The smell of turkey in the oven still brings me back to my childhood kitchen on Thanksgiving. This despite the fact that as an adult I've spent more holidays in my own house trying to replicate the feasts of my younger years. Never mind that my husband and I clogged up our kitchen sink with the skins from 10 pounds of potatoes the first year we hosted Thanksgiving dinner. My father-in-law had to snake a mile of pipe to clear the soggy mess. A few traditions have changed however. For the better I'd argue.
Take cranberry relish. My family always had the canned cranberry jelly that was splayed artistically across a serving dish. Round slabs of wiggly reddish-purple tartness proudly bore their ridges from the oh-so-elegant tin can (because I think it was actually chemical-leaching tin back in the day). It's a shocker that I left this tradition in the dust, right? Personally I like the kind of chunky, sweet cranberry sauce with ingredients that you can actually identify and enjoy.
My family would move the kitchen table to the family room and add a few extension pieces to accommodate everyone. I loved seeing the festive decorations: the same accordion-folded paper turkey centerpiece and taper candles were trotted out each year. We lit those candles just long enough for the dinner and then blew them out and stored them in the hall closet for the next year. After my father died my brothers and I were cleaning out the house and happened to find a stash of mid-length, ashy holiday candles, patiently waiting for their next job. I took that silly Hallmark paper turkey. He'll make his long-awaited return to the spotlight this week... if he doesn't crumble first.
When the guests arrived they were always dressed nicely in deference to the holiday celebration. My Grandma wore her dress, nylons, and sensible low-heeled shoes, with the requisite tissue tucked up her sleeve for any unforeseen emergency tissue purposes. My Nana came in a purple mumu ensemble (always purple) with loads of rings and necklaces. My brothers and I had to wear nice church clothes as well. It was festive and felt like a special occasion. My boys fight me now and insist on wearing their dirty old t-shirts with sweats, their hair all greasy and unbrushed because it's their vacation (and who would dare make them think about personal hygiene when they're away from school I ask you).
So I still dress up, as was our family tradition. A few years ago I even had my cute boots on. Like a conscientious host, I waited until everyone had taken some turkey from the large platter and then went to the kitchen to refill the plate with heaping piles of perfectly-browned goodness. As I was walking back into the dining room my heel hit the one spot of grease on the tile floor. I did a perfect James Brown imitation - minus the hop back to a standing position. I hit the floor, the platter smashed into a million pieces, and the turkey scattered to all corners of my kitchen. A brief, stunned silence fell and then the men all started screaming, "Pick it up! Pick it up!" as if the 10-second rule could erase the fact that white ceramic shards coated the meat like an early-Christmas snow. My sister-in-law almost needed the Heimlich maneuver because she was choking laughing on the food she'd placed in her mouth the moment before she saw me disappear from sight. One second I was framed in the doorway with beautiful turkey overloading a platter, and the next second I was gone; dropped down an invisible shaft. We saved the legs, cleaned them off and put them in a Ziplock bag marked "Floor Turkey" but nobody seemed to touch that bag of leftovers over the next few days. Weird.
I believe that was the same year we'd unearthed my great-grandmother's china set from my father's Hoarders-like home. I proudly set the table with the fragile pieces and then stacked them next to the sink for gentle hand washing when we were finished eating dinner. During my second bite of pumpkin pie I heard a huge crash. A metal file holder that was on top of the refrigerator had tumbled - you guessed it - right onto the pile of china, breaking the top 5 plates. Now we are forced to cut 5 people from our family gatherings, like we're at Tribal Council. "Nope, she's voted out. She brought crappy wine last year."
Some years we visited relatives and tried out new foods and recipes, hoping to eventually expand our traditional options. Amy's sweet potato fries? Yes please. Joan's special gravy? Mmm. David's barbecued turkey? Uh-Huh! One year I used a teaspoon to scoop out a dozen oranges to make bowls for individual sweet potato dishes. I couldn't feel my index finger for the rest of the night. A few years ago I decided to make an ambrosia, figuring "well, technically it has fruit in it and the kids can get some nutrition even if they don't eat the other side items". I come from a long line of Jell-O aficionados. My Nana made glorious jiggly concoctions from any number of fancy copper molds and my dad could suspend canned fruits in gelatin like nobody's business. This ambrosia has now taken on a life of its own and my fluffy pink "fruit" dish is requested at all family dinners.
This year I look forward to a nice, smallish family dinner with our favorite dishes from years past and some wine and good company. (Not the 10 bottles of wine that four of us consumed one year. That was a rough Thanksgiving.) Funny enough, with all of our mishaps, it's really Easter that tends to be our ill-fated family holiday.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving and your own crazy traditions. I'll save some floor turkey for you!
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