Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

:::Blowing dust off blog:::: Anyone out there? A rough year for me. Rough. A rough decade. A rough 15 years. I just finished reading a mystery by Dick Francis (a friend had recommended him to me, and I thought, "nah," but then I thought, "She has good taste," and I've been enjoying the books,) in between reading about Merv Griffin and his hustler boy pool parties with Liberace, or books about how we become autonomous and why. In this particular Francis mystery, Rat Race, the protagonist, a pilot, befriends a jockey and his twin sisters, one of whom has leukemia. They are a united family and enjoy each other's company. The pilot sees the healthy sister, reflecting on her sick twin, and he thinks, "I knew she was thinking of Midge. Face something big enough and you always have to grow up."

That sentence stuck with me all day, "Face something big enough and you have to grow up." I've had to face a lot of big somethings in the last decade, foremost the loss of my parents, but other things. The school of hard knocks. I was trying to decide what to do about Thanksgiving this year. In my early youth, Thanksgiving was just our immediate family, plus my aunt and uncle, but she died when I was seven, and that ended until my parents, with two other church families decided to do this trade-off: where the families would rotate Thanksgiving between the three, theoretically to give the women every two years off. Reflecting back, I don't see how this was "better," per se in that "yes" you got time off, but when it was your turn, you were cooking for 20.

My mother was a masterful cook, and everyone always said, "This is her favorite holiday, where her cooking skills shine," but thinking today of how it would be: my father screaming at me the night before to set the formal table, having the crystal washed and the silver polished, and just the sheer tension the whole next day; which was odd, because my parents constantly entertained, and a level most people wouldn't believe. Once I started doing Thanksgiving myself, it struck me as more odd (the stress,) because you can cook everything (theoretically) the day before. I'm still pondering that one. One friend speculated that maybe my mother saw this as some test of her womanhood, or just testing in general, and performance anxiety set in. Maybe. I'm not sure.

Yesterday, I took off early and hit Whole Foods to pick up my "on order" free range turkey. It was horrible in there. Just horrible. I stopped counting how many times I had a cart slammed into my body after 20. And yet. The woman who works in the vitamins section that I've befriended came up and gave me a big hug, and we stood in the swirling aisle chatting and ignoring the hubbub. She even walked with me to my checkout lane, while we continued chatting. More hugs. Nice.

While I was in there, I was studying the pies. They had them on a large baker's rack. The pumpkin looked...bleh. Pale undercooked crusts with overcooked fillings. Sweating. The cherry and apple held portent of sour fruit and cardboard crust. A German man was standing next to me and he saw me rejecting pie after pie, and I guess I mumbled, "That's not even cooked," and he said, "Zees pies are not kooked?" I reassured him that they were, but how do you translate, "They are both overcooked and undercooked?" I went over to the dessert section and studied the cakes. Better. This woman next to me: a tiny little thing who looked like Andy Warhol's Sylvia Miles in the face (and voice,) but had on weird apr├Ęs-ski wear: Fair Isle knits and furry boots and a cluster of diamond rings on every single finger. She kept screaming (to this very well dressed mature man,) "ALLEN (pure New York.) ALLEN!!! I'VE SCORED!!! Beaming. A peach cake. I thought, "If I were Allen, my peach pits would be shriveling right now at hearing my name screeched that way.

Later that night, I took a picture of the turkey in my refrigerator and sent it to friends. My buddy Drew emailed back, "I can't believe how tidy your refrigerator is compared to mine!" I wrote back, "I was just thinking it doesn't look tidy at all." I was also studying that bottle of Veuve Clicquot that's been sitting in there since last New Year's.

When my mother took sick, we tried to sustain Thanksgiving, but it was such sadness. You would hand her a potato and potato peeler, and she would have this sad little smile on her face. So much wanting to be part of things, but no longer remembering. My San Francisco friend Lisa instant messaged me last night. Her mother, widowed and living in their home town 90 miles out of San Francisco, fell and broke her hip and had to have emergency hip replacement surgery. I told Lisa that for a stretch (in this lost period of my life,) I spent close to eight Thanksgivings between two parents, always in the hospital, either missing Thanksgiving totally, or eating it in a hospital cafeteria at noon so they could close early, or not having it at all: Chinese in an underheated house with my mother saying "Why isn't Papa here?" To quote John Lee Hooker, "Don't Look Back." I felt for Lisa. She has a lot of difficult choices facing her in the next months. "Something big enough and you have to grow up."

I was supposed to have Thanksgiving today out in Eldersburg at a former neighbor (and friend's) sister's house. I had even met with all involved, and we had talked about the day, what to eat, etc. Then by the time last week rolled around, and no proper invitation was forthcoming, I realized I didn't want to be an afterthought, nor ignored for whatever reasoning, and I was going to have to make up my mind what to do. In those years after my parents, I tried it all: going to the ocean, eating at a fancy restaurant, eating buffet at a restaurant, not eating turkey food at all (Chinese, Indian,) going to the movies all day. Nothing seemed to satisfy. Then I started cooking for older people I knew, and that entailed a new set of skills: cooking for the elderly. I've blogged on that topic before. The last of the women died last fall, and I took on the responsibility of her estate--something I have sworn I will never do again (and I've done it a lot.)

I thought I finally had her house sold. It was on the market since February. I had restored it without going insane in expenditure, and there it sat with nary a nibble until recently. A D.C. schoolteacher was going to buy it. Settlement date was the 24th (this week,) and then on Monday, (thank you Michelle Rhee,) her work hours were cut back, the bank said, "Nope!" and the deal fell through. Back to square one. Plus I had been putting pressure on myself for weeks to be over there in filthy packrat conditions (have you see A&E's Hoarders? Then you know.) In garden sheds, in the attic, in the basement. Vermin droppings, untouched decades of dust. Hello Miss Haversham. So that bad news.

This was the first Thanksgiving I truly had no responsibility to honor the holiday other than for myself. I thought I could easily ignore it, but I thought, "Why?" Why not do it and use the time to remember, to think of my future, to be thankful for the blessings of simple things. And so I got up this morning and began (and this photo blog is mainly for the amusement of my friends, so if it bores you, come back later and I'll be writing about what a total loser Lord Byron was or the Romanov jewels or magical thinking and luck.) I am getting ready to write again on a more regular basis.

The first thing I made was crinkle carrots in a curry-butter-brown sugar glaze. Easy peezy and put them in the fridge for later.

A friend told me just this week how his mother always put roasted chestnuts in her dressing. I've always made what my mother made: old-fashioned cornbread-white bread sage stuffing. But I thought, "Chestnuts? Sure." They had chestnuts from Italy at Whole Foods. They also came already done and in a jar, but for something like $14.00 for a tiny jar. I thought, "Google!"

I put out peanuts for the squirrels this morning, and they came running. I watched them while they watched me. We call this ritual, "The floor show." One of them said to me, "I hear you have Italian chestnuts roasting in what's with the peanuts?" I went and got him a chestnut.

Scored with the cross mark of Christ's death and resurrection and served at the time of his birth. Memento Mori. In truth? To let the steam out so they don't explode in your oven.

Not a dud in the bunch. I read online this morning. You should put them in cold water to begin. If one floats? Toss it. If they don't pop open? Toss it. Even then, you may peel and find one rotten inside. Not my fancy dancy Italians. They were like Fabio on Top Chef. "We are not purrfict, no?"

Perfezione! Bella!

Now that the oven was free, it was time to start the turkey. Just a peek at turkey porn, and it's not a pay-per-view site:

I never put stuffing in the 'boid. ("ALLEN! It's the poifect boid!") I put in a chopped onion, an apple, an orange, a lemon, and some thyme and rosemary. Actually, while all of this was going on, I was thinking of that movie Avalon, set in Baltimore, and the family that is perpetually late to the family meals. "You cut the toikey without us? You CUT the toikey?"

This was me goofing on taking pictures with one hand, while cooking with the other. Taters. Lots of taters.

Buddah and Organic Cream Cheese. Lots of buddah.

Whisk, whisk.

Whip, whip

There will be no lumps in these taters! Did I ever tell you I went out one rainy Thanksgiving night with my highly stylish friend Mark? We were going to see Leaving Las Vegas where Nicholas Cage basically drinks himself to death. Mark had a briefcase. We were at the Dupont Theatre. Pouring. Torential. We get seated and Mark pops open the briefcase. It was a traveling bar. Rye predominated. Every time Nicholas Cage (a raging alcoholic) had a drink, we had a drink. Mark and I still giggle about that night. I don't remember a thing about the movie. Cage dies at some point, and Elisabeth Shue wore this great bustier by Vivienne Westwood.

I mixed a can of whole berry sauce with some of my own. I had orange zest in it and only left that orange slice on top until I served the food later.

Ta Da! Nine pounds and four hours later...Let me tell you. This bird amazed me. I was dreading carving it. Not my best skill, plus I was tired at this point. But. I did the basic anatomy you do with a turkey: twisted off the wings, then the legs. The meat was so tender it fell right off the bone. I did the same thing with the main torso. Ripped off big hunks for ziploc bags and didn't carve at all. Into the freezer you go. Unlike Claudette Colbert, I could shoot this bird from any angle. It didn't have a bad side. I thought about The Road. I'm going to go see that this week. Isn't there a cannibalism scene in there?

After all that, I sure didn't eat much. That's a salad plate of my everyday and right purdy. And my mother's little quail (one of a pair.) There is so much butter on that plate, call me "Paula Deen, y'all." I chopped the chestnuts coarsely after debating grinding them up in the Cuisinart. They turned out beautifully. Now I want to explore things like chestnut soup.

...and the cake. Allen! The cake! On a pretty piece of Majolica pottery. German Black Forest. They had just put it out at Whole Foods. It tastes very fresh. The cherries are not cloyingly sweet, but have a "very slight" sourness and tasted of pure black cherry--real black cherries, not from a can. They were also between the layers. The cake was a mocha light chocolate (again, not overly sweet,) and the frosting was whipped cream and chocolate chips. It looks heavy and rich. And But mit schlag. Lots of schlag.

Happy Thanksgiving all. Guess what? Thanksgiving doesn't have to be dysfunctional. You can do it solo and have it be fun. Honor your holidays. Corny, yes, but of such things memories made.

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