This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on November 26, 2009
Most women well remember the first Thanksgiving feast they hosted. Many put it up there with their first kiss or having a baby. It is monumental and only women who have pulled it off can enter the sisterhood. Eventually, seasoned Thanksgiving cooks pass the baton to the new generation, usually a daughter or daughter-in-law. They do so with understanding and sympathy. That first time at bat on Thanksgiving is intimidating.
I admit I went a little over board when I prepared my first Thanksgiving feast. I had it at my home, a “starter” house in the truest sense of the word. It was 1976 and the 800 square foot house had a linoleum floor that I washed with straight bleach. The kitchen was the size of a closet and I didn’t have a dining room table so we put a door on top of two sawhorses, threw a tablecloth I got at Goodwill on it and dined by candlelight so no one would notice. I borrowed some chairs from my mom so I could accommodate everyone. Then I had to figure out how to get the meal cooked and on the makeshift table.
I still wonder what I was thinking when I baked the bread from scratch for my first Thanksgiving. It didn’t rise very high and wasn’t that good but everyone said it was delicious. No matter how bad the gravy, how lumpy the potatoes or even how dry the turkey, if you are sitting at the table of a novice cook this year (three or less Thanksgiving dinners under the belt is a novice), be nice. Praise everything she prepared. She may not look it, but she is very fragile and likely on the verge of tears until the last piece of pumpkin pie is consumed. Do not say anything that will make her cry.
Luckily, turkey is not too difficult to roast. For most of us, the gizzards and neck are the gross part. It took a few years before I could remove them without gagging. That is partly because my older brother used to chase me around the kitchen with the turkey neck when I was a kid. One year I didn’t get the gizzards out and discovered them in my fully roasted turkey, still in the little waxed paper bag, when I pulled out the stuffing.
Gauging how long the bird needs to be in the oven can also be a little tricky and a miscalculation can throw everything off. Many things have to happen at once after the turkey is taken from the oven but before it is served at the table. Gravy has to be made, stuffing has to be removed from the bird and it has to be carved. This still appears to be the domain of the male who pulls himself away from the football game, walks into the kitchen, grabs the biggest knife in the household and starts cutting. No matter how badly he botches it up, the meat still comes off the bone and there is nothing terrible enough to make him cry.
One year I was so busy gabbing with my mom as I got the turkey ready to roast, I put it in the oven upside down. My mother, who had passed the baton many years earlier, was also oblivious to my error, even as I pulled the turkey out to baste it. By then I had developed enough self-confidence that I could laugh at my mistake. Had it happened in my first three novice years, it would have been mortifying.
Thanksgiving dinner is an American tradition that was captured in its most idyllic sense by many of Normal Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations. One depicts a family gathered around the table with an older woman proudly putting the perfectly roasted turkey in the middle of a beautifully set table with apparently very happy family members smiling in anticipation. Her husband stands proudly by her side. Today’s families are not that simple and many include multiple spouses, a variety of children and an assortment of in-laws. No matter how times have changed, we still expect a perfectly prepared feast for all to enjoy, and the expectation weighs heavily on the cook.
Once I figured it out, I began to enjoy making Thanksgiving dinners. It is an opportunity to reflect on the past year and to enjoy a feast with family and friends. I can laugh if something goes wrong and have enough Plan B’s to cover up any mistakes. I enjoy leftover turkey so I always roast a big bird. I keep it interesting by trying new recipes every year but wouldn’t dream of leaving out the green bean casserole or the sweet potatoes with more sugar than potatoes. Although my parents are no longer with us, I put on a dress for dinner in honor of my Dad, who thought that was appropriate. I find I enjoy the Thanksgiving feast along with my guests and count my blessings.
Kathleen Vallee Stein