Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Thanksgiving Memories

So, are you dreading the family Thanksgiving yet? Personally, I miss it. I miss coming downstairs in my flannel jammies, to where my mom--in her flannel robe and nightgown--would be rubbing butter and paprika onto the big, bald, pale turkey, and chopping up onions and bell peppers for the stuffing. The kitchen would smell like coffee and celery and onions sauteeing in butter, and I'd get right down to my T-day job: peeling the freshly boiled whole chestnuts. This took forever, and after an hour or so your thumbs would be bruised and your nails caked deep with mealy chestnut meat. But it had to be done, since only chestnut stuffing (first made with bags of those Pepperidge Farm herby bread cubes, then later with torn-up Acme levain I'd bring back from CA) happened in our house. No oysters, no sausage, no Laurie Colwin cornbread and proscuitto. (I still find the idea of shellfish or meat in stuffing very weird, although probably very tasty.)

As any chestnut-peeler can tell you, there's something very satisfying about getting a big chunk of the tight, monkey-haired inner shell off in one piece. More often, though, it took painstaking effort to wrest all the clingy scraps of inner peel off the wizened, brain-looking nut. The treat was sneaking crumbles of pasty-sweet chestnut, playing guess the composer on WQXR (Aaron Copeland, always a good guess on Thanksgiving), and blabbing and/or arguing with my middle sis, who was usually good for about 20 minutes of peeling before wandering off. (To this day, she doesn't cook. Ambiance is her forte, she says; otherwise, her kitchen skills are limited to reheating lattes and making Mommy's Pink Dip--ketchup and mayo, and held in high esteem by my nieces and nephew.)

I still remember, vividly, the first Thanksgiving spent away from home--besides the one pre-adolescent year when my parents got a wild hair and packed us all up to a cold and chilly Nantucket, to play on the beach in our parkas and have creamed onions and pie a la mode at the red-brick Jared Coffin House, and clam chowder and shoestring fries at the Brotherhood of Thieves tavern.

I was just 21 and sharing a futon with that same chestnut-peeling sister in a studio apartment in Chicago, back when she was a carefree, miniskirt-wearing 24 yr old with a lot of dates. My sis was off to Joliet with the boyfriend of the moment, an actor named Dan whom we called Dan II (to separate him from her previous boyfriend named Dan) and that she called Binky. (He called her Binky, too, and me Spud. So phone calls tended to start, "Hi Spud, it's Binky. Is Binky there?") I had gotten an invite from Heather, my bookstore co-worker, who was something like 26--older than me, anyway, and wildly cool.

She had brilliant red hair, came from Florida ("You know Tampa, home of nothing"), wore a black leather jacket, wrote for the New Art Examiner, and had friends who were poets and junkies. Her boyfriend was an artist with silky shoulder-length black hair whom she called Max, although, like Binky, I don't think that was his real name. In a few years, these kind of people would be my tribe in SF, but at the moment, they were my first real post-suburbia bohemians, and I was dazzled. Heather invited me to stay over at her and Max's place on Wednesday night, and gave me directions for the bus.

She called back a few minutes later to tell me to go to a different stop, a few blocks further west.

What's at the first one, I asked.

Gangs, she said succinctly.

I was suitably impressed. Her neighborhood, Wicker Park, is groovy and gentrified now, but back then, in the late 80s, it wasn't.

We went to the enormous Jewel supermarket a few blocks from her house, squeezing down the aisles to buy potatoes and Cafe Bustelo alongside big Latino families pushing two or three carts at once. Out on the back steps of their sprawling two-flat were buckets of oysters keeping cold. There was no turkey; instead, she casually mentioned, we were having fish. Fish for Thanksgiving! Like I said, they were cool. The next day, Max was installed on the back porch with a potholder and an oyster knife. There was cheap wine and a dozen or so of their equally cool, broke, artsy pals, all eating from mismatched plates, drinking and talking at a long table snaking its way through most of the house.

Later, I would throw a lot of Thanksgivings like this myself, collecting dozens of unmatched plates and folding chairs to go with the motley assemblage of waifs and strays all gathered for turkey and mashed potatoes, or quiche and vegan gravy (not at my house, I might add--I still do not believe that quiche is an adequate festival entree, even for vegetarians), or pepperoncini chicken and a huge pot of potatoes boiled and beaten into lumpy submission with the single wooden spoon in the house.

I still remember the legendary mashed potatoes made one year by my chef pal Sugarkill, who ransacked the fridge for every dairy product he could get his hands on-- butter, half and half, ricotta, feta cheese-- and made what still live in memory as Best. Potatoes. Ever, possibly because everyone was so starved for anything by the time the turkey was ready, some 3 or 4 hours after dinner had been promised, and long after every black olive and baby carrot had been snaffled up. When dinner was finally served, it turned out the supposedly dripless candles had taken the extra time to run all over the platters of salad below, so everyone had to pick out chunks of cooled wax from among the roasted beets and walnuts.

This year, much of my small clan--my mom, her sister, my eldest sister and her boyfriend--will be convening in Rochester, at the home of my aunt Karen's family. Karen and my uncle (my mom's younger brother, and a recovered bohemian himself) live in Ohio, so I rarely see them, which is a bummer as they are really, really nice. Should I use my free Jetblue miles to zip off to Rochester for a few days? I had been toying with the idea of going to see my mom (and deal, yet again, with the remaining Stuff in Storage) for a few days around Christmas, using those same miles. But the specter of a family-less Thanksgiving, even one spend with sweet friends, is looming large in my brain right now. What to do?


Anonymous said...

After that Proustian soliloquy, sounds like a family visit may be in order (since no one's getting any younger) ...

Personally, I'm toying with the idea of mashed roasted parsnips but where does one find a decent quantity of parsnips in SF?

(Holiday cooking dilemmas being one the best mighty distractions from the world at large.)

foods to lower cholesterol said...

Brings back memories. Blunt as they were, i don't have much to remember.