I’m watching “Thanksgiving Live” on the Food Network now. It’s the end of the show, all the chefs are around the table and sharing their final tips. Most of them have to do with defrosting, prepping and roasting the turkey.
I’m not a fan of turkey, but what I always liked about Thanksgiving growing up was the incredible variety of food at the table, not to mention the sheer quantity of it. Even with eight people at the table, there was enough food for sixteen or twenty, and most of it was consumed by my grandfather, my father and his two brothers.
I didn’t grow up with cranberry sauce or candied sweet potatoes on the Thanksgiving table–my mother is from Italy, and if she had it her way we wouldn’t be eating turkey, but my father’s family loved the stuff (and they ate everything she put in front of them). My mom roasted a turkey, yes, but she also made roast beef. My father loved rare red meat more than anything, and I followed suit. From the time I was old enough to chew, I was eating meat, and I liked it almost bloody.
Our Thanksgiving meal began with a pasta course, which was a delight to me since the only thing I loved more than rare meat was pasta. When it came time for the main course, there would be the turkey, the roast beef, the stuffing (the ultimate favorite of the day, as it was made with sausage. So good!), mashed potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, spinach, a roasted squash of some kind, bread, salad, and cauliflower or broccoli. Dessert happened a few hours later, and that was another course unto itself: lemon meringue pie (for Dad), two pumpkin pies (one for Grandpa, the other for everyone else), roasted chestnuts (for Mom, Nonna and me), a plate of cookies (all made by mom), and a cheesecake, which was brought by another member of the family.
My holidays became more complicated than celebratory when my parents split up. Thanksgiving became Dad’s holiday, and we spent it in Long Island with his best friend from college and his family. I missed my mom, but I loved this extended family, and I liked being with a lot of people at a really big table covered with a lot of food. I was introduced to turnips, which were tender and buttery, and cranberry sauce, tart, delicious, and a great mask for turkey’s… well, turkey-ness. The stuffing on the table those years didn’t hold a candle to my mother’s, but she’d always make it for me near the holiday, even if we didn’t eat a stuffable meat.
Many years later, I moved to California, and it was too expensive to fly home for Thanksgiving. I spent my first Thanksgiving in LA at an orphan’s dinner. A sketch comic I was working with had invited me, and there were a lot of orphans. I brought corn bread and extra silverware. The people were great, the food was tasty, and the wine flowed. And then the whiskey flowed. It was a good holiday.
The following year, I cooked my first Thanksgiving meal for my friend Pam, her daughter Cassaundra, and myself. Pam and Cassaundra drove up from San Diego and spent the weekend. I made cornish game hens, stuffing, mashed potatoes, salad, and bought an apple pie for dessert. Pam made collard greens (and did wonders with the leftovers the next day). We ate happily, and I felt proud and relieved. I cooked a major holiday meal, and even if it was for a small crowd, it was a very happy crowd. We weren’t alone, and we had good food – that was enough to be thankful for.