Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Doing Thanksgiving


I like Norman Rockwell's version of Thanksgiving—the loving family with Uncle Oscar not yet so tipsy he can't respond, everyone smiling, bowing their heads, giving thanks for the bounty spread across the splendid table—the exquisitely browned turkey, two kinds of stuffing (the one with oysters for refined palates), perfectly mashed potatoes and colorful candied sweet potatoes along with two or three other veggies that if not home-grown are surely right from Deacon McKibben's garden, he of the Church of the Organic. No lobster, though—its not a lobster day.

I like Norman's version even though it never had much to do with me. Mr. Rockwell doesn't go into the logistics, the nitty-gritty stuff—how the splendid table came to be. If ever there's a kitchen in the scene, it's a grandma kitchen, one where she orchestrates the performance of a dozen steaming pots with her sweet, granny face wreathed in a perpetual sweet, granny smile.

Thanksgiving dinner isn't like that for everyone—for hardly anyone, is what I think. In my case, the kids do Thanksgivings now, but I was trying to get a picture of how it once was, so I climbed the spiral staircase to the attic in my head and dusted off an early script reel of Doing Thanksgiving. And truly, all I did was change a word here and there and I think it comes out generic—a real-life script with real logistics. And I'm thinking that perhaps a few Mother/Chefs—MCs—perhaps at a shaky start of Doing Thanksgivings, may come across a line or two and think, "Yes, yes, —that's me, that's us!"

The scene is a small kitchen in a small house. It's not yet dawn and all save one are snug in their beds. The early riser is the MC, risen to begin the festive holiday meal as all through the quiet town other kitchen lights wink on and other MCs rise to the challenge.

Our MC frowns. The turkey is not quite thawed even though she precisely followed the instructions on the bag. She plunges her hands up to her elbows in icy water and grabs hold of the frozen neck that a likely disgruntled poultry factory lady jammed into the cavity, taking care not to disturb the magic button—the jig is up should the popping button fail. Without it the chances are nil that her family will have the pleasure of a cooked-all-the-way-through turkey.

When at last the neck and the rest of the innards are free and she's plopped everything into a pot of boiling water, she feels all warm inside—surely boiling innards is true Granny cooking, though when she uses just a couple cups of the broth for the gravy and tosses everything else down a disconcertingly clattering disposal, her warmth turns to guilt at such an un-Granny-like thing to do.

At last the turkey is thawed, and she tackles the Pepperidge Farm stuffing, and to satisfy a need to tamper ... to temper ... to improve, she chops a stalk of celery and stirs it in. Throughout the day the MC is hard at work while the children race and rumble and wran- gle and the father, his index finger as fast as a CPA's, works the remote to capture as many as he can of the 100-yard kick-off returns and goal-line interceptions and flagrant personal fouls in the three ... five ... seven must-see Holiday games.

When the potatoes are peeled and hissing in the pressure cooker, and the Ocean Spray Whole Cranberry sauce is fluffed into a bowl and the Libby's extra-large ripe olives look elegant in Aunt Emma's small cut-glass bowl and a simple lettuce salad has been tossed with festive bought-for-the-occasion capers, she goes next door to retrieve Mrs. Smith's Deep Dish Pumpkin Pie from her blissfully-dining-out neighbor's oven. How in the world, she wonders, do other MCs Do Thanksgiving with only one kitchen?

There is much to do, so very much to do, and all at the very end. But somehow the potatoes get mashed and the gravy stirred until, thank-you-Lord, it's thicker than water, and the celery-enhanced dressing scooped out—all tasks accomplished in the last six-and-a-half minutes.

Weary and drained though she is when at last the small family sits down to the splendid table, she perks right up when all are ecstatic: Gee, mom, there's hardly a lump in these potatoes! You make the best cranberry sauce in the whole world! This turkey's done e-v-e-r-y-p-l-a-c-e!

Afterwards, even if it's likely her best tablecloth is stained beyond salvation, she smiles. Yes, yes, of course it was all worthwhile, she thinks as she turns to the kitchen and its Wall Street canyon of pots and pans.

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