Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving.

When I was growing up, Thanksgiving belonged to my father and I. My mother would retreat upstairs while he and I did all the cooking. Actually, he did most of the cooking, as I ran around helping. Stirring pots on the stove. Chopping vegetables. Making stuffing and potatoes au gratin from Julia Child's recipe. We would debate over whether to have cranberry sauce (usually not) or giblets in the gravy (yes) or oysters in the stuffing (sometimes my dad won - yes to the oysters - and other times I did - no oysters). The turkey and gravy was his job, until the year he was diagnosed with cancer. It was the week before Veteran's Day, which meant his surgery was scheduled for the day after the holiday, an operation that took several hours and involved sawing open his sternum and removing a tumor the size of a softball (it was much later that they told me this part) that was wrapped around his thymus gland. The weeks of recovery meant that by Thanksgiving he was still unable to lift anything larger than a paperback novel, let alone a turkey. So now it was my turn. I was sixteen, and I was terrified.

I think of all holidays Thanksgiving is my favorite, because it is all about food. Halloween is about children and lots and lots of candy, which I love, and Christmas has its added strains of gift-giving and decorating on top of the usual family battles. All I have to worry about is the turkey. The year I was sixteen Thanksgiving was my domain entirely; I got to choose the menu, shop for the ingredients, time everything, create absolute chaos in the kitchen. There was help if I needed it, but it was going to be done my way. And everything turned out brilliantly. What I love about Thanksgiving is that it is the one day a year we had American food, that we had a meal that included some kind of meat - turkey - accompanied by vegetables - usually green beans and/or brussels sprouts - and a starch - mashed potatoes or gratinéed potatoes or sweet potatoes and, of course, stuffing, completely different from the variations on Chinese home cooking that we ate virtually every other night of the year. There was never pie, because my parents don't like pie (some years ago, a friend's mother was so horrified by the idea that I'd never had pie for Thanksgiving she made me three miniature pies for me, and I was eating pie for a week).

Now my parents live in another country. Once, in their absence, I cooked dinner for five friends, with turkey and cranberry sauce and cornbread stuffing and various vegetable dishes (I seem to recall brussels sprouts sautéed with bacon and chanterelles) and mashed potatoes, ending with a pumpkin tart (from my favorite bakery) and baked Alaska (the specialty of one of my guests). But more often I join some close family friends at their house, with their own traditions and expansive, extended family. I love them, and I love the meals I have shared with them, but I dream of a future time when I once again have my own traditions at my table and the people I love around me. Someday.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Go forth and eat until you can't move.

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