Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, which is fairly understandable as it is a holiday based almost entirely on food. Well, food and gratitude.
And lurking somewhere under the surface is a whole bunch of baggage about tradition and a connection to the past. Especially your own past. Which could explain why the menu is so rigid. Everything has to be done exactly the same way it’s always been done for as long as you’ve been alive.
That’s why the biggest fight during the first year of a newly married couple’s life together can be whether cornbread stuffing or oyster stuffing is going into the bird. Forget differences of religion or political beliefs. Those are small potatoes. A big old screaming match on the virtues of cranberry sauce vs. cranberry relish on the fourth Thursday in November can be a path that leads straight to divorce court.
And could also explain why nobody is willing to stop cramming stuffing inside of turkeys. It’s a health risk, and it slows down the cooking of the bird and causes the breast to dry out, but if that’s the way MeMaw did it, we’re going to keep on doing it, dried out breast and botulism be damned.
But I got lucky. The first year of living with the woman who would become my wife was spent 500 miles away from my family and 3,000 miles from hers. So basically, we were on our own. And therefore, free to make our own rules.
It seemed kind of bizarre to do the whole big turkey thing for just us, so we roasted a big chicken. And at the last minute realized our friend Maggie had no Thanksgiving plans since her boyfriend was working at a restaurant which was throwing a big Thanksgiving wing-ding, and her mother lived in Fort Lauderdale. So Maggie came over, and it was fun. We also realized that we had lots of other friends who didn’t have any family nearby.
That’s one thing about going to New York to seek your fortune. You meet lots of other people who have done the same thing. All of us were still young and had achieved no fortune to speak of yet, and it seemed likely a great many of our friends and acquaintances would be sitting home alone just like we were. And maybe trying to pretend a chicken was a turkey, if they were lucky enough to have an oven.
So the next year, we invited all of them — anybody with nowhere to go — and did the whole big turkey thing. We called it the Orphan’s Thanksgiving, no disrespect intended to actual orphans. And since this wasn’t the family we had been born with, but the family we had chosen, we felt free to continue changing things up.
Maggie gave me her recipe for sausage and apple stuffing. None of our families had previously condoned apples nor sausage in the family stuffing, but Maggie’s stuffing was delicious, so we went for it.
And an article came out in Parade Magazine that year in which Julia Child published a Thanksgiving menu complete with recipes. And we were in a position to accept advice from the fount of Julia’s wisdom, since none of our family would be around to witness the sacrilege.
Julia recommended a soup course. And the soup should be cooked in, and then served from, a pumpkin. So we gave it a shot. Getting it to the table hot, but without the pumpkin collapsing — as I soon found out — was a total magic trick, but I managed to pull it off.
The joy that was brought to our geographically orphaned hearts by that pumpkin full of soup should have been our first clue that not only were we thumbing our collective nose at the Thanksgiving traditions of our families of origin, but the pumpkin soup had become a replacement tradition for our makeshift family.
So much so that the next year, when I failed to purchase a pumpkin before Halloween — as they disappeared from stores immediately after — and thereby jeopardized the soup, one of our friends stole a pumpkin off the Brooklyn stoop of a neighbor in order to save the soup. So if having the capacity to inspire larceny is any measure of the importance of a particular tradition, pumpkin soup passed the test in its second year.
A couple of years in with the orphan Thanksgivings, my sister moved to New York also, and was surprised on her first year there to find that the stuffing had apples and sausage in it, and was not served until after the soup course, served from a pumpkin, preferably hot from the oven and not from the law. But being 500 miles away from any other family members, she adapted well, and by the time her son was born and our daughter came along, the stuffing and the soup and serving dinner at seven at a real dinner time, instead of in the middle of the afternoon, was just the way it was done. Those changes predate the entire living memory of the kids.
We’re back in the bosom of the family now, and things have gone back to the way they were before. I no longer host a Thanksgiving dinner so the sit-down dinner with cloth napkins and candles is no more. The pumpkin soup died with my sister.
But my niece and her husband throw a great Thanksgiving. It’s a buffet, and we all bring food, but it’s not a potluck. She gives out assignments, so we don’t end up with four kinds of potato salad and no turkey. In fact, there are three turkeys, a classic roasted one, a deep-fried one and a barbecued one.
She’s also not afraid to make some changes, it turns out. And she’s not afraid to do it in the same town where her parents live.
I’m very proud of her.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.