This piece is dedicated to the memory of our dear friend, Patrice.
I needed two shopping carts to collect everything on my list, and this didn’t even include the turkey. I had ordered a beautiful bird at the mom and pop grocery store near my job; years ago only a handful of markets sold turkeys raised without hormones. That wasn’t the main reason I selected what I now call my “Save the Whale” turkey, however. These birds were fresh, not frozen for weeks on end, and my guests said they could taste the difference. That’s all that mattered.
Looking for ideas in my cookbooks, I landed on this one recipe for stuffing (we had never called it “dressing”), and immediately stopped turning the pages. It’s true that aromas can trigger very powerful memories, but I was instantly transported to another place and time merely by perusing a list of ingredients. Immediately, I was a kid with my family visiting Manhattan for the day. We’d see the sights and the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in December, and then would stop to buy a wonderfully warm pretzel from a street vendor. On freezing days, I found these carts a bit of inviting warmth. I can recall the enticing aroma wafting from that stand. It was the chestnuts. Vendors scooped the warm nuts into little paper bags before handing them over to the customers, and I breathed in this drifting essence. I looked down at my page; I would recreate this memory. Roasted chestnut stuffing was on the menu.
Friends began to arrive early Wednesday evening. They brought cheese, crackers and chips, and wine, tossed their coats in the bedroom, rolled up their sleeves, some donning aprons, and grabbed peelers, knives and cutting boards. They were eager to get to work. Throughout the evening, the “Slicers and Dicers” peppered me with questions. “How far down do we need to peel the acorn squashes?” I answered, “You want to peel down to the bright orange.” “Got it.”
Next question: “What do I do with these chestnuts?” “We’re supposed to prick them with a knife before roasting them in the oven.” “Like this?” “That looks about right,” I said. Then I added, “Here, I’ll help you.” I was looking forward to working with the chestnuts. I had even called my dad about preparing them. In response to my question, Dad had said, “Prick them with a sharp knife.” That corresponded with the recipe’s description.
Next I heard, “Are you sure you want us to do two bags of potatoes?” “Sure, just peel ‘em all.” “Okay! You’re the boss.” I figured people would want seconds, right?*
“Do you want the bread for the stuffing cubed like this?” “That looks great,” I answered. We played music, sipped wine, and conversations filled the kitchen, dining and living rooms. There was the inviting expectation of a holiday in the air, and it just felt right.
With this group toiling away, I prepared the standard pre-Thanksgiving fare. When I gave the word, we quickly cleared the table and sat down to a dinner of pasta and meatballs, salad and garlic bread, just like all those times years ago with our friends who had moved to Germany. One time, a neighbor’s cat had wandered in our partially open patio door; the kitchen was so cozy and warm. Hours later, when only a few of the Slicers and Dicers remained, and we began to rearrange furniture for the next-day’s feast, a surprised, long-forgotten sleeping cat jumped down from his perch on a kitchen chair, hidden by the tablecloth. We had truly extended our family of friends that year.
So I had the chestnuts in the oven. The potato “KP” team was on a roll; I grew up believing that “KP” meant “keep peeling.” I was stirring the large skillet of sizzling sausage, diced celery and onion, and at some point would add the diced apple and fresh herbs. The chestnuts would be shelled, chopped and added, too. Early on Thursday morning, I would toss this savory blend in with the bread and eggs, and then stuff the enormous bird. While from year to year I may have changed recipes for stuffing or side dishes, there are a few established components of my turkey prep that I will never alter. An entire bottle of chardonnay gets poured into the bottom of the roasting pan, and I choose from fresh herbs, rosemary, sage, thyme, growing in my garden. Very early on, my visiting cousin had explained to me the value of draping bacon over the bird. The bacon drippings baste the main course. When our guest list included people who didn’t eat pork, I switched to turkey bacon. As I was stirring away that night, making one mental note after another, I glanced at the clock. It was time. Grabbing a potholder, I opened the oven door and began to smile. Just as I had hoped, I was back in New York City, next to a little cart filled with warm pretzels and chestnuts. What heaven. I knew the aroma was starting to drift because I heard a few others murmur “MMMMM.” Not bad for a first-timer, I thought. As I began to draw the tray out of the oven, it happened.
POP! POP! Chestnuts exploded in the oven. What a show! My dad had warned me that if they weren’t pricked deeply enough, the steam inside would cause them to erupt. I smiled again. Dad was 3,000 miles away and right again. I lingered in front of the oven. After a few seconds of all quiet, I withdrew the tray. More POPS! There were a few shrieks; I think they were mine. Bits of chestnut hung from the ceiling. They clung to the refrigerator, the walls, the floor, a few guests, and me. Nobody was burnt, thank Goodness, but what a mess! We were all laughing hard now, but I had gotten my wish! In all the years that I have been making Thanksgiving dinners, I have never lived that moment down.
Dinner was delicious, and there was good reason for this. Over the years, so many friends and visiting family members have pitched in, not only to complete the Wednesday night prep work, but to cook entire dishes, and to stir, mash vegetables, season foods, create desserts, prepare the cranberry sauce from scratch, make roux for the gravy, heroically attempt to keep up with the growing mound of pots and pans, and most importantly, remember to add charcoals to the grill each hour. And as carving is not my strongpoint, yearly I have relied on one guest in particular to help me. As the turkey rests on the counter, and I spoon the stuffing from it into a bowl, we all stop to enjoy the crisp smoky bacon that basted the turkey. Now that’s a fitting hors d’oeuvre.
Some years, we’ve rented tables and chairs and extra linens, even chafing dishes. With the extra tables, we have formed a giant “H” configuration in the living and dining rooms so everybody can be seated. The largest group was 34 people. Sometimes, I’ve knocked on neighbors’ doors requesting oven space because the briquettes weren’t catching in either grill (one grill for each bird.) A few times, the turkeys were done ahead of schedule, and my electric warming tray came to the rescue. The year we hosted 34 people proved to be one of those “Help! They just aren’t cooking!” years. My sister and her family were visiting. When my sister asked what she could do to assist, I quickly responded: “Play! Please play.”
My niece calls her mom a “human jukebox.” What a fitting description. While I was frantically checking my watch and chanting, “Cook, Turkeys, Cook,” my sis was leading the guests in an impromptu sing-along on our yard-sale-purchased upright piano. Who knew two opera singers would be in the crowd that year? The crew in the kitchen started to hum, too. After playing popular show and movie tunes, my sister segued into Beatles’ songs. The animated group was really into their pre-dinner show now. When I heard, “Deck the halls with boughs of holly,” I couldn’t even imagine the appetite this gang had worked up. The place erupted in cheers when I delivered my sing-song, long-awaited message: “The turkeys are done!”
Every year there comes a time when several of my returning guests approach me individually, and whisper, “Are we going to do it again this year?” I smile. My response is always the same. “Yes!”
Returning guests can’t wait to see the faces of new guests as they experience this time-honored tradition. It is the moment we have long awaited, or dreaded, perhaps. It is our signature Thanksgiving experience, and so we crank up the volume, loud. As the bowls of heavy cream make their way around the table along with the whisks and my ancient frilly pink apron or my moo cow apron with little cloth bovine ears on the bib, guests are inspired to work by the appropriate, mood-setting tunes. Well, that’s the idea, anyway. Booming is the Devo classic, “Whip it.” Guests recite, “Whip it. Whip it good.” The bowl gets passed to a newcomer. Someone places the apron on their neck. While whisking away, Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” comes up next on our personal Thanksgiving hit parade, again played at eye-popping decibels. It’s likely that not everyone has had a chance to whisk, and the bowls of cream aren’t quite ready. Now people are dancing to Weird Al Yankovic’s wonderful spoof, “Eat it.” Guests clap and groove to the beat. It’s a raucous affair.
Imagine this scenario as experienced by quite an elderly woman who spoke not a word of English. Our dear friend’s daughter brought her boyfriend and his grandmother for dinner. We had never met. A little unsure of what she would think, I went ahead with the tradition and just kept my fingers crossed. As the music rocked the room, she was the life of the party. Another time, a friend brought a guest whom we were excited to meet, but as I was behind schedule, I hugged each of them and handed over a large bunch of freshly washed parsley. “I’m so happy you came,” I told them. “Now, can you garnish all the plates with a sprig, please?” Another year a friend brought a colleague from Japan to our home. Experiencing his first Thanksgiving, this engineer settled in at the piano and played magnificent jazz. Somehow, guests found just enough room between tables and chairs to dance before dinner. It was a thrill.
Other years, it wasn’t just unlit charcoals that created drama. When the kitchen sink stopped up, we couldn’t run the water without catching it in pans lest we’d need to call out the rowboats. That year my husband’s family was here. Not only were my sister-in-law and brother-in-law fabulous cooks, they were quite handy with tools, too! Another time we had a small flood in our basement. No little plumbing issue is going to put a damper on Thanksgiving. One year I had to set-up a booth at a crafts fair I was participating in, to be held on Friday. Our family of friends took care of everything!
One neighbor really jazzed things up one time. Guests watched him as he walked back and forth in his yard outside our dining and living room windows. First, he wore a red wig. The next time he walked by, he modeled a different one. I don’t know how many wigs he owned, but he sported a different one with each pass. We were dining on seconds before somebody finally said something. Then, everyone howled. While they were perplexed, guests figured they should be polite, so they had said nothing. At my urging, my sport of a neighbor had advised me that he would “come up with something” for us that day.
Just like the Thanksgivings of years ago, everyone here always inquires about each other’s family living in other parts of the country. Over the years, many of us have lost loved ones back home, and sadly, we have lost one of our own, a dear friend with whom we shared every holiday and who always graced us with her presence, her spirit, her smile, her sense of humor, her great conversation, her friendship, and her incredible desserts. While we miss her, we feel her presence through time spent with old friends.
Unlike the Thanksgivings of years ago, we no longer think of ourselves as “transplants,” or “orphans.” We no longer play “Homeward Bound” with each meal. Each year, when our house is brimming and the living room windows are steamed up because of all the cooking, we build on the treasured memories of years past, and know that we are home.
Happy Thanksgiving, Everybody!
*Note to self: Making 20 lbs. of mashed potatoes is ridiculous.
November 18, 2013