The alarm goes off at six on Thanksgiving morning. The cook rises and goes to the local greenmarket’s special session, hand-selecting the freshest produce for dinner. There is coffee upon returning, and the work begins. Sweet potatoes are peeled and chunked. The mise is gotten in place. The (home-made) bread is cubed and the (home-made) stock is heated, filling the kitchen with the aromas of stuffing. There is more coffee, light music – Vivaldi – and a very light snack. The best of the wine is decanted, to breathe. Someone laboriously yet lovingly assembles the pan of Grandma’s sweet rolls that are the family’s longest-standing holiday tradition. Dessert work is under way, too — perfect wedges of Granny Smith apples are sprinkled with lemon juice, and the ice cream maker is spinning. The heirloom turkey, which was brined yesterday and air-dried overnight in the fridge, goes into the oven. Family arrives. The children express delight at the smells from the kitchen, and show off the construction-paper turkeys they made yesterday at school. The pans of sweet potatoes and herb stuffing go into the oven. The adults open Champagne and talk about politics (everyone is in agreement), Christmas (everyone is well-prepared) and plans to remodel the kitchen (everyone loves the new island). The turkey comes out, and is moved to the carving-board to rest while the pan drippings become gravy. The sweet potatoes are glazed and returned to the oven, to caramelize, and the foil comes off the pan of stuffing, to crisp the top. The sweet rolls go in. The turkey gravy is lush with bits of fond and shreds of meat. The rolls slip cleanly from the pan, the sides are transferred effortlessly from baking pan to serving dishes, the children eagerly take seats at the table, and someone pours five glasses of wine and two of milk. The cooks change into fresh clothes for dinner. The turkey is expertly carved. Dinner is served promptly at two, and ingested in a leisurely manner. Everyone is delighted by the presentation. There is good hot coffee, and dessert, and a nip of apple brandy to go with the pie and ice cream. The adults team up to do the dishes while the children nap, and then all spend a peaceful afternoon and evening together. There might be a board game, or a walk to look at Christmas lights, or even a small game of touch football. There are turkey sandwiches as a very late snack, and the clamor for the leftovers leads to careful division of all that remains.
That’s how it’s supposed to go.
This is how it does go:
The alarm goes off at six on Thanksgiving morning. I shut it off because my brother is working today, so Thanksgiving is tomorrow for us. Which is good, because we were drinking down the street at the ‘Duck kinda late last night.
The alarm goes off at six on Friday. We snooze it til about eight-thirty, and then leap from bed in a panic. I make coffee and start packing. We’re cooking, but at Mom’s. (This apartment is not suitable for eight people.) We pack a box of kitchen gear and a cooler of ingredients and goodies. We get over to Mom’s, and unload. It’s freezing. I make some coffee, put on some music – Eminem – and eat the Egg McMuffin we got at the drive-thru on the way. The frenzy begins. The turkey, which I got at a Mexican poultry market on the west side where they kill them to order, is still slightly feathered and a skosh bloody. I have to get this stupid turkey presentable before the guests get here or several of them will not eat a single bite. I get to work with cold water and pliers while Emily opens the first bottle of wine and decants it into two big tumblers. She’s chopping apples for pie and when I ask her if she can chop sweet potatoes too says “Sure” in a tone of voice that makes it clear that that is an Annoying Request. I don’t have time to argue, though – I have to get going on the pan of sweet rolls that are the family’s longest-standing holiday tradition besides refusing to be the one to answer the phone when Grandma calls to tell long rambling stories about how much better everyone else’s grandchildren are than us.
The turkey goes into the oven just in time, as my brother arrives with his wife, their three children, and a hundred-pound dog. No one looks like they enjoyed the forty-five minute drive to Mom’s. My sister-in-law goes upstairs to change and feed the baby. The dog lies down in the exact center of the kitchen and will not move again until it is time to leave. One of the children is crying, and the other comes into the kitchen and asks what we are having for dinner. This is a loaded question; every possible answer will be met with a grimace and gagging noises. Including “Cupcakes!”
My brother turns on the TV, but there’s no football. Which is good, because that means this year I won’t throw a beer at the TV when the fucking Lions fucking fail to fucking cover a fucking THIRTEEN POINT SPREAD at fucking home on fucking Thanksgiving. The pans of sweet potatoes and stuffing go into the oven, two hours later than planned. Mom begins the process of clearing eight months’ worth of mail and other accumulated paper off the dining room table, which we use for two meals a year and is her desk the rest of the time. (The process begins with careful sorting and ends with a cardboard box and a snow-shovel.) The adults open more drinks and express dismay over the proximity of Christmas while the children sit on the dog’s head and argue over what channel to watch.
The turkey comes out, and is put on the carving-board to rest while we disguise the ingredients of the gravy. The children are dismayed by gravy with “stuff floating in it”, so I zap it with the stick blender until they are old enough to understand flavor. Speaking of flavor, I add a little sherry to the gravy, in hopes the children will nap after dinner. The sweet rolls are peeled from the pan with the help of a heated chisel, and the baking dishes are doubled as serving dishes because “it’s stupid to dirty another dish.” The good china is out, which means dinner is extra-stressful on whoever is sitting next to the four-year-old and the six-year-old, since those seated in those positions are the Breakage Goalies. We pour five glasses of wine and two glasses of milk. Then we pour a glass of apple juice. Then a glass of orange juice. Then water. The kids sure do change their minds a lot. They wind up drinking the original milks. I run upstairs to change into a clean shirt. The only one that fits is from Señor Frog’s. I elect not to wear a dinner jacket over it, since there are bikinis and innuendo but no actual obscenity. Someone carved the turkey, to “help speed things up.” It looks like it was carved with forks. By the dog. Why does no one ever do the dishes to “help speed things up”? Only the glam jobs are ever deemed helpful.
Dinner is at five, three hours later than planned. Three of us are finished eating by the time Mom sits down after helping the grandchildren compose their plates. The children each take two recalcitrant bites and ask about dessert. They won’t eat the sweet potatoes until their mom gives them each a half-dozen marshmallows. Then they each eat all the marshmallows and four atoms of sweet potato. I consider making pizzas next year – onion-sage crust, topped with turkey and cranberries and gravy. It’s unclear if this is an interesting foray into deconstruction and fusion, or the result of way, way too much red wine. We clear the table, adding to the towering stack in the kitchen sink, and I attempt to make coffee. I have to fend off the argument that we can just nuke what’s left in the carafe from the morning. It may not poison me, but that doesn’t mean that it is “still good.” We snarf up the pie and ice cream in eleven seconds. I look in the liquor cabinet, and come up with a bottle of banana liqueur from a fad dessert in 1976 and a bottle of gin that makes me tear up because is smells like my other grandmother, who died years ago. Thank god there’s that bottle of amontillado I brought to put in the gravy. The adults are either too tired or too tipsy to handle the dishes, so we unanimously elect to leave them for tomorrow. The children are tired past sleep and into the screaming crankies, so we pack them into the car, with multiple hugs all around. No one even wants to think about food, which is awkward because there are enough leftovers to feed Somalia.
Y’know what? I’m thankful not to be one of those tiresome people at the first dinner. God, how dull.