My mother has a lot of great stories. This one is one of my favorites, and the one I'm most likely to make her tell other people. So in case you thought you were having a difficult Thanksgiving, let me present My Mother's First Thanksgiving as a Married Woman. Keep in mind that she was a winsome nineteen years old when this happened, and my father a beardless twenty-one.
My mother was the world's worst cook; my mother-in-law of six months was one of the world's best, the sort who baked bread once a week and always had several different kinds of fresh-baked cookies waiting in a large glass cookie jar. My family did not celebrate the American holidays (Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, etc); my new husband's family had paper cut-outs, gee-gaws, and special table centerpieces for every one of them. No one in my family (grandparents, aunts, cousins) had ever made a turkey; my in-laws had at least three a year. My mother-in-law worked out of a large kitchen with every sort of jello mold and bundt pan and knife hanging on the wall or on a rack, ready for action; we lived in an apartment without a stove. For the first five months of our marriage we cooked on a two-burner hot plate, and it was more then adequate.
Knowing that we were going to host this first holiday in our married life, we bought a built-in oven and many feet of 2x4 to surround it. We completed the structure just two weeks before the big event. My mother was very ill, and hospitalized. The doctor had said she might be able to leave for a couple of hours to attend this most important dinner. But she really was not available for any help - even if she would have known what to tell me. Oh, and there was also the typical tension/competitiveness between new mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. We'd already had a completely perplexing conversation about cranberry sauce, about which I knew nothing except that it came in a can; she had made a point of telling me that while my new father-in-law liked his with orange, my new husband did not, and I would be wise to prepare some of each kind. So the battle lines were drawn early.
My father told me not to worry - he would help. I was young enough, and scared enough, to believe him. After all, he'd had a grocery for a while. He knew about food, right?
Okay, so because our freezer was miniscule, I waited to pick up the 14-pound (Dad said two pounds per person) frozen turkey I had ordered until as late Wednesday night as possible. As soon as I got home it went straight into the fridge so nothing bad could happen (I had been repeatedly warned about unsafe poultry.) On Thursday, as arranged, I called my father at 6:00 am and we began. I placed the bird on the sink apron, tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder, and started looking for the leg sinew that Dad said had to be removed...."just cut the skin right at the knob, grab the sinew and pull". Ah, you are beginning to see how this is going to go. Twenty frustrating, sweaty minutes later, after trying the channel lock because my fingers could not grab that slimy thing well enough, we decided to go to the next step, hoping that no one would notice that the sinews had not been removed. We were going to have stuffing, not dressing, and I had tripled the recipe because it had originally been for a five-pound bird. Having already tied the legs together--I had to use a piece of quarter-inch hemp rope because that was the only thing I could find after rooting around in the junk drawer with my slimy hands--there was only one opening left to try and fill. And for some reason, I couldn't get very much stuffing into the neck. I was not feeling very reassured when Dad said "don't worry, that cup of stuffing will be more then enough to go around for all of us, you can bake the rest".
Did I mention that the new oven only had room for one shelf with the turkey pan in there? It's okay, I could cook the now-dressing at the same time I made the green bean and mushroom soup casserole, while the turkey was cooling. No problem.
At 8:30, it was time to start cooking so that everything would be ready at about noon, when my guests would arrive. "Turn the oven to 250 degrees because slow cooking makes for a juicier bird," said my father. I peeled the potatoes, and followed his advice to pour lemon juice on them so that they wouldn't turn brown (oh, you say that is for apples--where were you forty years ago?), and started looking at the recipe from Aunt Rose for angel food cake. "Don't worry," my father said confidently, "you can bake it at the same time as the dressing, and the casserole, while the turkey is cooling."
I must admit, having never made mashed potatoes before, I was really nervous when all I had was lumps. "Don't worry, just cut up some onions and put them in there. Onions cover any sin, and since they're lumpy nobody will know the difference." And then he went off to the hospital to pick up my mother. Having had the phone crammed against my ear for over three hours, I had a shooting pain in my left shoulder, the same shoulder I had just had cortisone shots in for bursitis. But it was the numbness in my fingers that really bothered me. It eventually went away, and I decided I could nap for an hour. Everything was set, not to worry!
At 11:00 o'clock we're both up, showered, dressed, and ready to do 'the finishing touches'. We put the door that was being used as a table-top on the four brick-pile legs, and set it with the mismatched dishes and flatware (we hadn't registered, or had any wedding showers, because we were part of the 60's rebellion against materialism. We were soooo cool.) My father called to say that my Mom was not well enough to leave the hospital, but that he would be there for dessert, and would bring a plate of my delicious meal back to her. I was not only sad that she couldn't be there, and worried that my Dad would also miss my cooking debut, but also a little scared about facing all of my in-laws alone.
At noon they arrive, and everyone starts sniffing. There should have been a lot of aromas. You know there weren't. Forty years later I can still see the smile on my mother-in-law's face when she realized what a debacle I had made of that first holiday meal. Here's a sample of the conversation:
MIL: Where's the gravy? You made gravy, right?
Me: What was I supposed to make the gravy with?
MIL: The giblets and the neck.
Me: It didn't come with giblets.
MIL: (wrestling open the rope-bound legs of a still frozen-in-the-middle turkey) These are the giblets, in this package here.
Me: Oh. No wonder I couldn't get the stuffing in.
Needless to say, the next four hours were excruciating. From having to untie that poor turkey's legs to trying to figure out what to do with a flat angel food cake (you cut it up into squares and cover them with defrosted frozen strawberries that you've sent someone to the drug store across the street to get), my mother-in-law could not stop gloating. We did the meal in courses. First the salad, while I fried the green bean casserole on the hot plate; then the casserole. The next course was the cranberry sauce, nicely laid out on the plate after slicing it in neat circles right from the can, my father-in-law's garnished with slices of canned mandarin orange. My mother-in-law, who apparently thought cranberry sauce was something with whole cranberries in it, did not see the advantage of being able to use the lid of the can to slice up the sauce into orderly, seed-free disks. The potatoes were just too much of a disaster to try to save, even by my mother-in-law who seemed to know all kinds of tricks.
Actually, I didn't even see her try with those because I was locked in the bedroom closet trying not to sob. I must say, though, that with enough butter you can fry dressing into a great little side-dish; even if you have used 3 day-old rye bread as the base.
Even at 450 degrees for hours, that poor turkey never really got thoroughly cooked. We did eat some very crispy skin and about a half-inch of meat. It was the creatures that lived in the small park down the street that enjoyed the 13 pounds that were left (I certainly wasn't going to throw it out!). While I could see the feral cats enjoying themselves, I also fully expected to see some buzzards landing, which would have been interesting in downtown Chicago. Luckily, my Dad reminded me that I was allergic to strawberries before we started on dessert, so we didn't have to spend any time in the emergency room. He picked up a pickled tongue sandwich for my Mom at the deli we should have just gone to, and told her that everything had been so good that it was gone by the time he got to my party. She was never told the truth, and died two and a half months later happily thinking that I had made the big leap to cook that she never had.
So, for those of you who have wondered why Indri explains that she grew up eating "turkey roll" for Thanksgiving, you finally have the answer.
Did Mom ever get better at it? No, and we didn't care; those Thanksgivings we didn't spend with my grandparents or my friend Kristin's family, we stayed home and ate turkey roll (which conveniently has both light and dark meat, so everyone's happy), cranberry sauce sliced from the can, frozen green beans with lots of butter, and perfectly fluffy mashed potatoes from a box. There was something for everyone to do in the kitchen, clean-up was easy, and sometimes we got crazy and read at the table, just to punch up the relaxed nature of the event. One year we didn't bother to cook at all, but went to a bookstore, bought a couple dozen books, and went to Denny's and let them cook while we happily read and ate together as a family.
Now I need to pack up my cranberry and green grape relish, made with white wine and fresh ginger, orange juice and lime juice, and get going to a dinner with Princess the food critic and a bunch of foodies I don't know, who I hope will not notice that I did not follow the recipe's instructions to add salt and pepper to taste because I didn't trust myself to get it right. But I hope everyone has had as happy and stress-free a holiday as possible, and is enjoying the weekend!