Feeling Thankful

Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day in the United States, and this year especially I had plenty to be thankful for. Although a bit creaky at times, I am in generally good health, as is my husband of 41 years (and he is still my husband, which in itself is cause for gratitude). Both our children are happily married, and their spouses are both gainfully employed in relatively secure occupations. Our son is back in school for a second degree that is expected to enhance his earnings potential, and our daughter is scheduled to make grandparents of us in April. We’re both usefully employed in ways that bring sufficient remuneration for our “retirement” years, and, although I suppose no one is completely recession-proof, we are less affected by the current economic meltdown than most. Our house, bought in 1980 for a sum that now appears risible, is fully paid for. Thanks to a nice legacy that is safely “invested” in an interest-bearing bank account, I am financially better off than I’ve ever been (though that doesn’t keep me from sighing over the statements from my broker that show my IRA continuously tanking). Even more important, we both have avocations that bring us a considerable measure of satisfaction because they include a volunteer service component.

So, yes, there’s much to be thankful for. But what I am most thankful for today is that Thanksgiving is OVER! I suspect I have always regarded it as something of an ordeal, even when I wasn’t responsible for it, but this year, for the first time within recent memory, I was the sole writer, director, and producer of this production, and it is a lot of work!

The first year we were married (1967), my husband and I went to his home (150 miles away) for Thanksgiving, establishing a tradition that continued until his mother died in 1996. There were a few off years early on when my husband was still in graduate school and, for whatever reason, decided he couldn’t get away for a weekend. One time we celebrated Thanksgiving with friends (I cooked a duck for the first and last time ever—what a disappointment!), and another time, not wanting to be depressed by eating turkey and dressing in a restaurant, we had burritos at our favorite Mexican place (because it was the only restaurant open that was not serving a traditional Thanksgiving feast). And one year, much to his mother’s relief, we invited his parents to celebrate with us here. But mostly we drove to my husband’s hometown (250 miles from where we now live) every year on the fourth Wednesday in November.

After my mother-in-law died, my mother (who had moved here in 1991) took up the slack. After her death in 2002, I suppose we must have had Thanksgiving here for my father and father-in-law a time or two, but I suspect I bought a lot of the feast readymade. For several years after that, their church had a potluck dinner to which I took a couple of my pumpkin pies and a vegetable casserole, and the four of us shared with other parishioners who had no family nearby. That era ended when the pastor who had instituted the custom accepted a call to another church.

Last year some childhood friends of my husband’s, now living in our area, invited us to join them. This year we received no such invitation, so, although we could have just gone out to a restaurant, I decided to go the whole nine yards for just the two of us. At least that way we would have leftovers!

I was inspired by the recipes in the November 16 issue of Parade magazine and decided to make several of them. This was easier said than done. I started at Wal-Mart, where I spent an hour and a half battling the mobs (on Monday, so these were neither weekend nor last-minute shoppers) and came out without several key ingredients. I quickly abandoned hope of finding “fresh” turkey breast anywhere (my regular supermarket did have some thawed turkey legs but no breasts), so I decided that “brined turkey breast” was a newfangled idea I’d save for another time (one factor in my decision was a suspicion that the decidedly odd taste of the turkey we had at Rotary last week was the result of “brining”). What Wal-Mart did have was frozen turkey breasts that boasted “freezer to oven” convenience—no need to thaw. They were available in a variety of brands and “flavors,” but all about the same size—three pounds. I rejected the smoked turkey as being nontraditional and the “Cajun” as being too risky; although the label didn’t specify what “Cajun” meant, I suspected it implied “spicy-hot,” a sensation I can do without on the classic celebration of blandness that is Thanksgiving.

Wal-Mart also had no fresh cranberries—at least not one-pound bags of ordinary cranberries, only 7-ounce baskets of pricy organically grown ones—so it hardly mattered that I also couldn’t find fresh ginger. I did later find both cranberries and ginger at my regular grocery, and I must say that the Ginger Cranberry Sauce was the highlight of the meal.

Through some confusion (I evidently misread the scale in the produce department), I inadvertently bought twice the required amount of sweet potatoes. After having one of them for lunch, “baked” in the microwave, a process that resulted in an underdone potato even after I’d cooked it twice as long as the cookbook called for and put it back for more “finishing” even after cutting it open, I decided not to repeat that disappointment and so ended up with more mashed sweet potato than called for—unfortunate since my husband and I decided that ginger and orange juice and maple syrup are not a suitable substitute for massive amounts of brown sugar.

The dressing was iffy from the point where I left the cornbread in the oven for “just a minute more” after the timer buzzed and then completely forgot about it. Although decidedly crisp (and very solid since, as usual, my baking powder was quite outdated), it wasn’t actually burnt, and we decided that, once mixed with a bag of dependable Pepperidge Farm cornbread stuffing, it would be okay, and it was, though it got done sooner than the cookbook led me to expect, and I rather wish I hadn’t included some of the turkey livers I’d cooked for the gravy. Making the gravy with the turkey liver stock was probably a mistake, too. The whole combination tastes entirely too livery (and I’ve concluded I don’t like turkey liver as well as chicken, which I usually use, either).

As it turned out, I managed to screw up the foolproof turkey as well. I’d originally planned to put it in the oven at 4 p.m., but my husband persuaded me to start it at 3:30 instead, assuming it would take longer to cook than advertised. The package had said it should be cooked for 2¼ hours or to an internal temperature of 170°. Unfortunately, what stuck in my head as the time to check on it was 6:15 (based on the original 4:00 start time), and I guess it was ready at 5:45. By 6:15, its internal temperature was 200°, it was falling-apart-tender but also rather dry, and any juices I might have used in the gravy were burnt black at the bottom of the pan. To add insult to injury, when I opened the cooking bag it had come in, I found that on the bottom of the breast (which clearly should have been the top, but it was impossible to tell from the shape—especially when it was frozen solid inside a plastic bag—which side was up) there was a completely unadvertised pop-up timer!

The green bean casserole was, of course, just fine. It’s pretty hard to mess up green bean casserole. In fact, when I talked to our son early yesterday, he commented that he was making green bean casserole for a get-together with his wife’s family, which he found insulting. His wife had volunteered this dish, but he felt insulted because, he said, “A ten-year-old could make green bean casserole.” (I had thought about asking my husband to do this, since it is his “specialty,” but decided against it when I realized he’d completely forgotten about the one task I had assigned to him—getting wine to accompany the meal.)

And of course my pumpkin pie, made from a treasured family recipe, was as good as ever, though we didn’t immediately have room for it and had to defer it till later.

But the whole meal, which took perhaps half an hour to consume, required two full days of preparation, including setting the table with my wedding china (which is stored in dust cases in an upstairs closet and hadn’t seen the light of day in years). It probably took longer to wash up than to eat. Of course, we’ve got all those great leftovers (which required considerable ingenuity to fit into the fridge, Chinese box–fashion).

Still, the experience has given me one more thing to be thankful for—the huge amount of work my mother and mother-in-law so lovingly did for so many years to put a comparable meal on the table every Thanksgiving Day. I’m not sure we ever properly expressed our appreciation for this unrewarded labor of love, so, if you can hear me from where you are, Mother and Mrs. B., THANK YOU!

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