Thursday, November 22, 2012
The Three Elements of Thanksgiving
There are three essential elements to America’s favorite national holiday: the food, the company, and the thankfulness its name denotes. Poe’s Deadly Daughters celebrate the day by writing about the contents and the balance of these three elements for each of them.
The food isn't that different when I prepare the feast from how my mother did it when I was a kid, though the stuffing no longer gets cooked inside the turkey and the pies are the best pecan and pumpkin pies I can find instead of homemade apple pie. The sweet potatoes with marshmallows are a family tradition (as is my husband's contemptous eye roll regarding the marshmallows). We've often spent the holiday weekend with friends in Virginia who've added the Southern tradition of a ham along with the turkey.
The company, which in my childhood was always the whole extended family in my parents' house, can be a challenge, since our granddaughters have three sets of grandparents who take turns. One couple we used to enjoy without-the-kids Thanksgivings with moved to California. This year we're going out for dinner, just me and my husband, to a celebrity-chef restaurant (no marshmallows) and spending the rest of the weekend seeing some of this year's crop of great new movies.
The thankfulness begins with our being lucky with regard to Hurricane Sandy, the storm being the reason we and a lot of others aren't traveling this weekend. Thankfulness was never stated in my parents' day (nor was the probable explanation, that my parents, with the recent memory of the Holocaust, would have considered it bad luck). But in recent years, thinking about how much I have to be thankful for has become, for me, one of the sweetest aspects of the holiday.
I'm lucky enough to celebrate Thanksgiving twice each year, on the second Monday in October (Canadian) and today (American). The essential elements apply to both, and I celebrate both the same way. Company? Me, my sig other, my sig other's mother. Maybe a cousin, if she's not travelling. Thankfulness? We try to do a bit of that every day so we won't be overwhelmed trying to cram it into two days a year. The absolutely essential foods are roast turkey, cornbread dressing, and pumpkin pie. My pie making skills approach zero, so I buy that, but I make huge amounts of turkey and dressing, freezing the leftovers so we have a little reminder to give thanks for months to come.
Every year for the past five years we started camping with friends for Thanksgiving. Since the holidays were so hectic with trying to divide time with families, early on in our marriage my husband and I decided to reserve Thanksgiving as a time we spent with friends instead of family (and incidentally, making it the most stress-free of the holidays). We go up to the mountains and camp with our trailer in a private campground, where--in a southern California full of palm trees, and when autumn arrives near the end of November--we can enjoy a fall like the rest of the country. It's cold, crisp, the leaves are changing, the wild turkeys in the area sometimes come calling, and we even get a bit of snow on occasion.
The couple we camp with often invite friends or their kids to come for the day and so do we. Our son attends, sometimes bringing his friends. And there is where we cook what has been known as the "Man Turkey" on a turning spit on an open campfire. Two birds turning for five hours, and you'd think it was the most entertaining thing in the world when we sit around it, mindlessly watching the birds turn and turn, getter browner and browner. Every year it seems a stretch in our budget to go to this feast, but we do what we can to try to make it happen. Friends, good food, and great atmosphere are a must to revive our souls and remind us of all that we have when the constant stress of making ends meet intrudes.
This year I'm especially grateful to be with my parents at Thanksgiving (along with all of my siblings and their families). My father is 81, my mother 79. They have hosted our family gatherings for fifty-some years, but this will be their last round of holidays in their big house--they are looking at assisted living sometime in the new year.
It's a difficult and painful choice for them, and we'll all be aware of it as we gather together in love and gratitude.
Our Thanksgiving food has always been an immense affair, although that too will be downplayed now. Still, there will be the American traditional turkey, stuffing and potatoes, as well as some Hungarian staples like Szekely gulyas and haluska, and some German desserts like bienenstich and dobosh torte, as well as a Cambodian dish my sister brings called Pancit. We're a multicultural clan, from my adopted-from-China sister to my German-born mother, so our food is a blending of geographies that is particularly delicious.
Happy Thanksgiving to you all! May your food be delicious and your times be merry.
This year will be like no previous Thanksgiving for me, because I'll be in Ireland.
It's ironic because I live fifteen miles from the site of the first Thanksgiving, Plymouth. The longer I live in New England, the more amazed I am that anybody there survived that first hard year (half didn't), and they had much to be thankful for. But this year our daughter is pursuing her interest in film-making in Chicago and will no doubt have friends to share the holiday with. That leaves just the two of us at home: all our siblings are too far away to visit or to join us.
Anytime I travel out of the United States, I am reminded about how brief our history is. Visiting places where the local church happens to be over a thousand years old, or where people are still complaining about battles that were fought in sixteen-something, gives me a different perspective. It also makes me proud, that our predecessors left their homes and countries to travel to a virtually unknown land and take their chances. And those early settlers were a restless bunch, not content to carve out a small plot of land and build a house and stay put. Maybe that worked for a generation or two, but they kept looking for more space, more opportunities; they kept moving westward until they ran out of country.
I doubt that we'll cook a turkey in our cottage on a windswept hill in County Cork--not because the kitchen can't accommodate it, but because I'm not sure we'll find a turkey (although I can pretty much guarantee that there will be potatoes!). And I've always believed that Thanksgiving should be shared with others, so we'll probably seek out a restaurant or pub and try to explain to the people there what our tradition is all about. Who knows--there may even be some Connolly relatives in the crowd!
My preference is always for peace and quiet, so you're not likely to find me in a crowd, however convivial, on Thanksgiving. I'll cook a turkey breast large enough to please my husband and the cats, although I won't eat any of it. I'll make the southern cornbread dressing I've eaten and loved all my life. We like jellied cranberry sauce, which is easy enough because it comes ready-made in a can. I've varied the desserts over the years, but this year I'm returning to an old favorite that has come to be known as Sandy's Pecan Dream Pie. (If you don't know that story, ask me about it in the comments section.) On the day after both Thanksgiving and Christmas, I always make candied sweet potatoes to have with leftovers. If I get the syrup on the sweet potatoes to just the right consistency, that's one more thing to be thankful for.
All of us at PDD will be thinking this holiday season of those who lost so much in the recent catastrophic storm on the east coast. We hope they can salvage something to be thankful for, and we wish them much better days ahead. The tireless rescue and aid workers, both volunteer and paid, deserve the heartfelt thanks of our entire nation.