Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Crowded Kitchen

I do love Thanksgiving. A different love from Christmas, which has a bitter aftertaste—-namely the months of January, February, and March. But starting Thanksgiving week, the world is rich with possibilities. The future beckons, all dolled up with seductive smells and glitter.

Not least of what matters to me about Thanksgiving is the food. Not even so much the eating of the food (although trust me, I’m no slouch in that department), but for the planning—the military campaign mentality that connects me to my mother, twenty years gone.

I guess it was a generational thing. Certain things had to be done, no exceptions. There was cranberry/orange relish, and out would come Grandma Feazel’s grinder. Clamped to the counter, this hulking holdout from The Great Depression seemed totally bewildered in our 1970’s avocado green kitchen. Even after we got the ubiquitous Cuisinart, that grinder made its annual appearance. It was undoubtedly a laboratory experiment of germ possibilities, so had to be assembled and disassembled with operating room scrub-up procedures.

And the oyster stuffing. Every year my grandmother made it using the instructions written in the spidery hand of my great grandmother. I wouldn’t trade that piece of paper for a million dollars, even though my grandmother was the only one who ever ate any of it at the Thanksgiving feast.

The secret weapon of the holiday was the dessert. We acquired this little beauty in 1960, when we lived near Boston for a year while my father attended MIT on assignment for his company. A very close group formed of those young couples, all on a yearlong adventure, and I recall how sophisticated they all seemed. It was that Camelot era, and everyone was young and beautiful. A cookbook was produced (again you can’t have it for a million), and the pecan pie recipe was introduced into the lore of my family. Unlike other pecan pie recipes, there is no corn syrup in it. It is dense, rich, and memorable. It wasn’t until I came into my own as a pretty good cook that I realized that it was basically a pecan tart baked off in a pie shell. It is like eating pecan fudge with a crust. Heaven. Dibs on the leftovers.

I don’t cook like my mother. I am not of her generation, and I have found that if I slap some butter on the outside of the turkey, put it in a very hot oven, and cook it to the right internal temp, it all works out. Probably no little credit is due to the freshest bird in the world, which we buy every year at the “farm” nearby, nicknamed the Yuppie Palace. The birds are moist no matter what you do to them, but I follow the Gourmet Magazine recipe with confidence and it’s always great, no turkey dust the next morning.

So, bird is easy, sides are painless, pies can be the day ahead. And yet, it is wonderfully crowded in the kitchen. I have my own two girls helping, and the voices of the women who shaped me. They guide my hands, my tongue, and my heart all day. I take out the biscuit cutter with the worn, green knob. I remember my mother’s warning not to let the stuffing get dry. My grandmother takes a rolling pin to that stack of Saltines. We don’t serve oyster stuffing, but I can almost smell it anyway. I am closer to my beloved women than any other day of the year.

Oh, yes, and we can’t ever forget to buy the Durkee’s spread for sandwiches. Never, never forget the Durkee’s, even if you have to drive two hours to find a grocery store that carries it. I’m not saying I ever did that, mind you. . . .

Have a blessed holiday.

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