Despite unending mountains of dishes, I love Thanksgiving. Gratitude is a potent tonic for many ills, and all others can be cured by a good meal with loved ones plus a couple of days off.
What I don’t love is the traditional Thanksgiving menu.
Luckily, no one in my posse complained when turkey was jettisoned for the moister, far tastier roast chicken, and banning marshmallows was a breeze. If only they recognized pumpkin pie as the clammy, odd-textured abomination it is. Squash should be savory. Let’s make a nice soup instead–with a little sage, perhaps–and follow with chocolate.
P.S. I thought I was alone in my lukewarm response to the classic turkey dinner until I read a piece in the New Yorker entitled, “Wonton Lust.” Here’s a brief excerpt from Calvin Trillin’s brilliant essay:
“The Thanksgiving ritual is based on eating, and, in that spirit, I particularly want to give thanks for the Immigration Act of 1965. Until then, this country virtually excluded Chinese while letting in as many English people as cared to come–a policy that in culinary terms bordered on the suicidal…. Naturally, I’d speak during [our Thanksgiving] meal about what Americans should be grateful for. ‘If the Pilgrims had been followed to the New World only by other Pilgrims,’ I’d say to the girls between bites of duck with Chinese flowering chives, ‘we would now be eating overcooked cauliflowers and warm gray meat. So count your blessings, ladies.’”
I try to be a nice person. I certainly want to be one. Unfortunately, I’m starting to believe I might not be genetically wired for punctuality and thoughtfulness. If I have missed your birthday, it’s not because I don’t care about you; I just plain forgot. Like my brothers, whose birthdays are lost somewhere in the sad, endy bits of summer, the problem is that your birthday doesn’t automatically appear on my calendar. Apologies to all of you.
Fortunately, my father’s birthday falls during the Thanksgiving season, and my sister’s is on or around the first day of spring, so even if I don’t write them down, there is always something on the calendar to magically remind me.
Easiest of all to remember is my mother’s.
My mother turned ten the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
That must have been a memorable birthday, with everyone huddled around the radio, speechless and shaken. Probably not the best one, mind you, but remarkable, nonetheless.
Over the years, my mother has championed everyone else’s special days, but on hers she lays low, no doubt hoping someone might step up and do a little something for her for a change. We have tried.
We learned early on that Dad was good for a Hallmark card and a nice little gifty item, but he was not to be entrusted with the cake. In his defense, he did attempt to make one from a box once, but was so flummoxed by the words “ten-inch tube pan,” that he gave up and drove to Piggly Wiggly.
It’s worth mentioning that in our house, store-bought baked goods were a sign of approaching moral turpitude.
After that mini debacle, we siblings started juggling responsibility for the cake amongst ourselves, usually ironing out the details the morning of December 7.
One year, though, my medium brother decided to make an Angel Food Cake. He even started the project the DAY BEFORE. Impressive. We were all reasonably decent cooks, but we had some respect for his ambition. If you’ve made an angel food cake, you know what I mean.
Out came the ancient Betty Crocker cookbook, heavily thumbed and coated with a light dusting of flour from decades of use.
My brother looked so serious, meticulously pouring over Betty’s good book. We thought everything was under control, and gave him a little space to work his magic.
It’s uncertain exactly what went wrong. The reigning theory is that he must have combined elements from a couple of different tricky recipes arranged on the same page.
All I know is that it looked beautiful when he pulled it out of the oven. Betty said to cool the cake by flipping the whole pan upside down and sliding it onto the neck of a wine bottle. That way, the cake would cool but still stay light and airy. Trust me, if you’ve whipped 12 room temperature egg whites into a heavenly cloud, if you’ve sifted the cake flour four or five times, and spun the superfine sugar, you want that cake to be FLUFFY.
Medium brother flipped the pan, only to have a half-baked cake carcass collapse onto the counter.
After a minute or two of reverential silence, he scooped the remains right back into the pan and tossed it into the oven for another thirty minutes or so.
Then, the cake and my brother mysteriously disappeared for several hours.
Nothing more was said about the cake that day. We like to sweep things like this under the rug. I figured he had made the shameful Piggly Wiggly run, and was off somewhere, nursing his culinary wounds.
The next day was a Sunday. Everything proceeded normally: fried eggs for breakfast, followed by church, then dinner in the dining room. Sunday was the one day a week that the mail was cleared off the table. My father presented the card, the gift. It was time to sing.
Medium brother thumped down to the basement and emerged with the most astonishing sweet mess I’ve ever seen.
The cake mass had been roughly sculpted into some sort of landform and half-sunk battle ship. These were situated on a homemade wooden platform, which was covered with Reynold’s wrap and an ungodly amount of blue icing. There were American flags, tiny plastic boats and planes, and little soldiers everywhere.
It was, hands-down, the most impressive birthday cake I’ve ever seen, and to top it off, surprisingly tasty. Not like an angel food cake, perhaps–more like an epic Pearl Harbor Day cake reenactment would taste. But not too shabby.