(Blogger’s note: This is sort-of part two of a 2-part reminiscence — you can read part one here.)
It’s 8:45 p.m. as I sit down to type this. My wife and kids are all in bed. All the food is packed away. The house still resonates with the smell of well-roasted turkey and store-bought pie. I’m sitting her with a steel bottle full of water, wondering how much I’ve added to my waistline in the last twelve hours.
Thanksgiving is over. And much to my (pleasant) surprise, it went rather smoothly.
Surprise? Yes, surprise. Because, for the first time in my life, it was me — not my mom and/or her mom — that was making the Thanksgiving feast.
When I was a child, it was always the tradition that on Thanksgiving morning, we would leave early from our home in North Highlands (near Sacramento, California) and drive the 200 or so miles up to Eureka to spend the holiday with Grandma and Grandpa, Mom’s mother and stepdad. We would watch the football games with Grandpa, eat an excellent home-cooked meal, stay overnight in the guest rooms, and head back late the next morning (after a pumpkin-pie-centered breakfast) loaded down with turkey sandwiches and good memories. Christmas was spent with my father’s family, the main traditions being opening presents, my other grandmother’s excellent Italian cooking, and my dad and Uncle Ron yelling at each other and aborting their annual chess match.
After my parents divorced, Christmas with the Anselmo side gradually faded away, leaving Thanksgiving with the Creek/Ingersoll side as the main annual family get-together. This didn’t change even when my maternal grandparents died in the early ’90s (both of them being just short of 90 themselves); Mom simply picked up where they left off, and every Thanksgiving I’d drive up from Stockton to eat with her, my brother and whoever else she had decided to invite that year (usually single people from her Episcopal parish). Brother eventually estranged himself from the rest of us in gaudy and high-volume fashion, but by then I was married with kids of my own, so Mom never lacked for patrons of her Thanksgiving art.
For art it was — Mom was a cook held in high esteem by all who sampled her wares. And Thanksgiving was her annual magnum opus. Huge turkeys so tender the meat fell off the bones. (For a couple of years, she even cooked turduckens — the turkey-wrapped-around-a-duck-wrapped-around-a-chicken concoction Paul Prudhomme invented — but gave it up as just too darn much work.) Mashed potatoes and various stuffings and fresh (not canned) sweet potatoes. Homemade gravy, as hearty as gourmet soup. Mashed rutabaga, which sound to some like culinary torture but was the divine ambrosia when she made it. A vegetable platter that ran from the traditional (olives, celery-and-cheese) to one of her oddest specialties, home-canned watermelon pickle (I’ll explain later; suffice for now to say she was an expert at canning as well). And for dessert, she graduated from the staples of pumpkin and mince pies to such delicacies as pumpkin-swirl cheesecake. One would find oneself full to the brim … and yet unable to turn away from such a sumptuous repast.
It hadn’t even changed much as of last year, when we visited her for Thanksgiving — the last time we, and perhaps anyone, saw her conscious. She’d long ago abandoned fresh yams, and had started making instant mashed potatoes to save her energy. And given her condition(s), I had insisted on her letting us bring something to help. For the only time in recorded memory (you’d have to know my mom), she acquiesced, asking us to bring dessert — and thus Nina’s lovely plum cobbler made an appearance. But everything else was just the same as it ever was, and as delicious.
Nor was she planning to stop that day. When I went into her apartment for the first time after her death (she passed on only three days after Thanksgiving last year), I found a pan of gravy cooled on the stove. She’d mentioned she was going to make a little extra from the turkey drippings, and freeze it for later use …
So now we come to the present day (okay, last week) and figuring out exactly what we were going to do with Thanksgiving this year. With Mom gone and my brother and father doing their best to alienate us from them, my wife and kids are the only family I have to speak of. Spending it with Nina’s parents wasn’t really an option, for reasons I’m not sure I could define even if I wanted to go into them (which I don’t). And what friends we could invite were either otherwise obligated that day, in the midst of crises that precluded them from attending, or on a business trip to Southeast Asia (no joke). It was just going to be the four of us. So unless we chose to go to a restaurant — not my preference, as I’d feel guilty for making the restaurant staff work on a holiday — I was going to be cooking the dinner.
For the first time. Ever. Literally, I’d never cooked an entire turkey before! (In fact, I wasn’t even planning on making a whole turkey, just a portion. But our Winco supermarket was selling turkeys at 33¢ a pound as a loss leader — so I could buy a 5-pound turkey breast for $11, or a 12-pound whole bird for $4. Yeah, I got the whole bird.)
I wasn’t panicking, but … but I was concerned. It occupied my mind, shall we say.
I suppose it needn’t have. Because everything turned out wonderfully.
Part of it was that I kept it simple. I skipped the gravy (none of us much go for it anyway), the cranberry sauce (likewise) and the yams. Instead of a homemade dessert, I recalled an unused frozen peach pie we’d bought for a now-forgotten special occasion but never baked. Garnish for the turkey consisted of shaking garlic salt and Lawry’s Seasoned Salt over the skin, plus a little inside the carcass. And I didn’t worry about stuffing the bird. All of that saved a lot of work, plus I enlisted my daughter Charlotte (who likes helping with grown-up stuff) to take care of such tasks as washing potatoes, filling pans with water and finding the last known jar of Mom’s watermelon pickle.
(Oh, yeah — I promised I’d explain about that. It’s actually watermelon rind pickle — the white part of the rind, cut into squares, cooked with lots of cinnamon and preserved in sugar syrup. Sounds like the weirdest thing on earth to the uninitiated, but it’s sweet, spicy and succulent, one of the great treats of my childhood. Don’t ask me where Mom got the recipe, but it’s oh-so-good!)
Still, the turkey was moist and fall-off-the-bone tender (I worried it might get a little dry, so halfway through the cooking time I slipped a pan of water in the oven with the bird, which helped) and the skin was the best I’d ever had. The mashed potatoes — from real spuds, unpeeled, heavy on the garlic salt — came out fine. The stuffing was from a box, no-brainer there. I sliced up an entire bunch of celery and filled the pieces with squeeze cheese, supplemented by whole olives, carrot sticks and the aforementioned watermelon pickle. Even boiled and mashed one small rutabaga, as an homage to Mom (plus the fact that I like the stuff), and everyone ate it up. Even Sean had a taste of almost everything … everything we could shove past his teeth, as he still can’t voluntarily open his jaw much.
Tomorrow, there’s no pumpkin pie, but recently I came up with a new Recovery Day breakfast tradition, scrambled eggs-and-stuffing, that the fam appreciates. And in the next few days Nina will undoubtedly make her should-be-world-renowned turkey tetrazzini. But for now … I sit and type, thinking back on a day that was a little bittersweet, but ultimately satisfying. Given the choice, I would rather have had Mom here with us, still working her victual magic.
But I was thankful to at least be able to carry some of the Thanksgiving traditions on. And maybe make a few new ones along the way.