Ode to a Bowl
Thanksgiving represents for me some of my happiest growing up memories. My grandmother's house was the traditional gathering place, with the usual cast of family characters: besides my grandmother and grandfather, there was my mother and me, my aunt and uncle and two cousins (both older), and my grandmother's sisters and their families. I, as the very youngest of the clan, was engrossed in absorbing the traditions rather than involving myself in the usual tensions. For the past thirty-five or so years, I've managed to maintain many of those traditions, though most of them have to do with preparing the meal. Let me just emphasize, here, that for most of that time, Thanksgiving dinner was the only meal I cooked all year, using up all my annual allotment of cooking energy in this one, magnificent and memorable meal. I have my grandmother to thank for this. She taught me how to do it up right, and I still, to this day, insist on using most of her recipes. I may add dishes to appease my guests, but the regulars all know that they get the exact same menu that my grandmother served from the 1940s through the 1970s, and her mother and her mother before her served. I won't bore you with all the details of the recipes, but I will say that the secret to our success is unsalted butter (like two or three pounds of it). The stuffing is simply sourdough bread, onion and celery, with one of the pounds of butter plus about three times the poultry seasoning that any typical recipe calls for, and it is, indeed, stuffed into the turkey because more than its own good taste, it adds so much flavor to the turkey. Don't tell anyone, but I usually sneak a chunk or two of the really crunchy part every time I baste the turkey. Here's where the bowl comes in. My grandmother used her grandmother's bread making bowl to mix up the dressing. It wasn't a very pretty bowl, clay with a fired brown glaze, and boy was it heavy. I used that same bowl, just like my grandmother did, to make my stuffing for many of those thirty-five years, until my children got a little too rambunctious one day and knocked it off the kitchen counter. Yes, as heavy as it was it crashed hard on the floor and I came home to half a bowl and hundreds of little chunks and tiny shards. The bowl and all its pieces are now safely stored away in a decorative hat box. . .I can't bear to throw it out. Anyway, the stuffing requires the biggest bird I can find. The turkey itself is coated in salt the night before, then I use the second pound of butter to coat him (or her) before going in the oven and for basting at strict thirty minute intervals. All this butter allows me to cook the darn thing for twice as long as label instructions suggest, and not dry it out (contrary to my tastes, my grandmother preferred her turkey a little pink). Hence the reason I start cooking at the ungodly hour of 4:00 AM. The skin comes out the most beautiful golden brown you'd ever see. It truly is a work of art. Here's where I deviate from my grandmother's recipes. For some unknown reason, she loved the canned cranberry sauce, right down to the ridges from the can (she took off both ends of the can and a single jiggly mass just fell right out onto the plate). I hated it then and I hate it now, so I make cranberries from scratch and I'm telling you, I could win awards for my cranberries. I remember the first year that I was allowed to sit at the dining room table (young children were usually seated at the kitchen table, but I eventually was the only child left so I got promoted to the adult table earlier than the other cousins). I was seated in the middle of one of the long sides, next to a much older cousin I adored, so I had a pretty good vantage point from which to watch and listen everything going on around me. The conversation was like multiple Pong balls hitting the four sided space (who remembers this early video game?). Over the years I've hosted a variety of groups for Thanksgiving, not always limited to family. Some of my happier years were spent overseas feeding Army soldiers who didn't have their own families yet. A couple of years ago, I even got the opportunity to serve our warrior soldiers in Afghanistan. This year I jump back into the routine after a two-year hiatus, and I've got to admit I'm looking forward to it. Happy Thanksgiving to all, and to all a great feast.