Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving: Always Different, Always the Same

Ever try having a different Thanksgiving meal? Ever since I was a little kid, sitting around Grandma Still’s dining room table, my Thanksgiving meals have been the same: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and turnips, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, celery stuffed with cream cheese, carrot sticks, pumpkin and mincemeat pies.

Every Thanksgiving was the same. After Mom got us four kids all dressed up, we went to Grandma’s house. On Long Island, that wasn’t exactly over the river and through the woods. More like over the railroad tracks and through the traffic.

Grandma’s was a back-door house, so our arrival was into the kitchen, where things were bubbling on the stove. Her red and black tile floor was shining, the metal cabinets squeaky white and the sun brightened it all through the bay windows.

While Mom and Grandma tended to the bubbling things, we kids watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV. Sometimes we knew people who were marching in the parade, so we stayed glued to the set to see them.

About a half-hour before dinner, my Aunt Clara and Uncle Bob arrived with my cousin, Joann. Aunt Clara always cooked the turkey at her house, a few blocks away. The reason given was that it saved Grandma the work of lifting the huge bird in and out of the oven. Knowing Aunt Clara, a strong-willed German who never lost any of her accent, she probably wanted to make sure that bird was cooked right. It was always perfect and delicious.

At dinnertime, the “youngsters” had to sit at a card table set up in the next room. We hated that. It was a rite-of-passage when we got old enough (12 or 13) to sit with the big people at the elegantly-set table in the dining room. Grandma had a lace tablecloth, fine china, silverware and crystal that she used only once a year.

At other times when we visited, I loved to sneak open the drawer of the sideboard that held the silver. The drawer was lined with a velvet-like fabric and it all smelled musty-rich. Grandma must have treasured her dining room set, with its china cabinet, sideboard, large table and padded chairs. She and my grandfather had bought the house right before the Great Depression, so it was probably many years before they could afford good furniture.

Though my grandmother always called it turnip, the orange in the mashed potatoes is actually rutabaga, I discovered when I began cooking my own Thanksgiving meal. How did that tradition start? I don’t know. But I insist on keeping it, even though that rutabaga is hard as a locust post and I still haven’t come up with an easy way to cut it. Maybe if I stayed in the kitchen instead of watching the parade, I would have learned a great secret. In recent years, I’ve been whacking it with the really sharp meat cleaver, like splitting firewood, making loud karate sounds with each strike.

We eat my family’s traditional meal rather than the husband’s because after marrying we always had Thanksgiving with my grandmother and mother, along with my siblings. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, it was the only holiday Grandma and Mom observed, and they thoroughly enjoyed it.

So my kids grew up with the same meal as me. One year I decided to make a completely different Thanksgiving, one I found in a Better Homes & Gardens magazine, with cornbread stuffing and asparagus and peas or something. Everyone hated it and told me to never ever change the menu again.

The only adjustment I’ve made is the stuffing, which I learned to make from the husband’s grandmother. She taught me to simmer the giblets with the onion and celery for an hour, then take out the giblets and add butter, letting it liquify with the broth. When the giblets cool, dice them tiny and add them back in. Then mix all that with the stuffing mix (I use Pepperidge Farm herb-seasoned crumbs) and stuff the bird. Mmmm.

Living so far away in Virginia, after Grandma’s house was sold I got only a few items. But what I do have is from Thanksgiving. I’ve got the lead crystal dish in which she served the raw vegetables, the crystal wine glasses and the lace tablecloth.

With the kids grown up now, and family scattered all over the world, the faces at the Thanksgiving table change from year to year, but the meal never does. And somehow, in a world that’s vastly different than the one I grew up in, that is comforting.

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