“I was passed the oven mitts”
A first experience in preparing Thanksgiving dinner
Published: Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, November 17, 2010 00:11
In 2004 my mother tapped me to cook the family Thanksgiving meal for the first time. I was so nervous that I started planning in July. I had big oven mitts to fit and I wasn't about to let her down.
My mother started cooking the big meal for her family back in 1975. She was the youngest of four children, a new mother and looking for something to set herself apart from the rest of the family. Legend had it that it was the worst meal ever. The turkey was baked with the giblet bag still inside, the stuffing only filled the trash can, and the cranberry relish was made with pickle relish and dried cranberries. Not my mother's finest hour. She knew what a failure her first attempt had been and vowed not to botch the one meal her entire family sat down together for ever again.
My father came into her life about a year later and I was born in December of 1977. She was relieved of cooking duties that year due to her engorged state which made it difficult to reach the stove or race around panicked as so many chefs do in November in the small kitchen of the house they lived in. My brother was in the oven in 1978 and she was once again excused, allowed to partake of the fare without the work.
Those few years really allowed her to develop her home cooking skills, with a finicky family of her own to keep fed, she had no choice in the matter. She enchanted both sides of the gene pool with her comeback meal in 1980 and was christened the Thanksgiving chef from then on. All major aspects of the meal were at her discretion; she doled out side dish assignments, delegated deserts to the panting pastry coinsures, and bestowed beverage shopping lists on the singles. It was like watching the maestro of a fine metropolitan orchestra during rehearsals, run-throughs and then the main event. She was so wired and tired she rarely ate herself, instead basking in the experiences the guests had.
In 2004, she simply told me in June that she was retiring, and being the eldest it was now my job. At first I accepted the task with pride, then fear, then complete and utter terror set in. History repeats itself I uttered for the 5 months leading up to the meal. I had to get the largest bird, the most succulent ham, and the mac and cheese had to be baked just so. I hand rolled pie crusts and lovingly filled them with pureed pumpkin, I julienned the onions for the stuffing and then diced potatoes for boiling and mashing. The day came and my refrigerator was packed with the raw ingredients that I hoped I could beat and transform into something that might resemble eatable food.
My father called me early that morning because he knew I would be up preparing the turkey. My muse was in the hospital. Nothing major he said, she just didn't feel right. One of her many ailments had flared up that required immediate medical attention. I sunk into my dining room chair. She took the phone and said she expected ambrosia salad brought to her by 4; they wouldn't let her eat before that.
At 1 p.m. my father and brother arrived— a far cry from the 30 people onslaughts mom had feed, and started the annual gluttony fest. We ate until gravy dripped from our orifices. Combat wounds that would digest away. After the meal I packed a box to the brim; sliced turkey, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, carrots, ham, cranberry sauce, stuffing, apple pie, pumpkin pie, and ambrosia salad. Way more than what she would eat, I knew, but I took it anyway.
There she lay in the uncomfortable hospital bed that we had come to know her in so well as of late. She was drawing a picture. Her face lit up when I walked in and she said she knew it was me, she could smell the feast from the moment the elevator shaft started its assent to her floor. I sat the box down and pulled the rolling table closer so that I could set out plates and cutlery; the food went in the bay window sill. I had just put out the last dish when I heard her press the buzzer to the nurses' station. "Food's here- come and eat." There was no argument, she would have won anyway. I saw nurse after nurse stuff themselves into the room, good thing I knew my mother and brought enough.
She called me later and said a whole gaggle of people had followed their noses to her room, some employees while others were patients with no family. They raved about the meal she said, not indicating if she had anything more than the ambrosia salad, and left it at that. The baton had been passed. Mom passed away in June the next year, never to sit at my Thanksgiving table, but she's here every year. I am thankful for what I have and more so for what I've have lost. Happy Thanksgiving.