October 24, 2017
Tuesdays . . .
Once upon a time, family gathered at the matriarch’s home for a cornucopia of soul satisfying food on Thanksgiving Day. There was turkey, and there was dressing. And there was sweet potato pie and banana pudding. Everyone went back for seconds, and everyone left with a carefully tied shopping bag which held a shiny foil wrapped plate of leftover goodness to be shamefully eaten well before dinner time the next day. The children sat at their own table. Siblings and cousins, catching up on kid business, and examining themselves to determine whether they had reached the age when they could be included in some of the grown folks’ business.
After dessert, there might be games. For us it was BINGO, or Chinese Checkers. Maybe UNO. The adults may have enjoyed an after dinner cocktail. Mostly, we were too full of good food to think straight and tried not to doze off before helping with the cleanup. Today, socializing is just as important as its always been. But now families are smaller and live farther away from each other. The cost of travel and food has significantly risen and people are working longer hours to make ends meet. Thanksgiving dinners these days usually require a great deal of coordination and multiple cooks to get everyone fed and happy.
Food has always been a crucial part of what makes my family special. Admittedly, the holidays lost some of their flair as I got older, and as my father grew ill. I remember the first time that he was in the hospital. It was November. I wondered if he wouldn’t be able to make Thanksgiving dinner for the first time in years. He was discharged about a week prior to the holiday but was in no condition to cook. But as I’ve said before, he was stubborn. As hell. And cooking was his joy. He wouldn’t give it up. He struggled through it. My mother and I helped with the heavy parts of the cooking. Still, it was a sad Thanksgiving. Almost a foreshadowing of things to come. For the first time, the food was just ok. It was not the amazing feast it had been in previous years. He wasn’t well. And I could barely boil an egg, let alone prepare an entire holiday dinner. Or at least I thought so at the time.
It’s funny because I learned to cook much like Daniel learned Karate in The Karate Kid. “Wax on. Wax off”. I hated helping my father to cook. I dreaded the holidays because I knew it meant standing over him while he sat at the kitchen table cutting, chopping and arranging. “This is food prep 101”, he would say. He was dramatic, and I was uninterested. But with every task that I begrudgingly completed, mainly gathering ingredients from the pantry and the refrigerator, I was learning. Fast forward to when I would cook my first pot roast (arguably the best thing my father ever cooked), I made my ingredient list from memory.
Sherry was in the pantry.
Seasoning was in the pantry.
Spicy brown mustard was in the refrigerator.
The onion needed chopping.
Hold the knife like this.
No, like this.
Dammit! I said, like this. You don’t want to chop off your fingers!
I own a food processor now (takes bow). Cooking was a tense time. But it was our time. After my husband and I moved into our first home, we hosted Thanksgiving. It all came back to me. All of the ingredients and recipes. I didn’t get everything right at first, but I came close.
Soon after, I became more interested in cooking. I had my own stove and my dad couldn’t stand over me critiquing how I boiled water (which I’d learned to do well by that time, thank you very much). I cooked. I sent him food when he was too sick to come to dinner. He called me and told me everything that was wrong with it. That meant it was good.
I began to ask him how he prepared all the foods that I enjoyed eating when I was a kid. He explained every detail without hesitation. Then I thought about other relatives who cooked things I liked, and I asked for recipes. An older woman who I’d assisted made a delicious pound cake. I had never baked a cake that didn’t come out of a box in my life. But I asked for the recipe and she willingly gave it to me. I practiced until I perfected it. It’s so good that I have to spank hands (husband hands) everytime I make one.
Don’t miss the opportunity that the holidays provide to share more than hugs. Share knowledge, and share recipes. It has taken me more than thirty years to learn that what made my family’s food taste good had a little bit to do with how they prepared it, and a lot to do with the love that they put into it. My father, and my grandmother (his mother) loved to watch us eat. They loved to watch us enjoy the food. They were grateful for the opportunity to nourish and entire family — to literally grow a family. When you cook for those you love, you are doing something for their souls. And the flavors never leave you.
I hear people say that they dread the holidays because they will miss the meals that their loved ones used prepare. Recipes aren’t meant to die. Like memories, they can live and continue to nurse and nourish us through our sorrowful nights and our joyful mornings. If the ones before you haven’t shared their recipes with you, ask for them. Try to figure them out. Ask for help when two things just don’t mix they way they should. Try it again. And add love.
Season your holidays with history and love.