Wednesday, November 15, 2023
Next week is Thanksgiving, sort of the red headed step child of holidays. Every other holiday gets an explosion of STUFF but Thanksgiving just blends into the wallpaper of fall, somewhere between Halloween and Christmas.
I never quite understood it. It’s my favorite holiday. There’s no pressure to attend events, no stress over buying gifts. And it’s a day dedicated wholly to food. What could be better?
Since it gets so little recognition out in the wild, I’m going to give it due attention right here, with a multi-part celebration of what it is. Starting with a reflection on the thing that makes it what it is: the feast.
Here’s the thing. I cook all the time. Sometimes I even cook for other people. And I never just do the meat-and-potatoes or plate-of-pasta thing. I need to serve appetizers and entrées and salad and dessert. It’s just the way it is. Nobody has ever left my house hungry.
But most of the time the effort to cook outweighs the time to enjoy the result. I can spend two hours on any random Thursday preparing dinner and in ten minutes flat we’ve cleaned our plates and moved on to the next thing. It takes me longer to wash our two dishes than to eat an entire meal.
It’s kind of annoying, but no matter how I try to slow down and appreciate the fruits or bread basket of my labor, it is always a flash in the cast iron pan then gone.
Thanksgiving is the one day a year that reverses this travesty. Thanksgiving has to be an all day feast.
I suppose it’s a holdover from all the holidays spent with my family. Mostly we’d go to my grandparents’ house and my grandmother would cook all day and we’d eat all day. And I mean ALL DAY.
I’m not sure what we had for breakfast but that was incidental. What you really wanted was the feast, and it started early, right around lunch time. There was no Thanksgiving “dinner” in our house. Dinner is for amateurs. All day feasts are for people who celebrate Thanksgiving.
I know I won’t remember everything in its proper order so let’s see what I do remember…
Cheese and crackers. These days you call it charcuterie and it sounds fancy and important but it has always been and still is cheese and crackers for us.
Don’t let the lack of a fancy word fool you. Cheese and crackers meant mozzarella and munster, Swiss and cheddar. It meant black olives that you had to stick on your fingers before eating them and green olives with pimentos. It meant roasted red peppers and marinated artichokes. It meant crackers in every shape and flavor. It meant salami and pepperoni and prosciutto.
It also meant mom’s stuffed mushrooms, because there were certain things that only mom could do, and that was one. Mom’s stuffed mushrooms are legendary. I have never attempted to make them myself because some things are best left to the pros.
It’s altogether likely I’m leaving something out but when you’re already in a food coma and you haven’t gotten past the appetizers, it’s hard to think straight.
Then came shrimp cocktail for the grownups and fruit cocktail for the kids. We had pretty little bowls full of fruit cocktail out of the can, syrupy pears, peaches, grapes and pineapple. The cherries were the prize because there were so few of them and they were doled out with precision. Then on top, a scoop of rainbow sherbet.
I don’t know who decided that sugar on top of sugar was the way to start a meal but I’d like to give them a little gold star. It was heavenly.
Of course I don’t think you could pay me to eat that today. I’d much rather take the shrimp. But back in the day it was a treat to behold.
Then soup. Cappelletti to be more specific. That was quite possibly my favorite. We used to joke about how you’d go to a restaurant and get precisely eight Cappelletti in the bowl, but when you went to grandma’s house you got all you could eat.
Cappelletti filled with ricotta and meat, parmesan poured on top until it melted into the broth and every spoonful was gooey goodness.
I would absolutely eat that today.
I think the main event came next – turkey and about 20 sides. You had your stuffing, which grandma made right in the turkey before anyone told you that it would kill you. She made the best stuffing. I have never had its like again.
Roasted potatoes. Gravy. Bread.
My mother made her famous candied yams. Once a year we got candied yams and I waited all year for them. No icky marshmallows or gross raisins or whatever some crazy people put in them, just yams and brown sugar and nuts. Like mushrooms, there are certain things I have never cooked for myself because they have to be done the mom way, no questions asked.
I suppose there was a green thing, quite possibly green beans. You had to have a balanced meal, right?
After that, salad, because salad comes after a meal. It wasn’t until much later in my adult life that I learned other people ate salad first, which struck me as completely bizarre. I’m used to it now but when I have dinner with my family, salad comes last the way God intended.
Or not quite last because then you had fruit. The big cornucopia came out stuffed full of apples and pears and grapes and nuts. The kind you had to open with a nutcracker. Walnuts and Brazil nuts and filberts. I loved cracking them open as much as eating them.
And of course Torrone. Oh my gosh, those little boxes of blissful nougat.
We used to eat them then close the boxes up and put them back in the cornucopia so the next time my grandfather reached for one he’d be shocked to find his box empty. Every time. There was no end of amusement in that game.
And finally, the crowning glory of the feast, dessert. I most specifically remember the pumpkin pie because it was another mom specialty and it was my favorite. I have actually made pumpkin pie once or twice but it has never been as good nor as much fun.
Pumpkin pie and Smoothie Nut pie and who even knows what else. Oh, cookies, that’s what else. Because no holiday came without cutout cookies. Cookies in the shape of turkeys and pilgrims and leaves, topped with fall-colored sprinkles and powdered sugar, piled in a mountain on a plate.
There was wine for the grownups and soda for the kids. I always had cream soda, which was my favorite, and is the only soda I will drink to this day. Later I graduated to wine, too, the kind out of the gallon jug that you kept under the kitchen sink because that was the only place it fit.
We’d sit and talk and joke and eat and eat and eat.
We probably loosened a few belts and unbuttoned a few skirts.
The only thing almost as good as the feast was the leftovers. A good feast needs at least a week of leftovers, all of which can be enjoyed in partial moderation for lunches and dinners to come.
The years saw some modifications, but not many. I recall some mashed potatoes. Different kinds of biscuits. A new appetizer here and there. My mother likes to try new things so she throws in some brie tarts or another fancy little treat. These days she is the one who cooks all day, and everyone else eats all day.
I honestly don’t know how we ate at much as we did and lived to tell the tale. I also don’t know my mother or grandmother managed to do it all without apps and lists and schedules and spreadsheets and photos with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one.
Somehow it happened, magically, deliciously.
I make almost none of that now, in part because there are some things you can’t pretend to replicate. But I do scour recipes for days ahead of time and plan my all-day feast, whether it’s just the two of us or we’re hosting friends who accuse us of trying to kill them.
It’s the one time of the year you get to sit at a table and do nothing but sit at a table. There’s nowhere to go. Nothing to rush off to. Nothing more important than whatever the next course is.
I really don’t have much more to say than that. This is just me sitting here in starry-eyed remembrance of so many Thanksgivings full of everything good. I haven’t planned this year’s menu but you can bet I’ll be sitting in my crater on the couch this weekend working on it. There is something inherently satisfying in running around like a lunatic, collecting ingredients, using every pot and pan and dish and spoon in the kitchen then washing them and using them all over again, until you finally sit down and just…
Photo: a cornucopia decorating my mother’s dining room.