The plan this year was to go out to eat. After discussing it with my sister we decided we might as well, especially seeing as how there is only going to be a handful of people (and if you’ve ever prepared the colossus of what is Thanksgiving dinner like we have, you know cooking for a small crowd doesn’t really feel worth all the effort). Plus, in years past things haven’t always gone according to plan in the kitchen, and we felt it might be for the best if we spent Thanksgiving at a restaurant in lower Manhattan.
And so it was decided. Reservations were promptly set for two o’clock.
Dinner out on Thanksgiving is an entirely new concept to me. Over the last few years the location of our Thanksgiving has shifted, yet we’ve always ended up at someone’s home. I’ve cooked in my Manhattan apartment, my sister hers. Or we’ve gone Upstate to our dad’s house - the house we grew up in - and prepared dinner for our extended family there. I’ll confess it’s a strange feeling to not always know where you’re going to end up on Thanksgiving. It wasn’t always this way of course. There was a time when the holidays didn’t leave us feeling so…discombobulated. Those were simpler times. Times I refer to as “before," which simply means the years before my mother died. Ever since we never quite know how we’re going to feel, so the holidays and where we spend them vary from year to year.
Generally speaking this time of year is difficult for almost everyone, so much to do and plan, meals to make, gifts to buy, planes to catch. But for anyone who has lost someone, a key member of the family who on occasions such as Thanksgiving typically played an integral part, well, they can be almost unbearable. For the three of us Thanksgiving has sat there like a ticking time bomb on our calendar since Mom died nearly seven years ago. We start off the day with our best faces on determined to be okay, yet by the end of the day, once the turkey has been consumed and the plates have been cleared, it settles in big and heavy around us – the absence. There comes a point when it’s unavoidable. Not just from seeing the person missing from the table, but by that point you can feel in your heart too, feel it even through the uncomfortable fullness of your gut.
Before she died we spent Thanksgiving in the warm comfort of our home with Mom making the turkey, the Andouille stuffing, the au gratin potatoes, the roasted spaghetti squash, and the whipped sweet potatoes. I’d watch, peering around her even from a young age until allowed the task of mashing the potatoes with the hand masher she received as a wedding present in 1973.
“Oh no, honey, not like that, like this,” she would say, apron on, sleeves rolled up as she showed me how to really put my weight into it.
I didn’t realize it then, but those moments were the beginnings of my culinary education. When I was older she gave me more to do than just mashing, and soon I was peeling and chopping the potatoes, seasoning the squash, and making the pie crust (butter AND Crisco, that’s the key). It was as though with each new thing she taught me she was silently telling me: I won’t always be around to do this for you, so you have to learn how to do it yourself.
My favorite part was always when everyone would begin to file into the dining room to take their seats. That’s the moment Mom would give me the final task – the pièce de résistance - of whipping up the gravy in the bottom of the pan. I’d take out the same old Mason jar she always used, fill it with water and flour (like she taught me), and give it a vigorous shake.
“Good job, honey. Now just keep whisking until it comes to a boil and begins to thicken.”
And I would. And every time, like magic, it turned to gravy.
In 2007 when Mom was no longer around I prepared my first Thanksgiving on my own in my Manhattan apartment. That was the first holiday our family was no longer the four of us but the three of us, and I wanted to cook just like Mom did. I was then a 24-year-old New Yorker who not only didn’t use her oven for extra storage space, I didn’t use it full stop. Oven? What’s that? However I was determined. I made all the same things Mom used to, and spent the entire day cooking, rereading recipes, re-measuring ingredients, terrified I was going to mess something up. It was exhausting. So much so when the three of us finally sat around my little coffee table to eat I was almost too tired to pick up my fork.
How had Mom never told me how tiring it was? How did she do it every time, year in and year out?
I’ll be honest that first turkey was...not great. In fact I think it was incredibly dry but we were all too sad and missing Mom too much to notice. Over the years they’ve gotten better. Especially now that my sister helps, and we’ve taken to experimenting with things like brines. Last year, however she forgot to take the giblets out of the turkey (a foul process if you’ve never had to do it), and the year before, well, things really went downhill.
We were cooking at my dad’s house, and I’ll preface this by saying I’m not at all familiar with his fancy oven. My city apartment oven is about as basic as you can get. It has knobs. Five of them, and is so small I had to buy special mini cookie sheets for it. I’ll also say I had been up until almost two o’clock in the morning making pies, so when I woke up that day I was particularly out of it. We were trying something new - a buttermilk brine and homemade cornbread stuffing. Prepped, the turkey went in, and an hour later, the cornbread. We kept checking but after a few hours it didn’t look like the turkey was cooking. We stuck a toothpick into the cornbread on the bottom rack. Still liquid. The oven was on so what was the problem?
We were mystified until my sister lifted the foil covering the turkey and realized my gaffe. Early that morning when I, bleary eyed stumbled into the kitchen I had accidentally put the oven on BROIL instead of BAKE. Epic. Turkey. Fail. My weak defense was that the oven had too many buttons, and I ended up driving to the local grocery store that was still open (a Thanksgiving miracle!), and proceeded to buy out of their entire supply of corn muffins. As for the turkey? Well we lost three key cooking hours and ended up eating much later than planned, but once we carved away at the charred, black exterior the meat was salvageable.
For the most part.
Suffice it to say these past trials and tribulations are what prompted us to decide that maybe it’s time we leave it to the professionals. It’s a lot of work (with a lot of room for error), resulting in what is basically a whole day spent in the kitchen for a meal that takes people approximately twenty minutes to inhale. And yet. When we told our dad we made reservations at an amazing West Village restaurant, there was silence on the other end of the line. “A restaurant? But…what if you just made something easy?” he asked.
I wanted to tell him I understand Thanksgiving traditionally isn’t meant to be spent in some hipster restaurant in the Village that’s serving bone marrow and Cornish hen instead of turkey, but this is where we are now. It’s not like it used to be. We have to try to roll with the punches a bit more now that the game has changed. But I didn’t say that. I didn’t say it because I get it. Thanksgiving is meant to be spent in someone’s home with dishes you know and love, dishes you count on appearing on the table on this particular day of the year (I won’t even begin to tell you how upset certain people were when we didn’t make mashed potatoes one year).
Also, it’s not what Mom would have done. Even with all she had to do she never would have not cooked Thanksgiving dinner. So we relented, and as I began to do some online research in order to find this “easy” menu I happened upon a story called Five Ways to Ruin a Turkey. My first thought was that surely broiling it is the number one way, and my second thought was there is no way to ruin a turkey. Not really. Even if you do broil it and are on the brink of tears thinking you single-handedly destroyed Thanksgiving, your family will hug you and tell you not to worry about it because it is, after all, just a turkey.
Exactly. Because the point of the whole day isn’t about the turkey (no one say that to the turkey). It’s about gathering around a table and eating food with love poured into it as we sit next to family members we haven’t seen in a while. On this day all we want are the comforts of the past, of family, of home (and of mashed potatoes).
When I began cooking Thanksgiving dinner six years ago I experienced first hand how exhausting it is, yes, but at the same time I realized how strangely rewarding it is. Each year what my sister and I cooked brought people together. And those dishes, the recipes our mother used to cook when we were little kids and everything good, and untarnished, and light, they brought us closer to her.
Looking back on Thanksgivings gone by I can see Mom sitting at the head of that old dining room table covered with food, watching with a big smile as Dad divvied out the turkey and everyone passed around their plates eager to dig in. I know she was tired but she didn’t look it. Not in that moment. In that moment her face held something I didn’t quite understand at the time but have begun to the older I get –contentment. It was the pure, simple joy of being with the people she loved most in the world, and watching as they sat down together to eat the food she had made.
That was everything. Well, what else is there?
And so this year we will cook. We will cook because we don’t know how much longer things will be as good as they are right now. In this moment we are happy and healthy with enough money to buy the food that we will prepare for the people in our lives that we love. And while I mash the potatoes and whisk the gravy I’ll think of Mom and miss her and the way things used to be, but I’ll know she is proud of us, her daughters, for carrying on the way she would have if she were still here.
That’s why Dad didn’t want to go to a restaurant, and that’s why when he asked we didn’t mind all that much to cancel the reservation. Thanksgiving is a holiday so deeply rooted in tradition that it’s a difficult thing to try and reinvent. As a family we’ve stumbled over the last few years to find our footing, yet it is the food that always grounds us.
And so while the seats around the table may change - and four of us may become three, or five, or ten - we will always come together on Thanksgiving in the kitchen and cook. And the turkey, no matter what happens, will never be ruined.
Even if we do happen to broil it by mistake.