Y’all, It’s Only Dinner

I grew up in a household that was, in a lot of ways, a spot-on 1950s suburban stereotype. (Never mind I was born in 1964.) The kids played outside until sunset and rode unfettered in the way-back of a station wagon, the family watched television together, we traveled to see various grandparents at Christmas. There were, of course, large and small differences, one of which was Thanksgiving. We almost never traveled on Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving it was the four of us: my mom and dad, my older brother, and me.

I have some fond memories of childhood Thanksgivings. When we’d finish early enough in the day, we’d drive to a nearby park and walk for a while. At the time, I was somewhat resentful at being hauled out of my food-induced stupor to stomp through curated nature, but clear fall evenings tend to be lovely here: cold, with that peculiar odor of dry decay that puts me in mind of fireplaces, warmth, and comfort.

I did, and still do, have a complicated relationship with traditional Thanksgiving food. Turkey has a nice flavor, but is often too dry, no matter what you do. Stuffing can be lovely, but too many people add mushrooms. I liked the marshmallows on the candied sweet potatoes, but not the potatoes themselves. I’ve never been a fan of green bean casserole, although I love green beans. And despite being a New England girl all my life, I’ve never liked cranberry sauce, homemade or otherwise.

I did love the display of the cranberry sauce, which we’d always buy in cans. (I guess that makes it cranberry jelly. I don’t eat it either way.) It would be displayed on a crisp white serving dish, and would sit there, cylindrical and perfect, the ridges from the can etched into it in gleaming rings. I was always disappointed when people would be careless slicing it, which they always were. Nobody else properly appreciated the shape.

The revelation, of course, was the powdered mashed potatoes. I loved them. I bought them for years, even after I was living on my own. The advent of microwaves made them the perfect snack food: a couple of tablespoons of flakes in a bowl, a little milk, a ton of butter, and you have a delicious, high-carb, zillion-calorie warm-and-fuzzy snack.

There were a lot of good things about Thanksgivings when I was a kid, and really only one unfortunate thing: the preparation of the meal.

When Spouse and I celebrated our first Thanksgiving together, my mother called me that morning, as cooking was beginning. (I think that might have been the Year of the Tofurkey, which was a spectacular visual failure but really kind of yummy.)

“Is everything okay?” she asked me, conspiratorially.

“Sure!” I said.

There was a pause. “…Really?”

And of course I knew what she meant.

When you move in with someone, one of the first things you recognize is differences in housekeeping. This is actually a pretty big deal for me. I’m not a neat person. I draw the line at food waste, but for the most part I don’t spend a lot of time picking up. I’m accustomed to clutter, to the point where most normal people have been driven to distraction before I notice enough to be bothered, never mind do something about it. I’ve improved over the years, but I have a long way to go.

My father started cooking when I was about 10. My mother had some law school classes in the evenings, and children with school in the morning couldn’t wait until 10:00 at night to have dinner. He became quite good at it, and for a long time he really enjoyed it. My mother was always a good cook, but I had the impression she never liked the process that much.

Because of the number of dishes involved in Thanksgiving dinner, they prepared it together. And this is where housekeeping comes in.

There are a lot of ways to handle cleanup when you’re cooking a big meal. There’s clean-as-you-go. There’s clean-in-intervals. There’s clean-it-all-at-the-end. All of these can work, but I’ve found people become very attached to their particular method, to the point that deviation from it–in particular by the other cooks involved–can cause, shall we say, friction.

My mom is clean-as-you-go. My dad? Worry about scraping stuff off the ceiling when everybody’s fed and happy and sent home full. Both of these work fine, but they are utterly incompatible.

Things always started fairly well. My dad, like most people who consider themselves logical, couldn’t argue with clean-as-you-go. In the beginning, my mom could keep up with the splashes and spills and dishes in the sink.

But things go wrong with cooking. Things always go wrong with cooking. And as soon as something goes wrong, your timing goes straight to hell.

Contingency plans have never been my dad’s strong suit, and in the kitchen, he essentially had none. When there would be a hiccup–the cream curdled, someone bought the wrong vegetables, the turkey was still frozen in the center–his solution was not to adapt his timeline, but to work faster.

And the first thing he jettisoned when he wanted to work faster was clean-as-you-go.

I absorbed most of this through a closed door, in my room where I could safely ignore the chaos until someone told us dinner was ready. (Heaven help you if you got hungry and asked when dinner would be done, or worse, needed a snack.) But every year, as the appointed dinner hour would approach and inevitably pass, I’d hear more raised voices, more angry tones, more defensiveness. Sometimes it got very, very bad. (Sometimes I think my hearing is bad not because of all the loud concerts I went to in my 20s, but because I listened to records under headphones during holiday meal prep.) (Although to be fair, it was more likely that one Afghan Whigs show at The Paradise.)

My dad was always loud and boisterous at meals. This would have nothing to do with the mood of anyone else in the room: Thanksgiving dinner was Happy Family Time™, come hell or high water, and if he wasn’t feeling it, by God he’d act it. I always found that to be something of a relief, but I’ve always been more like him that way: I’d rather fake good cheer than deal with passive-aggressive anger. I expect my mother sometimes brightened up only because she didn’t want to disappoint me.

No wonder I liked the walks afterward. Thanksgiving was exhausting.

Later in life, when we were both out of college, my brother and I independently adopted the same tactic: we’d show up for Thanksgiving as close to the announced mealtime as we could. This worked well for us. Less so for my parents, I suspect. These days when we have a holiday meal at their house the food is usually take-out, prepared by a local gourmet grocery. It’s perfectly delicious, although the mashed potatoes aren’t powdered. (I have learned to live with this.)

Spouse and I cook pretty well together. I, like my mother, am a cook-when-I-have-to cook (although I love making cakes and cookies, which I do rarely because we would all eat nothing but). Spouse often enjoys it. I am good at following directions: I can stir and add and monitor, and wash tools that will be needed more than once. Mutual irritability does happen, but it’s rare; I think we’re both aware we’re trying to accomplish the same thing as best we can, and simply have communication disconnects sometimes.

How old was I when I learned that there were alternatives to conflict resolution besides faked good cheer and passive-aggressive anger?

For a lot of reasons, Thanksgiving has never been a big deal for me. I like seeing family, but we have the big family party at Christmas. My Thanksgivings have taken on multiple permutations over the years, including at least one I spent on my own. (I ordered pizza and rented movies. It was lovely.) For me, it falls into the category of Big Food holidays, like the 4th of July or various school graduations: pleasant enough, but not a deep and abiding tradition.

But it gets some credit for teaching me that whatever else pisses me off in my life, I’m never going to get mad at anyone over food.

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