Thanksgiving 2017

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Three hours in the kitchen yesterday morning; five hours in the kitchen this morning; I’ve listened to over half of Paul Auster’s Sunset Park in the meantime. (Does he ever write anything that doesn’t have a writer in it? I love his style, but sometimes I get the feeling I’m just reading variations on his autobiography. This one, so far, has no connection to Paris.) I’m thankful that it’s almost done. The turkey is in the oven; the dressing is cooling; the soup and cranberry sauce (this year stewed spiced chai with a bit of bourbon as an experiment) sit in the refrigerator; the broccoli casserole (yes, there simply must be a casserole or else it’s not Thanksgiving) is ready to go in the oven; the giblet gravy is almost ready. It’s time for a cup of coffee, a pipe of tobacco (after years of smoking English and Virginia/Perique blends almost exclusively, I’ve begun exploring burley-based blends–it’s like smoking a pipe again for the first time), and some quiet.

It’s been a crazy morning: the dog, less than twenty-four hours after being spayed, has returned to normal energy levels and is highly irritated about being stuck inside with an Elizabethan collar on. The Boy wanted to help, of course, but the difference now is that he’s able actually to help. He broke the dried bread into chunks for the dressing; he crushed crackers and mixed the liquid components for the casserole; he willingly taste-tested the pumpkin pie baklava; he kept an eye on everything. How did I listen to a story and talk to the Boy? Simple: his fits of helping merely punctuated his playing.

10:24

It’s always the same — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, you spend all that time cooking and it’s over before you know it. Even when you slow down, even when you’re mindful, even when you want to stretch things out, you can’t.

You sit and listen to the Boy’s stories, plow through the food, and it’s done. Of course, when you compare the amount of prep to the time eating, even two hours would be “plowing through.” But you can’t complain: people aren’t eager to eat food that tastes mediocre at best, so I take it as a complement.

And go for a meandering walk afterward, the first quarter of it with the family. The rest head back because the poor dog, with her radar hat on, probably shouldn’t be out too long.

Thanksgiving 2016

In the morning, it’s cooking. And the Boy wants to help. He wants so much to be a big boy, to do the things he sees adults do, to do the things he sees me do. It’s humbling to think that I am for him the example of what a man is supposed to be.

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After a few hours of work, we head to the backyard, where the leaves make a kaleidoscopic carpet and curtains. One advantage of things not being as wet as they often are — there are colors. The last few years, it’s seemed like it rained a lot during autumn and all the leaves just turned black and fell off. This year, there’s no chance of that happening. Sure, we’re eleven inches behind in rainfall now. But those colors.

Mid-afternoon, it’s back to the kitchen to finish up everything. This goes into the oven, that comes out. The turkey remains the whole time. K’s a bit nervous about the turkey: we haven’t done a turkey. Ever. It’s not “We haven’t done a turkey like this” or “We haven’t done a turkey in this gas oven” — we just have never baked a whole turkey. Nana and Papa always contributed that to the Thanksgiving dinner. Still, how hard can it be? Research a few recipes, double-check the temperature and time in relation to the weight, then wait.

In the end, everything turns out fine.

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Better than fine.

Everyone goes home, K goes to bed early, and I head downstairs for an after-dinner drink and cigar. I scroll through what’s new on Netflix and see one of my all-time favorite movies is now streaming: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

How can I resist?

Thanksgiving 2015

When I was L’s age in the early eighties, Thanksgiving almost always meant hours in a car when I was a kid. We lived in the southwestern portion of Virginia, with family in Nashville and the Charlotte area, which mean alternating Thanksgiving journeys of six and four hours respectively. After living in Poland and depending on public transportation for so long, four- and six-hour journeys don’t seem like much of anything at all (I recall making back from Warsaw to my village in the south exceptionally quick once in the late-nineties and thinking, “Wow, it only took me nine hours!”). At the time, though, the trips, especially to Nashville, were endless. Add to it my propensity to car sickness and it became a little slice of hell.

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The trips to Nashville were simple, small affairs: we stayed on my mother’s brother’s small farm, and I was essentially alone most of the weekend as my cousins were all much, much older than I (at least at that age, ten years seemed like “much, much”). The great advantage was it was, indeed, a farm, with lots of acreage and a magical, huge barn by a small pond my uncle dug out himself. It was on this farm that I caught my first fish and first shot a gun (my father’s relatively rare bolt-action shotgun). My cousins would make a tunnel in the hay just for me (or so I thought — the truth involved church youth groups), and the hall closet included more board games than I knew existed.

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Trips to South Carolina were often much different. Often, my father’s whole family gathered together, and with four sisters and a brother, all with their own kids, some of whom had kids themselves (I was the second-youngest on this side of the family), it could be quite a gathering. The vast majority of my father’s family smoked at that point, and weather was always a concern. “We don’t want to be cooped up in that house with all those smokers,” my parents would comment.

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This pattern continued through most of my life, even into college. Then, off to Poland for three years, and Thanksgiving became a gathering with the few other Americans in the area or perhaps nothing at all. Then, two years in Boston and Thanksgiving with a friend’s family, followed by four more years in Poland, during which time I don’t think I celebrated Thanksgiving a single time.

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In recent years, we’ve taken to hosting our own little Thanksgiving dinners. “I’ll take Thanksgiving,” I told K, and so it was for a couple of years. I found a great recipe for stuffing that I ruined the second time though by playing around with it. And I invented a butternut squash soup that was good enough to repeat the next year.

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This year, though, we headed back to family in South Carolina, just east of us, closer to the Charlotte area. My cousin and her husband made a straw house some fifteen or so years ago that in the intervening time has grown and grown becoming charmingly eclectic in all senses.

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She and her family always have exchange students staying with them, so there’s always an international flair to the dinner with K’s Polish additions (by request) and Korean heat.

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The Boy made a new friend in an old cousin. It might have been the first time that K saw E. (Initials only can get confusing. Perhaps I should call cousin K “K2” or something similar.) He immediately charmed her, and she played with him and watched over him the entire afternoon.

But through all the changes in how I’ve experienced Thanksgiving, some things never change.

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The Day Before

“I think it’s about time we take over the Thanksgiving dinner.” K and I were talking about what we would be doing this year, what plans we thought the Elders might have/desire.  Christmas Eve had always been our responsibility, and the Elders sort of took Thanksgiving by default. But this year, we decided to charge, make plans, and cook dinner ourselves and invite the Elders as opposed to the opposite. More to the point, K always takes are of Christmas Eve (by and large), so I decided this year I would do the whole Thanksgiving dinner myself.

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The morning’s weather might have seemed like an omen for the less convinced. Snow in late November, in South Carolina?

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Before Thanksgiving? Yet the chill in the air somehow made the work go easier: a mental thing I guess. What else can you do but stay inside? What else can you do while inside but cook?

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And so I started. First, the garnish: cranberry sauce with dried cherries and a few dried blueberries.

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Butternut squash soup, freestyle. I looked at some recipes, but none of them had the I-don’t-know-what I was looking for. So I made my own recipe, which included leftover ricotta cheese and some curry powder.

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By the time I was ready to move on to stuffing, the snow had stopped, the sky had cleared, and the dusting of white on the ground had disappeared, as had L’s excitement.

“If it keeps snowing today, and tomorrow, and maybe Saturday and Sunday, maybe we’ll be out of school Monday!” I thought that we might be lucky if the snow lasts until the afternoon, but I said nothing.

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By then, I was busy with the dressing, using a recipe I’d found online that included the magic, attention-getting word: sausage.

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Two casseroles popped into and out of the oven as well, and by the time we were putting the kids to bed, I’d started the final element for the day, the giblet gravy.

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Tomorrow, the potatoes, the green beans with shallots and almonds, and something else. Seems I’m missing something. Oh well. Hopefully we can live without whatever it is…

Thanksgiving 2012

I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual…O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.

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I am thankful for my family. With my parents nearby, and two lovely children to call me “Tata,”

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I am thankful for the fact that my extended family is what it is: loving, accepting, eclectic, and Southern.

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I am thankful that my daughter is only learning how to make a wish, and I am thankful that I live in a country where fulfilling those wishes depends more on the individual than anything else.

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I am thankful that my children are well, happy, and silly.

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I am thankful that we all help one another, even in the most trivial matters.

And I am thankful I have so much to be thankful about.

Family and Food

I should have some kind of keen observation about the nature of extended family and the good old southern Thanksgiving dinner.

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For the former, I suppose one just has to look at the pictures: pockets of conversation springing up here and there; the some males drifting in and out of the living room to check the progress of a given football game; women circled around a child.

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Getting the extended family together was the goal of Thanksgiving on my father’s side. I recall celebrations of twenty years ago when all the brothers and sisters, in-lawns, children, grandchildren, and a few guests got together and filled a small house to overflowing. There must have been forty or more people some years.

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Now, we meet in a bigger house with a smaller family: all the cousins have grown and have families of their own. Some are even grandparents. They have their own gaggle to gather together Thanksgiving and Christmas: if we tried to bring together the same group today, there would be sixty or seventy, not just forty.

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I wouldn’t recognize half of them, and I wouldn’t even known many. A stranger in one’s own family. It would be like looking through photos of someone else’s family reunion.

Still, even in that case, there would always be the familiar faces.

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The smaller group is better. No strangers. Just smiles and quiet conversation.

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It all spills outside as the children play. Blizzards in the north and our family has Thanksgiving in shorts.

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Now, just as my cousins and I played together years ago, our children play together. Uncles put them up trees, older cousins lead them into various adventures: it’s all very familiar.

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Playing in grandpa’s back yard, exploring together. I have the sense I’m watching my own life.

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Perhaps just looking at the pictures wouldn’t suffice, though. Pictures are worth a thousand words only to those who know the narrative behind the shot. For others, they’re just pictures of strangers.

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Do the pictures of the food suffice, though? There are no exotic holiday-influenced dishes here. Turkey and dressing with thick, chunky giblet gravy; casseroles that are a variation on a cheese-and- theme; an enormous ham with a lottery of uneven slices; green beans, greens, and sweet tea. It is a southern meal in spades.

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Pictures are enough, but I didn’t take many pictures of food. It was, in a way, the very least important guest.

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Fourth Thursday

With a three-year old and no travel plans for Thanksgiving, we planned dinner around her nap. That gave us the whole morning to work around the house. As L grows, she’s increasingly eager to help.

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It’s impossible to put beans into the coffee grinder or tea into the infuser without L calling, “I want to do it! I want to help!” When I stir something in the sauce pan, when K sweeps the kitchen, L is there, ready to help.

Indeed, if we don’t let her help (either intentionally or accidentally), it sometimes leads to a mini-meltdown.

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When we arrived at Nana and Papa’s for turkey and the fixings, they had a surprise for L.

“We’re tired of making a tent for her,” Nana explained earlier in the week when I dropped by. It was, I would imagine, a well-established ritual: ottomans pushed together, with a blanket spread over it to create a small space for L to wallow in.

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As planned, it kept the Girl busy while everyone helped out with the final stages of dinner.

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Turkey with dressing and giblet gravy, with sides of rice, casserole, and cranberry sauce. What could be more American? Indeed, as I ate dinner, I remembered when, living with a host family in Poland, I was asked to create a typical American meal. I mentioned the Thanksgiving feast; I was relieved when told (this was 1996) that getting a whole turkey would be, at best, difficult.

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After dinner was play time (until the turkey overwhelmed Papa and he began his post-dinner, in-seat nap).

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It was the first Thanksgiving without any extended family at all. No traveling; no sleeping in strange beds; no absolute dread if it was a rainy day in South Carolina, requiring us all to stay inside with four generations of smokers. It was Thanksgiving without any of the negatives. It also lacked some of the positives that certainly accompany large family gatherings.

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Yet, for one of the first Thanksgivings L will probably remember (at least for a few years), it was perfect. Especially the Mlenmorangie Papa brought out after dinner.

Thanksgiving Games

In the old days, my family and I went to visit Aunt L and Uncle N for Thanksgiving. It was always a traditional feast, with copious amounts of gibblet gravey poured over sliced turkey, with desserts and snacks through the rest of the afternoon and evening. The guys might fall asleep in front of a football game sometime in the middle of the afternoon, but by five or six, everyone was sitting at the table, playing games. Dominoes, Uno, board games — you name it. It was a time of family enjoying each other’s company.

This Thanksgiving, we visited long-lost family. The difference was striking. The men set up a television in one room and watched football for the two or so hours they were there while the women watched a dog show. When dinner was served, everyone loaded up their plates and sequestered themselves anew. After a couple of hours, the guests loaded up and took off, heading to the mountains for a vacation.

It wasn’t as much of a Thanksgiving as a turkey dinner served from a drive through window.