It starts with lists. Lists of recipes broken down into lists of ingredients. This year, I ordered the staples: cream of chicken soup, evaporated milk, chicken broth, potatoes, etc. online and had them delivered to my car by a friendly young man at an appointed rendezvous time and place (the backside of the mega store’s parking lot between eight and nine AM). My daughters wanted ham instead of turkey, so I downsized the turkey and shopped around for the ham. I tried to utilize our local small markets, but I couldn’t beat the local chain’s turkey prices, and the meat market’s hams were much too large. I love selecting fresh produce, so I visited a few different venues in search of beets and turnips and beans.
I made the cranberry sauce the day before. It cooks slowly in the crock pot and infuses the house with a nostalgic holiday fragrance. I made cornbread for the stuffing, which the dog proceeded to completely devour as I showered, so I made cornbread, a second time, after the shower. I also made the pies. This year I opted for sweet potato. I usually do pumpkin or apple. I didn’t make the crust myself; to be honest, since moving south, I have never been able to get the crust consistency right. My eldest daughter made a vegan apple tart. She is at a stage in her burgeoning adulthood that rejects my culinary coaching. As I know my way around a kitchen, it is hard for me not to make suggestions: pear an apple like this, melt butter like this, prevent crust from burning like this, so I cleaned the house. I hail from two of those families that can’t have people over unless the house is clean, which generally means, I can’t have people over. While my husband power-washed the porch, I laid out my game plan, figured out my timeline, and tried to account for surprises. I made sure the turkey was thawing.
Thursday morning, my youngest daughter and I went to the gym for a little Pre-Thanksgiving boot camp. The air was brisk for Florida, there was a slight breeze, and the sun was shining. An auspicious beginning. When I got back to the house my oldest daughter and her boyfriend had seized my kitchen. He wanted to make a sweet yam casserole for his family. He takes my coaching better, so I had suggested he steam the yams, as steaming keeps the flavor. I explained that it was not necessary to take the time to peel the yams because the steam would separate the skin from the root. I forgot to mention that he needed to make sure all the water in the pan didn’t burn off. I returned home to the smell of burnt.
Because the turkey had not thawed enough in the refrigerator, I had placed it in the sink basin in cold water overnight. I was supposed to refresh the water frequently, which I failed to do. In fact, the water slowly drained out of the sink, but the turkey was still cold to the touch in the morning, so I wagered we would be safe from contamination. In years past, I stuffed the turkey with orange quarters fresh from the trees in my side yard. Hurricanes and disease have decimated my trees. I improvised with lemon, apple, an orange from the store and celery leaves. Nobody noticed the difference.
I also make stuffing in the crock pot. The recipe is foolproof, culled from a 2010 Southern Living magazine. Mix the ingredients, set on low, and forget about it. When I was first married, before I had too many jobs, I made fresh bread. It was a labor of love. There is no smell more delicious than the smell of fresh baked bread. Or fresh mowed lawn. Or linen dried on a line. But this first of simplest pleasures, I cast aside for expediency. With I slightly ashamed heart I aligned frozen balls of dough on the baking sheet. I covered them with a cotton cloth and let them rest and rise. I peeled potatoes and placed them in cool water to keep them pristine, I chopped beets and turnips and marinated them in rosemary and olive oil, and I snipped beans. I sauteed the few beet greens in olive oil and garlic in remembrance of my childhood. My step-grandmother would never have wasted these; she grew the beets herself, although she would have prepared them with vinegar. I ate them as an offering. I drank a glass of Merlot. I took a short nap.
The rest of the preparation was just a timing game. The turkey was roasting by ten, the ham was baking by one. The rolls and vegetables and yam casserole added to the oven at 1:30. Potatoes steamed and mashed. You can never use too much sour cream or butter, but be careful when you add the milk. Add the roux slowly when you make the gravy; don’t let the broth boil. I chose to forgo the fancy dishes, instead used random plates and cutlery. When it was all said and done, I forgot to whip the cream for the pies, instead used it for the coffee.
And then we ate. And then I cleaned up. And then, bone tired, I retreated to the bonfire under the full moon.
And this is when I had time to reflect. And I wanted to feel grateful, but I’m not sure I did. I believe my attention to detail was a testament to the love I feel for my family, but it was also a way for me to distract myself from longing and nostalgia and regret and fear. This has been a difficult year. I am good at compartmentalizing. I come from a long line of capable and efficient women. But facing a roaring fire with gentle moonlight cascading over my shoulder, I cried quietly, secretly.
I felt guilty for crying. I was supposed to be giving thanks, but I cried nonetheless. I cried for those who were alone and hungry, I cried for the war torn and disenfranchised, I cried because my friends and family were far away, I cried for my own cracked heart and the broken hearts of so many others. I cried because sometimes it is hard to access gratitude buried below the layers of pain and suffering of a world which seems bent on un-becoming. Sometimes it is hard to access gratitude, even on the day when greeting cards tell you it is most important to be grateful. Even on the day of endless posts and tweets about appreciation. I cried. And it’s okay if you cried too. Because crying is a release. Sometimes. Crying cleanses. Sometimes. I cried. And then I slept and dreamt and woke up and peed and made the coffee and walked the dog.