Monday, November 23, 2009

Probably Not What The Pilgrims Had In Mind...

I got such great comments on my last posting, I thought I'd explain a little more about where I was coming from.

I was raised almost entirely by my mother, who worked full-time, and took on extra work for extra money. I also have a sister and to say she has strong opinions would be lowballing it.  Thus, I spent the formative years of my life surrounded by women with powerful personalities, and I'm lucky to still have them in my life today.

I kid around about my mom's cooking, but I actually get my love of cooking from her.  (I get my love of baking from my dad, which we can discuss at Christmas when I enter a fugue state and bake 14 varieties of cookies in three days.  He once made a challah that was so good I still remember it, but he's a disaster with other stuff.  He once set a pizza box on fire.) Anyway, because of her work schedule, she didn't always have the time to prepare an elaborate dinner, but a home-cooked meal was on the table most nights - ordering in or going out happened once, and very rarely twice, a week.  Not every meal was a winner (and a few were total losers, like a beef stew that was orange...and inedible) but many were quite good.

I can still remember the old Dutch Oven my mom used for a variety of dishes.  It had a silver-colored bottom with black plastic handles on the sides, and a copper-colored lid with a black plastic handle.  This was her "go-to" pot for anything of a certain volume, but I most closely associate it with three dishes.

The first one I recall is stuffed cabbage.  I hated it.  The smell of cabbage boiling in a sweet and sour sauce so pungent it soaked right into your skin.  (I'm not kidding - for three days afterwards no one would sit next to me at school.) I don't even remember what it was stuffed with, some sort of meat mixed with rice.  All I know is that I could never really get much of it down.

The second dish was her spaghetti and meatballs.  She'd mix up a sauce in that pot, then cook the meatballs right in the sauce.  It's how I learned to make gravy, and I make it pretty much the same way to this day. Crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, herbs, spices - I've posted it before, so you know what I'm talking about.

The last dish I associate with that pot is her pot roast.  Actually, In my house, "pot roast" and brisket were the same thing.  My mother bought a brisket cut of meat and cooked it in that pot with onions, garlic, carrots, a little tomato sauce, and some herbs.  Of the three, it was my favorite.  She still makes it for holidays and it's still great.

My mother's favorite holiday to cook has always been Thanksgiving.  She did Passover for a while (so did my Aunt Felice - a dreadful 6 hour evening of reading and waiting and an entirely brown meal.)  Now my cousin makes it (a breezy 6 minutes of reading followed by an entirely brown meal.  Some thing never change.)  My Aunt Louise makes Rosh Hashanah (which is why we skip it.  I love Louise, but she once dumped Good Seasons Italian Dressing on boneless skinless chicken breasts and called it dinner.  When your holiday meal ranks behind a spread of entirely beige dishes, you should let someone else make the holiday.)

My sister got Christmas Eve when she married outside the tribe (me, too, Thank the Baby Jesus! - we're the Jews who loved Christmas.  I do love being Jewish; we tend to get good doctors, good neighborhoods and good schools, but it's cold comfort for shitty holidays.  The only "fun" Jewish holiday is Purim, but that doesn't count because (1) no one can remember when it is (sometime in March, except when it falls in February, stupid lunar calendar) and (2) the official holiday food is a dry pastry stuffed with prunes.  It's basically a scone for old people.  You can't really hold that up against candy canes, chocolate bunnies, pastel candies or gingerbread men.)

But Thanksgiving was always my mom's shining achievement (and - in recent years - the one year anniversary of the last time she cooked.  But we cut her some slack, since ordinarily half the stuff in her kitchen might have been purchased during the Clinton administration and the other half is Diet Pepsi and cookies.)  There's the turkey (which was woefully undercooked in 2007, nearly killing the guests, but who doesn't dream of doing that at Thanksgiving?)  The stuffing (no oysters, no chestnuts, no sausage - just Pepperidge Farm herb stuffing and lots of salt, butter and aromatics.)  No mashed potatoes (sometimes Louise brings them, but they're beige and tasteless), but she does do yams (usually Princella Yams from the can, with marshmallows melted on top.  Actually, this is the other dish Louise occasionally brings and it's awesome.  She's like a cooking savant.  She can't cook for shit, but those sweet potatoes are delicious.  She just mashes 'em up with some butter and a can of crushed pineapple.  You cannot put them in the same room as a diabetic, they are so sweet.)  Finally, there's that weird green bean dish that every woman who began cooking in the 1970s makes: the canned green beans, the cream of mushroom soup, the fried onion strings. Bleh.  Oh - and there's alway something "new."  A dish she never made before and is trying for the first time this year.  In the past, these dishes have resulted in tears, screaming, and - in one particularly strange Thanksgiving - a conversation during which my mother swore Elliott Gould was dead.

But Thanksgiving isn't about the food; it hasn't been since the 1600s when it supposedly originated as a celebration of the harvest (though it wasn't a holiday until 1863. Yay! Fun Fact!)  Thanksgiving is about repetition.  It's about showing up in a place where people love you enough to show you a truly horrible evening, punctuated by embarrassing stories from your childhood and a recitation of the bad decisions you've made in your life.  At my mother's Thanksgiving, the food doesn't even appear until after 5, long after most Americans have passed out.  It begins with appetizers, which seem unnecessary when you're about to gorge yourself on the biggest meal of the year.  Still my mother can't have company in her house without a brick of cheese, a bowl of dip, and (weirdly) chips and salsa. Then dinner.  And, finally, dessert.

We need to discuss dessert for a moment.  Generally, Neil and I will bring something, or I'll bake something.  My mother will have procured a dessert or two as well.  And then there's my cousin (she of the brown Passover meal.)  She volunteers to bring a dessert.  My mother says, "Just one, please" with an exasperation that reveals she knows there will be a truckload of baked crap showing up.  So, of course my cousin shows up with 3 or 4 (and, one year, 5) desserts. There's always some kind of cookie (the peanut butter cookies with the Hershey's Kisses in the center should taste like more than they actually do,) a cake, a fruit dessert (last year it was a homemade Pop-Tart the size of Delaware) and an Apple Pie that she claims her son insisted on making.

None of the desserts taste like anything.  It's amazing someone can bake Martha Stewart-like quantities and emerge with a tray of pastries that all taste like construction paper.

Yet, for all the craziness, I kind of love it, and I'm missing it this year.  Neil and I are visiting his parents in Houston.  I'm looking forward to spending the holiday with the other side of my family, but I'll miss the craziness.  Three years ago my sister started alternating between her in-laws and my mother's house, and she's with them this year - for the first time in 35 years all three of us will be in different places.

I feel lucky to have such warm memories of Thanksgiving: the years we alternated going to Connecticut and making it at home; the time my husband spilled red wine on my mother's carpet and I took the fall; the year my mother used colored marshmallows on the yams, not realizing they were fruit flavored; and - of course - the time we argued about Elliott Gould being dead two hours before he showed up on an episode of Friends.

Nostalgic for home, Neil is making me a pot roast tonight.  It's not my mom's brisket, but it looks delicious.  A rump roast marinated for eight hours in balsamic vinegar and rosemary.  Place it in a Pyrex dish with one large onion, sliced, and a can of San Marzano tomatoes.  Bake at 350 for 3 to 3.5 hours.

Every year my mom goes around the table and forces everyone through the awkward ritual of articulating what they're thankful for.  I hate it, and always make a joke of it.  But now that I don't have to do it, I feel the desire to be thankful, and to share with you what I'm thankful for:


What I'm Thankful For:

A wonderful marriage

A healthy - and crazy - family

Good friends

The overdue end of that Jon and Kate Show

Marshmallows and licorice

The Return of Heather Locklear to series television

The continuing existence of Elliott Gould

Have a Safe and Happy Thanksgiving.


  1. Lovely post! you're a real good writer and I love your 'thankful for' list especially licorice and Elliott Gould. Yay!

  2. I have never been so grateful for Elliott. And I've never before been reminded of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice while at work before. It's an odd amalgam of images I'm conjuring ...