cooperate. Ha! Aunts would arrive with side dishes that were maybe cooked, sometimes assembled and often just a bunch of ingredients in a bag. Uncles would stand directly in front of the pantry blocking access to platters, ingredients and the one place to hide on the first floor. Seating took forever, wrangling everyone around a dinging room table and several folding tables, everyone trying to avoid the “inside” seats that left you stuck until Nana had finished eating. And that took forever.
The food? There was so much, so very much. The portions rarely varied with the crowd size so there was always enough and often more than enough by a factor of ten. The menu didn’t vary. That was not allowed. I would sometimes make something new, i.e. cornbread dressing, chocolate chip pie, but it would be served along the standards, not instead of. Tradition always trumped taste. Mom did the stuffed celery, pickles/olives, canned cranberry, turkey, mashed potatoes, boiled onions, butternut squash,stuffing, canned corn (for the cousin who ate no other vegetables) and apple pie. The aunts supplied the green bean casserole, broccoli casserole (the one dish made by an Uncle), turnip, pumpkin pie and a pudding dessert. The sweet potatoes had various origins, ending up in my early twenties with my youngest sister. I helped mom with her cooking (including getting up at 5 am to make the stuffing and put the turkey in), did the house cleaning and as I got older added cranberry apple relish, chocolate chip pie and various stuffings and casseroles, depending on what looked good in the food magazines that year. There were no rolls, no salad and the wine was an afterthought. The wineglasses were filled, some with wine but most with soda or cider. The beer stayed in the cans. Savages.
Due to the logistics involved in cooking and serving for a gaggle of relatives this size my mom sat in the seat closest to the kitchen and jumped up and down for the duration of the meal. Other than her last Thanksgiving, when a few special people stepped up and co-hosted with her, I don’t believe she ever ate hot food. Once seconds, thirds and dessert had been eaten there was the epic cleanup. Wine glasses, china and good silver making their annual 24 hour appearance were not going in the dishwasher, being washed and dried by hand. Guests promised to come back on Friday for their share of the copious leftovers. They never did. The folding tables would linger until it was time to put up the Christmas decorations. Mom loved it and the guests did too. I got out as soon as I could.
In the years since I’ve graduated college we’ve spent about four of the sixteen Thanksgivings with either my family or Sam’s family. There were a few years I got nostalgic and thought, hey it will be fun to go to Mom’s house. We’d go and then I’d remember I don’t like crowds, chaos and inconsiderate people. Sam comes from a much smaller family and for a couple of years the nice wine, beautifully set table, quieter holiday was attractive. But the food wasn’t as good, I mean, the same. And as the family grew the table and the portions didn’t. If I can’t eat ’til I’m sick it’s not Thanksgiving and watching people host who aren’t used to crowds is painful and downright uncomfortable. I decided early on in our marriage that my philosophy on how we spent the holidays would be the same as my life philosophy…my way. Yes, we went rouge, upsetting parents, frustrating siblings and making countless cousins and friends jealous of our rebellious ways.
Our first married Thanksgiving we spent together in our little apartment in Charleston, SC. Being accustomed to cooking for a crowd I made a 21 lb. turkey and all the fixings for the two of us. We ate turkey through Christmas. We spent one Thanksgiving in a little rental cottage in Kennebunk, ME. I brought a chicken to roast and an apple pie, we ordered sides from a nearby inn. It was a delicious meal followed by a weekend of walking on the beach and watching the Food Network. Another year we went to Stowe, VT and enjoyed an absolutely delicious resort buffet with a nice bottle of wine and ate while watching the first snowfall of the season. The hot tub, massage and iPod shopping by the lodge fireplace made it a truly DINK experience. We’ve been to Mexico (didn’t even miss the traditional meal), to California to celebrate with friends and enjoyed several Thanksgiving together at home, sometimes being joined by a good friend, another large family refugee. I don’t miss the big celebrations, but I do like to see pictures and hear about the day. I prefer less formal, no seating arrangement gatherings to mingle and catch up with the family.
This year I’m working Monday until noon and then baking for others from Monday afternoon through Wednesday evening. The mere thought of cooking a meal makes me slightly sick to my stomach. We might get Thai or Chinese takeout. I may cook a Ken’s Kickin’ Chicken Thanksgiving pot pie and make mashed potatoes and green beans to go with. There will be pie, at least three types. Variety is the spice of life, especially as it relates to dessert. Later in the season, after Thanksgiving has passed and Christmas is in the rear view mirror, I’ll do the full Thanksgiving meal. If I’m feeling festive and nostalgic I’ll invite people to share in the feast. If I’m feeling like nesting and hibernating we’ll eat turkey into February.
Next year, who knows? Not I. Perhaps I’ll be baking for others as I’m doing this year and take out will become a new tradition. Maybe I’ll be working an office job and we’ll check out Lake Placid Lodge, exploring upstate New York and enjoying a meal cooked entirely by others. Maybe I’ll be baking and decide to cook at home, taking a break from sweet to practice my savory skills, finally brining a turkey as I’ve wanted to do for years. Another possibility would be joining one of my aunts and her family in Maine. She’s a great cook. One year when I was about 11 or 12 we somehow managed to escape hosting and travel north. Four adults and eight kids, that’s it. We feasted on a huge fresh turkey and there were almost as many different kinds of pies as there were diners – apple, pumpkin, mince, chocolate cream, pecan, coconut cream and more. Fat kid heaven. It was fun yet not too crazy or overwhelming. My absolute favorite type of holiday.
Wherever you are and whomever you are with, enjoy the day. Watch the Macy’s parade. Watch football. Take a walk in the fresh air, listening to the crackling leaves underfoot. Whatever makes you happy. Eat ’til it hurts. It’s one day to celebrate turkey, fabulous fall veggies and pie, pie with ice cream. You can worry about sugar, gluten, low fat, low carb, paleo, wheat grass fasts, etc. on Friday.
One of Mom’s Christmas Cacti, blooming right in time for Thanksgiving!