Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving '08

This year I decided to cook my family's Thanksgiving meal. This may just be the first time that we have stayed home without guests or extended family. Of course it was the first time that Miss IzaB. joined our family gathering.

Thanksgiving is an American holiday. You come to appreciate this when you are married to a non-American. (Well, technically now he is a citizen.) Outside the U.S. turkey and mashed potatoes do not conjure ineffable childhood associations of excitement, wonder, and the comfortable bewilderment of a family gathered to feast late in the afternoon. Thanksgiving foods, quite bluntly, are bland. True, the butter factor does add a savory afterglow. Yet even when the turkey is exceptional, it is decidedly not sexy. At all. Nor are you after second helpings.

So I decided to explain to my non-American this way: it is like a dinner party you through just for your family. You know, you clean the house--even running the vacuum beneath the couch cushions. You plan the menu and write up a shopping list, starting at least a few days in advance. You buy all the best ingredients and cart them home. You set the table with the best stuff you have in the house, transforming your everyday dining table into an image of domestic order and splendor you hardly recognize. There has to be some form of bubbly drink, sparkling water with a lemon afloat will serve just fine. There should be courses: soup, main, and dessert, at least.

You are required to shower and take off your sweatpants. (Well, sweatpants might pass as long as from the table up you are not in leisure wear.) Remember, this is a dinner party and you want to show up looking like you appreciate all the effort being exerted in your honor. Sure you only had to travel a flight of stairs, but your journey to the table has really been taken together through the past year since the last time you shared a Thanksgiving meal.

You are carefully pleasant to one another, as well as gently direct if need be. You talk about something other than: what you had for lunch, your gastrointestinal health, and what you are doing tomorrow.

You exhibit outright delight in the food that you and your loved ones, your generous hosts, have lovingly prepared.

This, then, is the way I might have explained what Thanksgiving dinner should be if I had had the wherewithal to compose such an analogy extemporaneously at the dinner table. As it was, I managed a table cloth and three humble courses. I whittled my parent's traditional feast down to the Thanksgiving essentials. The side dishes of butternut squash and candied yams become my first course: a soup culled from the New York Times. (See below.) It was healthy. Then I served turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and brussel spouts. Pumpkin pie from Athan's bakery followed. Notice: no mashed potatoes. (And my family will notice, no dumplings. Without dumplings, what is the point of mashed potatoes?) Later my husband would pronounce this omission a mistake. I was fine with it.

While we had a fine lunch, it still was not a Thanksgiving lunch. Essentials are simply not enough. Roasting a turkey breast is not the same as having a stuffed bird. There is not nearly enough drama in the roasting or in the presentation. You need excess. You need to have a reason to practice restraint. You need to be tempted by that extra slice of pie or else you simply feel full and not satiated. You need at least one person to get huffy and slam a door.

There is always next year. My parents have had almost fifty years to build their Thanksgiving repertoire. I hope my own version will develop the same depth over the years. I'll keep the soup. I like the idea of a soup course to lengthen the time at table. But there will be dumplings and potatoes, and Grandma Schamber's meat dressing too. Not to mention warm rolls and butter. And gravy. You just have to have gravy with lumps. And that is where the dinner party analogy finally breaks down. With your family, you are allowed to have lumps and pour it on thick.

Sweet Potatoe and Butternut Squash Soup:
I served it with buttered whole wheat toast cubes and a sprig of thyme.

1 comment:

István Albert said...

Happy future Thanksgivings.

What you describe was very similar experience to ours, one turkey breast, we got mashed potatoes going but no stuffing or cranberry. We made a "piskota torta" for dessert.

Teenage son lamented: "it's supposed to be Thanksgiving Dinner ... not Thanksgiving Lunch"

Maybe next year our infants get to be helpers, or at least less of a hassle to keep them happy ... now that would be something we would be very thankful for

It is also a pity that distances are such an obstacle, if we added together two anemic Thanksgiving Lunches we could get a quite sanguine Thanksgiving Dinner going.