Forget sweet 16, high-school prom, or college graduation: in my family, the day you host Thanksgiving dinner is the day you become a woman. But no matter what fantasies of Betty Crocker-style domestic bliss may dance through your head, take it from me: like going through puberty or losing your virginity, this is a messy rite of passage.
My trial came at the age of 25. I'd moved with my boyfriend from New York City to Albuquerque, New Mexico, into a little adobe house near the old Route 66. Our apartment back East had cost thousands of dollars a month in rent and consisted of a bathroom and a six-by-eight-foot bedroom without a window. In Albuquerque we had a fireplace, a dining room, a window seat, a yard, a driveway, and a red 1982 Volkswagen Rabbit convertible to park in it—hell, we were living the American dream. Who wouldn't want to show that off?
So, invitations were extended and plane tickets were purchased. My mother (an almost pathologically perfect hostess, who still swears that Martha Stewart steals her ideas) had been holding Thanksgiving for our extended family in Connecticut for more than two decades, but she happily passed her apron to me. I had big shoes to fill, I knew, yet I felt equal to the task.
Truthfully, though, I'm a big idea girl who's not so great at organized execution. The week before Thanksgiving, my boyfriend's cousin drove down from Denver, and the two of them spent the days leading up to the holiday wandering in and out of the house on a beer-fueled bender; my teenage brother camped out in his pajamas, watching TV on my living-room floor; and I ran around after all three of them, shrieking and sponging up spills and beef jerky crumbs.
I'd mapped out what I was sure would be an enormous and awe-inspiring menu mingling a traditional spread of green beans and mashed potatoes with some Southwestern-inflected additions like green chile-corn bread stuffing and prickly pear cranberry sauce, but sure enough, when my parents and uncles arrived two days before T-Day, the pantry was still bare. My mother was alarmed, but I was too proud to plead for help. I was a grown woman, damn it, and I had everything under control; in fact, I was just about to run to the store! Why didn't they put their feet up and have a glass of wine? Or maybe some beef jerky?
I was speeding back from the market, with a hulking fresh organic turkey next to me and a backseat piled to the car roof with sweet potatoes and sausage, when my tire blew. As I waited on the side of the road for help to come and take me to the tire shop, I watched the sun sink in the sky and my precious hours of prep time tick by. Another day was shot.
Ever an optimist, though, I rose the next day raring to go. My uncles were at their hotel, my parents were off exploring the city, and the boys were outside wrestling. I snapped green beans, sliced delicata squash, and made a maple syrup glaze; I chopped pecans and rolled pie dough; I churned out two kinds of stuffing. For a brief, intoxicating moment, I allowed myself to believe the worst had passed.
Then T-Day was upon me. It was now or never. The bird had to be stuffed, the squash had to roast, the gravy had be made. It was still dark when I lugged the turkey out of the back of the refrigerator and planted it on the kitchen counter. It landed with an alarming smack, and its cold skin stung my fingers. Holy crap, I marveled: had it half-frozen overnight? It was too late to do anything about it, so I said a prayer as I stuffed (and tried not to scream at my brother, who was filming the whole process with a pornographer's glint in his eye) and hoped that a day in the oven would make things right.
Eight hours later, the table was spread, candles were lit, and multiple bottles of wine had already been consumed, but Thanksgiving couldn't truly begin without the bird. I tied on my apron and pulled the turkey from the oven. Surely it had to be done. I bent over it, brandishing a gleaming carving knife, and cut a triumphant first slice. But was the inside supposed to be so pink? I withered: my friends and family were hungry, and all I had to offer was a raw carcass with a golden brown crust.
By then the panic was plain on my face. That's when Dad, whether motivated by sympathy or by three bottles of syrah, insisted the turkey was fine and, taking my knife, started piling thick slices on a china platter. Wolves might have thought twice about eating this meat, it was so bloody, but not my father.
To my family's credit, when I placed the platter on the table, my cheeks tearstained and flushed with shame, no one said a word. I pretended not to notice the plates with meat hidden under piles of mashed potatoes, and later we cleaned up together and hugged and kissed good-bye, and everyone thanked me for a delicious meal. The next day I bought an oven thermometer. And by the time a copy of the cookbook Thanksgiving 101 arrived in my mailbox a week later (courtesy of dear old Dad), I could manage a laugh at the memory.
Now my boyfriend and I are settled back in New York, where our apartment is again the size of a matchbox. No turkeys are coming out of this kitchen. I can't be the only one who's relieved.
Most of us have at least one friend who is truly gifted in the kitchen. My friend Julia* is not that person. (*Names have been changed so as to prevent banishment from my social circle.) I love Julia for many reasons, but her culinary skills are not among them. Julia has an uncanny ability to come up with unlikely dishes that might pass for "gourmet" if only they tasted good, but they don't. For instance, she once offered to bring a gallon of pureed fruit to a picnic. Thankfully for the rest of us picnickers, her husband talked her out of it.
We haven't always been so lucky. Many harvest moons ago, I hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for friends and family. In preparation, I asked my guests to pitch in with side dishes, figuring I would be busy enough fixing the turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. It was a simple request, and I thought I knew what to expect. Where I grew up, in the southern end of the Midwest, side dishes typically consist of canned-vegetable concoctions, a few homemade pies, and at least one version of ambrosia salad.
Still, I called Julia with apprehension, knowing she should be watched like a wobbly souffle when asked to cook anything, anytime, much less for Thanksgiving dinner, the greatest of all American feasts. As anticipated, her first offering, an original creation that combined wasabi and sweet potatoes, gave me the shudders. Thinking fast, I explained to Julia that I wouldn't ingest anything made of horseradish whose name didn't involve the word bloody or mary, and with that Julia relented, suggesting whiskey-braised sweet potatoes instead. By then, I was worn out enough to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Thanksgiving arrived, and I should've known the minute Julia walked in the door with her sweet potatoes that something wasn't right. My entire apartment reeked of booze, and the spuds looked suspiciously soupy. I served them anyway. What ensued was a drunken Thanksgiving that would have made the Pilgrims blush. Julia hadn't boiled down the whiskey in the sweet potatoes; she'd mixed it in—a lot of it in. The result was more whiskey-sweet potato shooter than vegetable side dish, but, wanting not to hurt her feelings, my guests consumed it with gusto. By the time pumpkin pie was served, the whole table was hiccupping.
Despite a wicked hangover the next day, I have to give Julia credit for warming us up. Her hooch-pickled yams led to lots of late-night laughter and reminiscing and the recognition that Thanksgiving is not about sweet potatoes or even turkey. It's about feasting on friendship.
From a food lover's perspective, the worst day of my life occurred on Thanksgiving Day 1999. I was on vacation from my freshman year of high school, and with nothing to do but wake up and watch TV, I was looking forward to the gluttonizing to come later in the week.
Having been raised in Mississippi on authentic Southern fare (read: lethal doses of butter), I was already quite plump. Thanksgiving had always been my favorite holiday because, all that Pilgrim stuff aside, it was mainly about eating great food. The anticipation of my mother's and my aunt's annual spread of rosemary-roasted turkey, giblet gravy, corn bread dressing, cashew-crusted sweet potato casserole, asparagus casserole, cranberry-pretzel salad, and biscuit bread pudding with bourbon-caramel sauce was almost more than I could bear.
Imagine my horror, then, when I woke up Thanksgiving Day with the worst headache of my life. In addition to the vise around my head, my body was shaking with cold, and my nose and ears were clogged with so much who-knows-what that I could barely hear or breathe. We'd planned to travel to my aunt's house that year, so when I didn't come downstairs in time to leave, my parents came to check on me. Noticing my extreme aversion to light, my parents left me alone in the bed for a while longer. It was only later, after I'd recovered, that they told me they'd debated in the hallway whether to get me up at all but ultimately decided that they shouldn't miss out on all the good food just because I was sick. How considerate.
I barely remember the journey to my aunt's house, because my senses couldn't recognize anything. However, I do remember waking up once we arrived and being led to my seat at a wooden chair, right in the middle of the long dinner table, facing an enormous flower centerpiece. All I could hear was muffled voices and the shrill yelp of my aunt's Jack Russell terrier. Every few minutes, the guests would turn their heads in unison toward me to make pitying faces.
Then my mother, the one who had dragged me from my bed so that I could be miserable in public, mocked my sad state again by setting a plate of food in front of me. I couldn't taste a morsel, and I could barely reach the utensils, since my arm ached as if someone had driven a nail into my elbow. Even my favorite dish, the sweet potato casserole, left me cold. The food on my plate and the water I was drinking seemed one and the same. I believe I almost cried, not from the physical pain but from the thought of forgoing such delicious food for another year.
When I finally regained my sense of taste, days later, all the leftovers were past their prime or had been devoured. The gastronomic gods of fate had played a hateful trick on me, but I vowed it would never happen again. Now, if anyone so much as sneezes in my general direction two weeks before Thanksgiving Day, I threaten to stuff them.
Planning a Thanksgiving feast presents an annual challenge for my little nuclear family of foodies. Each year, armed with fresh ideas from food magazines and an ever growing collection of cookbooks, we try adjusting the menu to accommodate our lengthening list of must-haves. Kumquats in this year's cranberry sauce? Pancetta with the brussels sprouts? What if we split all the recipes in half? Would we die without Dad's sweet potatoes? Could four people possibly have the strength to polish off cranberry bread, biscuits, pumpkin, and pecan pie between them? These are questions we never manage to answer, and in the end we do what we always do: stick to our evergreen short list without changing a thing.
Last year, however, I deemed one menu revision absolutely necessary. In a moment of bleeding-heart commitment to eating locally and sustainably, I persuaded my mother to order a free-range, heritage turkey. Owing to an overwhelming run on heritage birds at the local farm, though, she had to order it several months in advance, and the smallest one available weighed in at 19 pounds. Faced with such a behemoth, we rationalized: we have big appetites, and we were expecting eight people. "No problem," my mom said. "I love turkey sandwiches!"
Unfortunately, a week before our free-range bird was to make its grand appearance, our Thanksgiving guest list shrank dramatically: my brother decided to spend the holiday with his in-laws in Wisconsin, another friend canceled, and the other potential guests took a last-minute trip abroad. Suddenly my family's feast started looking obscene. How could three of us tackle a 20-pound turkey?
The day before Thanksgiving, my mother and I gasped when my dad hauled the too big bird into the kitchen. Would it even fit in our oven? It did, and on Thursday afternoon it emerged, perfectly bronzed and lacquered, ready for Norman Rockwell to paint its portrait. Unlike the bland, cottony turkeys of Thanksgivings past, it was richly flavored and juicy enough to stand proudly on the table next to the stuffing and gravy. Yes, we had an awful lot of turkey soup, pot pie, and hot turkey sandwiches; and in fact, now that I think of it, there might be a bit of meat still in the freezer that I should throw out before this Thanksgiving rolls around. We also had a memorably scrumptious meal, and our purchase supported a movement I still strongly support. That's something to be thankful about.
One November day during my freshman year of college, in a fluorescent-lit Providence dorm room, my roommate sat wide-eyed and cross-legged on her extra-long twin bed and hesitantly asked a question that pierced my New Jersey soul. "So, since you're Greek, do you celebrate Thanksgiving?"
How do you begin to answer that question? My first instinct was to smack her upside the head and say, "Whatsamadduhwitcha?" Instead, I just answered yes, simply and without my usual sarcasm, and hurried out of the room, hoping to avoid the questions about Telly Savalas and Yanni that were bound to follow.
To this day, whenever Thanksgiving approaches, one of my friends will tease me about my former roommate's query, and it gets me thinking. When do Greeks not embrace an excuse to eat? It may have been ignorant of my roommate to ask whether I celebrated the ultimate all-American holiday, but it did make me realize that my Greek-influenced traditions were suely unique. Were other families eating pumpkin pie with a side of baklava?
When I was growing up, our "Greeksgiving" celebrations were sprawling potluck dinners, shared with an extended community of four or five other Greek families. Over the years, though, the meal—like our family—has become more Westernized, and the turkey, once a lonely island in a sea of pastitsio, feta cheese, and olives, has become the focal point of our meal.
After I began attending culinary school at Johnson and Wales, I began testing out new dishes at family events, including Thanksgiving. Each of my creations would undergo intense scrutiny and analysis, but as my family and friends were exposed to a world of food outside their Greek comfort zone, our potluck Thanksgivings morphed into a kind of cross-cultural recipe competition. The year when one of my aunts and I both made a cranberry-orange relish, things got particularly ugly.
Come to think of it, maybe this year I should make spanakopita.
In 1998 my sister-in-law decided to host a Thanksgiving feast for 30 people. While planning the menu, my brother-in-law mentioned more than once how much he loved pumpkin pie, so, confident cook that I am, I volunteered to take on the task of making one. I was sure I'd bake a pie that he'd remember for years.
To add to the fun of the festivities, I decided to spend the night before Thanksgiving at my sister-in-law's house, helping her prepare and putting together my heavenly pie. (Note: My two young children were also in tow.) As we busily cooked for the next day's feast, we suffered only minor interruptions, and I was surprised at how quickly we finished.
Jump forward to Thanksgiving Day. The house was bustling with revelers, content from roast turkey and the fixings. Then the time came to present the grand finale: apple pie, pecan pie, and, of course, my delicious pumpkin pie. My husband, son, and brother-in-law were the first to dive in, and I looked on anxiously as they took their first bites. I'd been expecting moans of pleasure but was instead faced with scrunched-up noses. I scooped a forkful into my mouth and realized I'd forgotten the sugar! I blamed it on the kids and begged for another chance; in fact, I made another pie the very next day, with sugar. Even now, every Thanksgiving my brother-in-law, via phone or, if we are lucky, in person, recounts the tale of my famous pumpkin pie sans sugar. If nothing else, I guess I got my wish: I made a pie he couldn't forget.