Turkey Day is nearly upon us!
Everyone in the States will know what I mean. This coming Thursday, the entire country is going to stop everything, jam the trains, planes, buses and highways, sit down with family, loved or otherwise, and eat roast turkey with all its trimmings. (We also get Friday off to deal with the leftovers. Turkey sandwiches, anyone? Turkey hash? Turkey soup?)
Why are we doing this? Because the Pilgrims survived their first year of hardship in the New World. At least, that’s what the kiddies learn in school, beginning with kindergarten.
It’s also a wonderful annual opportunity for aging parents to make adult children feel guilty if they don’t try to surmount all obstacles, gather up their own little children, and come. In order properly to appreciate the trouble and aggravation involved, you should bear in mind that the adult children, if married, have at least two sets of aging parents to placate. Divorced and remarried aging parents make the calculus even more complicated: “Mom, we’re going there this year. We came to you last year, remember?”
Poultry farmers and other representatives of the food industry also have a heavy burden of responsibility here, but that’s another kind of post, so I ‘m not getting into it. (Not today, anyway.)
A few words of explanation are in order for friends in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and everywhere else where English is spoken (and therefore read). I omit Canadians because they’re our neighbors, and surely know.
In 1620, members of a radical Puritan faction that had separated from the Church of England and were seeking religious freedom set sail for America in a ship called the Mayflower — a replica of which you can visit if you ever come to Plymouth, Massachusetts. It had room for only 120 passengers in its unheated hold. No bunks, no toilets. And you thought flying coach was hard!
We now call them the Pilgrims. They were aiming for Virginia, where a first English colony had been established. (That would be Jamestown, remembered today chiefly for an Indian maiden named Pocohontas who saved the life of one John Smith by placing her head upon his when her father raised his war club to do him in. She was all of twelve. But I digress.)
Our Pilgrims got lost. They landed at the tip of Cape Cod, in what is now Massachusetts. Then in mid-December, they moved on to the western side of Cape Cod Bay, where they eventually built a fort, watchtower and living quarters — in what they named Plimouth Colony.
But first they had to get through the rest of the winter on the Mayflower. Half of them died. Harsh weather, not enough to eat. Whoever said becoming part of a nation’s mythology is easy?
A year after landing, on the last Thursday in November 1621, the sixty survivors gave thanks with a feast. They gratefully ate tough stringy wild fowl which they had shot — a distant progenitor of today’s over-plump turkeys. They ate pre-GMO corn, which the local Wampanoag Indians had taught them to grow. They had carrots, from seed brought from England. I think they had wormy apples. And maybe they had nuts, berries, and cranberries from the bog. Pumpkins — also part of the tradition — I don’t know about.
And now here we are, 392 years later, with supermarket flyers clogging our mailboxes, and then our garbage cans, clamoring for us to come get one, get one now! Before they’re all gone! Choose frozen turkey, fresh turkey, free-range turkey, honey-basted turkey. There are twelve-pounders, sixteen-pounders, twenty-pounders. [Try staggering out to your car with a couple of those if you’ve been so foolish as to invite the entire extended family!] There’s even vegan “turkey” — made of soy or textured vegetable protein or some such substance — for the pure of soul and body.
I hate turkey. And I hate all that goes with it, starting with the moist bread (or cornbread) stuffing that’s held together with more melted butter than I consume in a year, plus all the turkey fat that’s dripped into it during four or more hours in the oven. I hate thick grayish-brown gravy, even when laced with cooking sherry. I hate glisteningly sticky-sweet potatoes, and also hate your great-grandmother’s special whipped sweet potato fluff. I hate creamed onions, puffy white rolls, jellied cranberry sauce that slides out of a can. (Sugared cranberries swimming in a dish get no kudos from me, either.) I’m not overly fond of brussels sprouts, that time-honored Thanksgiving vegetable. (String beans, if you’re having them, are all right.) And I’m not a big fan of pumpkin pie, pecan pie, or apple pie a la mode — especially not when all three are lined up next to each other on the groaning board and I have to choose a slice of at least one so as not to offend the hostess.
It wasn’t always thus. On my first Thanksgiving as my second husband’s bride, I brought home fresh oysters to make a New York Times Cookbook stuffing. I clarified the drippings from the pan for gravy. Eschewing bakeries, I made my own pumpkin pie (in a purchased crust), laboring over a real pumpkin, not canned pumpkin puree.
Then came the children. And twenty-five years of it.
- Twenty-five years of stuffing turkeys.
- Twenty-five years of unstuffing them again. (Leaving uneaten stuffing in the turkey is a no-no.)
- Twenty-five years of dirty dishes and greasy pans. Help from the family? Are you kidding? The football game is on!
- Twenty-five years of Tupperware containers full of leftovers in the fridge.
- Twenty-five years of “Turkey again?”
One son — with wife and little ones — is in Florida, where they are wisely not flying anywhere and making do with a chicken which the children will probably not eat. (They are pastaholics.)
The other son — also with wife and little ones — is in New York City, where they usually go to her family. Which we eventually got used to. And then this year they didn’t. They invited us. Consternation! We are too old for Penn Station at Thanksgiving. They said they forgave us. But did they? We’re going to see them on Saturday instead. Maybe they’ll have disposed of the turkey by then. Given the leftovers to a lonely doorman?
Bill hates eating turkey, too. (He’s never had to deal with the cooking and cleaning up, so his hate is entirely taste-driven.) Actually, he used to hate eating everything with a face and feet, but over the years we have met half way. Turkey is still on his kill list, though.
So what, in God’s name, are we going to eat on Thursday? I have been asking myself this question for a couple of days. Last night, God answered. Bill asked me sweetly: “How about brisket for Thanksgiving?”
Last spring, Bill discovered brisket at Bon Appetit, our local purveyor of fine cooked foods, foreign delicacies, cold cuts and cheese. He really liked it. Liked it so much, he went back the next day to buy more. Then — Passover being over — brisket disappeared from Bon Appetit.
Bon Appetit probably won’t be doing brisket for Thanksgiving. But I have a worn copy of The Jewish Festival Cookbook. I have access to Epicurious. I have the butcher at Whole Foods. (He must have a nice piece of beef brisket hidden away in his freezer, just for me.) Then all I need is lots of onions and garlic and tomatoes and time.
This Thursday, I ‘m giving thanks to brisket. You can come for dinner if you like.