A Literary Thanksgiving
Local writers help set the table
We’ve all had memorable home-cooked meals, but for Americans, Thanksgiving dinners — where family, food, tradition and reality collide — can be especially hard to forget. Some Thanksgivings inspire us to serve our forebears’ recipes to our children and grandchildren. Others inspire us to flee the kitchen and eat out on that Thursday in November.
We asked five Vermont writers to choose a dish — or a drink — on the Thanksgiving table and tell us what it means to them.
Perhaps, it occurs to me now, I ought to blame the sad particulars of my Thanksgiving memories on my grandmother. The nausea, I mean. The loss of appetite. The food poisoning. After all, it was her kitchen where my mother and my aunt learned to cook. Or didn’t learn. We alternated between their two houses for the Thanksgivings of my youth, and the strategies the two of them brought to roasting the holiday bird couldn’t have been more different. My aunt sneaked up on the poor thing from behind, while my mother made an all-out, guns-blazing, take-no-prisoners assault.
Aiming for a bird with an internal temperature of 165 degrees, my aunt would set her oven to precisely 170. She’d do this some time around Halloween, wait for the oven to come up to temperature and then put in the bird. When you’d enter her house at suppertime on Thanksgiving day, you’d find in the air no telltale suggestion of a roasting turkey. Open the oven, and you’d find within it a pale and discouraged-looking bird, still half alive by the look and feel of it, lonesome and forlorn and disturbingly lukewarm.
By contrast, when my mother’s turn came she’d pop out of bed on Thanksgiving morning, set the oven as high as it would go, and shove in the bird. Six or seven hours later, somewhere around noon, she’d give it a look. If it was smoking, it needed another hour. If it was on fire, it was almost done. The result was a turkey that — unlike my aunt’s — was at least edible (if not digestible). The long-term result, on the other hand, is that these days — now that my own generation is responsible for Thanksgiving dinner — we eat out.
Thanks for that, Grandma.
That my mother loved desserts is well documented in the recipes she wrote out on the yellowed end pages of her two favorite cookbooks, Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking and Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book: Mrs. Norton’s Cake, Lillian’s Delicious Bread Pudding, Mrs. Crocker’s Pinwheels.
Even more than sugar, my mother loved maple syrup. In her “Kitchen Secrets,” a bespattered spiral notebook, I find her recipes for maple syrup cake, maple syrup mousse, maple custard, maple fudge, maple icing, and maple corn muffins. Just reading them makes my teeth ache.
Small wonder, then, that at Thanksgiving her mashed sweet potatoes were whipped with cream, laced with maple syrup and topped with a mound of roasted marshmallows. What she didn’t seem to realize was that sweet potatoes are born sweet.
Even Irma Rombauer didn’t think much of the marshmallow business, an excess she couldn’t quite stomach. In an acerbic footnote to the recipe she begrudgingly offered in the 1946 edition, she says that adding marshmallows to any baked sweet potato dish “is a matter of taste or lack of taste.”
Yet my mother soldiered on despite Irma’s disapproval, buying a fresh bag at the beginning of every holiday season. Perversely, my brother and I had nary a sweet tooth between us, though I remember our thrill at the idea of candy being served at dinner. Had the adults vacated their thrones of authority? Could we start making rude remarks?
Intrigued by what I was learning about my mother in the course of writing this, I dug deeper into her “Kitchen Secrets ” and was startled to find a recipe for Ice Cream Dagmar. Dagmar, that busty wonder of the 1950s? (The cream is whipped into sizable peaks before freezing.) Then I found a recipe for Mamie Eisenhower’s Pumpkin Pie. Now, that’s more like it. There’s Mom.
And, no, she wasn’t fat.
We ask the same questions every Thanksgiving. How to cook all that food with only four burners? What’s that ratio of turkey weight to cook time? And my own recurring inquiry: Why can’t we remember the answers?
We’re with my dear friend, Peg, and the rest of the King family in Portland, Ore. The morning begins with our husbands curled up on the couch in bathrobes from the Far East, reading out loud to each other from a stack of cookbooks.
Inevitably my husband will leap up and scream, “We forgot the cheesecloth!” The two men rush to the closest Fred Meyer store.
Meanwhile, Peg and I attend to our top priority — crushing ice cubes to a Slurpee-like consistency with hammers. We’ve been cultivating ice cubes for two days because store-bought ice has an aftertaste. Only the freshest will do for the great King family Thanksgiving tradition: bourbon slushes.
All you need is bourbon, preferably Maker’s Mark, and about one tray of pulverized ice per drink. No cooking. No cheesecloth. No timers or basters. The bourbon goes down as smooth as puréed squash. And after one, you don’t care if you even have Thanksgiving dinner.
By 4 p.m., our husbands will have cooked, choreographed and served the entire meal. Peg’s brother, Johnny, will have made his sole contribution by stirring the gravy at the exact moment the cooking picture is taken. Peg’s brother-in-law, Charles, will be humming old ELO songs. Peg’s father, John, who doesn’t even imbibe but has used a black Sharpie to draw a mustache on his face, will be trying to scrub it off to no avail. Peg and I, along with her sister Laurie and their mother, Maureen, will be sprawled on the couch in bathrobes from the Far East.
Peg and I will remark how grateful we are to bourbon slushes for making the day possible. Then someone, and I can never recall who, will toast to husbands Allan Nicholls and Mark Hails for making the King family Thanksgiving the most memorable day of the year.
Nancy Stearns Bercaw
In Sighnaghi, Georgia, every day was Thanksgiving. I mean Georgia the nation, not the state — Sighnaghi is the mountain village where I spent the autumn of 2006 while singing folk music with Marshfield-based group Village Harmony. Nearly every night a supra, or feast, was held. A long table was laden with plates of wild mushrooms pickled in spices, khachapuri cheese bread, and eggplants roasted in Georgia’s plentiful sunflower oil and covered in ruby pomegranate jewels. And, of course, wine. The Georgians claim to have invented the stuff 10,000 years ago, and it has bound their culture together ever since.
The supra itself is a cultural institution and follows set patterns where the tamada, or toastmaster, gives thanks for the bountiful food, for God’s protection, for the health of the supra’s guests, for their families, and for their animals and crops. During each toast, the table is silent and attentive; drinking is not allowed until after the toast has concluded. Then everyone at the table bellows, “Gaumarjos!” — “For your victory!” — and throws back a glass of dark wine, so red as to be almost black, or of that year’s fresh harvest wine, golden and sweet. These toasts can last up to 20 minutes, and the supras often continue long into the night as more dishes of food materialize, piling on top of others.
Since it’s considered impolite to drink without toasting, every few minutes guests spring up and give thanks for something, wax philosophic or recite poetry. After a particularly rousing toast, the table often erupts into song: eerie, reverent, three-part harmonies cascading over one another, ringing in the stone house until I would stumble home on the cobblestones, full nearly to bursting.
For me, that particular Thanksgiving passed without much notice, just one day among many full of feasts and songs — but I have never been in such a state of constant gratitude.
Ben Aleshire is a poet and editor of Burlington-based literary journal The Salon.
Alison Bechdel is the creator of comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” and the author of graphic memoir Fun Home.
Nancy Stearns Bercaw is a journalist who is working on two nonfiction books, Swimming with the Dead and Brain in a Jar.
Jon Clinch is the author of the novels Finn and Kings of the Earth.
Mary Hays is the author of the novel Learning to Drive.