Sunday, November 12, 2006

Thanksgiving I

Dorothy had a Thanksgiving routine that seldom varied in my memory. Breakfast was always a half grapefruit, cinnamon hot bread and a shirred egg. Always served at table; a table set with full service on place mats usually. Sometimes the bamboo ones I didn't know then were sushi formers until an importer had the marketing inspiration needed to sell them in a land where 'sushi' was then a bizarre custom of an alien and enemy race. But sometimes the exquisite Red embroidered on white palm net scenes from the Philippines, a hostess gift, I believe, from a visiting Philippine business man and his wife to Dorothy. Earle got a case of San Miguel, an unheard of oddity in the land of Bud.
Already there were dishes and they had to be done by one of us children. Done promptly too, for the turkey was in process and the rest of the meal poised. All the silver had to be polished. That meant dragging the heavy chest and serving platters into the kitchen, washing each piece, applying the polish, rubbing it in, washing it off, and carefully wiping it dry to increase the luster of the now shining piece.

This was drudgery. To be avoided, whenever possible.

Guests were coming so the house had to be picked up and vacuumed to an acceptable standard of order. Not an over the top, compulsive, don't touch a thing!, clean -- just neat enough that no one need notice one way or the other.

More drudgery to be avoided.

Dorothy, meantime, created and slaved in the kitchen: Mixing, chopping, sautéing, stirring, sliding in and out of the oven, buttering, heaping, basting, and tasting.
If the weather was clement, I might slip outside. One year, second or third grade maybe, I made it to the local movie house and watched a film about the Mayflower over and over until Henry showed up to fetch me to the table. As a last resort I could try the basement full of woodworking tools and a room with my trains. To no avail. I would be found. I would receive my giving thanks dose of Dorothy's fury as she screamed her anger and frustration with my dilatoriness. Until I was big enough to effectively oppose it she would grab me by the throat and bang my head against the wall. Subsequently I learned that she had treated all her children thus under similar circumstances. After that I learned that she had been abused far worse by her parents as a child. Fortunately Melissa made me break that particular, and all too common, pattern of parental violence.
Time passing has brought understanding of just how far I incurred her rage by my attempts to evade pitching in to what I was told must be a community effort. Dorothy's eruption did exceed the provocation. It allowed her to spew her nervous tension as she created a wonderful meal for her guests who might sometimes be vital to Earle's business, and other times friends of one or another of us, but always all were important to her. Like a summer thunder storm it cleared the air and made the house fresh for the now imminent guests.

The extra leaves go into the cherry gate leg dining table which can seat six comfortably with out them. Spread the cotton pad. Smooth the snowy linen cloth over the top. This is one of Dorothy's great ideas: Each time the cloth was used all guests were invited to autograph their place in pencil. Before the cloth was washed Dorothy embroidered the signature in white thread. With the years the cloth became a nubbly palimpsest of her hospitality.
Now lay the rose and cream Spode, or later the black on white Carol Leighton New England Industry plates by Wedgwood, with the freshly polished silver. Among the last were six tiny tubs with minuscule spoons to hold salt. Beside each tub place the miniature cellar filled with pepper. There were two forks and two spoons and a shorter butter knife as well as the regular dinner knife. There was a butter plate, a soup bowl and the large dinner plates, though they were stacked next to Earle's place at the end of the table. There were glass goblets. Small for the ritual cranberry juice cocktail to begin the meal and large to hold water or milk. Only once was wine served. Dorothy disapproved of alcohol. The guest's too enthusiastic (too nervous?) opening of the sparkling burgundy turned a modest sea of the cloth purple-red. Slowly the stain faded, turning to grey and then to shadow, in wash after wash. That one Thanksgiving reverberated through the next decade.

With the table set, the nuts and other tit bits appeared in the living room just as the doorbell announced our guests arrival. The nuts were adored by all of us though they caused more drudgery. Dorothy did not buy shelled nuts until I returned from Japan and pointed out that not having to spend half a day shelling them was worth the few pennies more they cost.
Dorothy only used almonds as the teaser. Once a sufficiency were shelled, she blanched them in hot water to remove the brown skins. Batches were spread over a jelly roll tray and dotted, freely, with butter. Popped into a 400˚ f. oven for about five minutes, the cream of the almond turns a luscious light brown and develops the full aroma and flavor that deep frying overwhelms. Whisked off the tray onto paper towels, Dorothy salted the nuts lightly, stirred them vigorously and set them to cool.
Another nut which was much harder to shell was the Brazil nut. These were needed for the Brazilian Consommé. Dorothy poured boiling water over a bowl of the nuts and let it steep a minute. Drained and rinsed in cool water: “Now,” she told us, “they are easy to shell whole.”

I never found it so.

Since she shaved the shelled nuts into thin slices it hardly seemed to matter to me struggling to find the right pressure and the correct placement for the cracker. Of course she was thinking how much easier it is to hold the nut while you slice it if it is whole.
When I make the nuts now, the almonds are mixed always with filberts and sometimes with walnuts or pecans as well. I do not blanch the skins off the almonds. I buy them all ready shelled. How the standards have declined in the younger generation!
Diana calls them killer nuts. That does not keep her from eating her fair share.

Once the company is assembled, the feast begins, there is no time to dawdle. Left handers are accommodated as we sit. The cranberry juice is tossed off or gingerly sipped. The younger of us (me) frequently making dramatic pain in the arse noises at its sharpness. My appreciation for the tart-sour-bitter taste range came much later. This was succeeded by soup. Strong beef broth with a dollop of unsweetened whip cream and a scatter of toasted shaved Brazils, oh excellent foil to the richness to come. Knot Rolls (“If they're not rolls what are they?” Diana cracks every year.) and last June's strawberry jam are on the table. Also there are celery and carrot sticks and stuffed green olives swimming in the cold salty water that melted from the ice cubes that keep them crisp.
Dishes are removed “No stacking at the table” Henry admonishes. And Ann's Freshman year at Oberlin brought the unforgettable: “Gracious living, dears. Gracious living!” pet phrase of her Dorm Mother.

A brief intermission is offered in a palette cleansing dish of lime sherbet. Quite tart. So tart that small children are disillusioned by it thinking that even ice cream is turned against him. Adults enjoy.

Silence quickly returns as we watch Earle assess the enormous bird resplendent on the platter before him. He spent a good fifteen minutes before dinner sharpening his knife, but a few whets more are good to review the plan of attack.
The sharpening stone set aside the fork is inserted in the body where it will give the most purchase and one leg is deftly removed to a charger. Where it is promptly sliced and the not quite stripped bones set back on the platter to await late evening browsers. It is joined by the wing. Now he is free to address the main redoubt: the breast under its succulent brown skin, glistening with juices. Slice after white slice goes on the charger next to the dark sheaves of leg. Finally he asks – a ritual only this-- “What will the youngest have?” There is a fiercesome divide among us. Henry likes dark meat. Leonard likes white. These predilections are as firmly held as any doctrinal dispute over the nature of transubstantiation, or the serving of grape juice or wine in church. I am agnostic and like both. Earle digs a spoonful of stuffing out of the bird and places it next to the meat. The plate begins a solemn passage from hand to hand the length of the table to Dorothy who distributes vegetables: the good and the bad. While Earle inquires the preferences of the next person and fills their plate, Dorothy receives my plate and adds the good mashed potatoes, the okay Brussels sprouts with their maybe yes, maybe no, chestnuts and a huge spoonful of rutabaga and another of turnips. From my jaundiced perspective no one in the family except Dorothy likes these two roots. They are the plague of the day. Appropriate chastisement for the sin of gluttony which pervades the day. No arguing, no cajoling, no prayer will avoid the dread Plop. Plop! Of those two vegetables. But at last the plate descends in front of me. Agony. I can't start until Earle and Dorothy serve themselves – always the end of the line. An age of the world passes before it is permitted. Gravy is circulated. Cranberry sauce makes the rounds. There are sweet gherkins and pickled watermelon rind. There is a salad which can only find room as a side show on the small plate. The big tent is full.
Slowly it empties until only the dread rutabagas and turnips remain. “Seconds?” Earle asks. Still chewing I nod. Dorothy's hand stays my hopes and she repeats the rule: “No seconds until your plate is clean. Eat your vegetables.” Squawking is to no avail. Henry suggests I close my eyes and hold my nose. (I try this once -- but there is still the texture. And the after taste.) Leonard cheerfully offers to get a clothes pin to make sure I don't smell the offense. Amidst this rousting I somehow choke them down.

Seconds at last – but not of those horrid roots!

A hiatus may or may not occur depending on the stamina of the company. Just long enough to clear the table and set out the pies? Or long enough to retire to the living room and enjoy the fire? The bursting point of full bellies decides the issue.
The pies are daunting. A pumpkin and a mincemeat. Whipped cream, sweet with sugar and vanilla, is offered. The nuts reappear and any chocolates or other afters. Once, but only once, there were ants and bees and grasshoppers in chocolate. Dorothy loved crystallized ginger, for instance. Any ravenous teen ager who was not sated to the uttermost could thoughtfully nibble a cookie. Dorothy's ginger snaps and coconut oatmeal were the favored.
Thereafter a collapse before the fire was the only option.
Hours later, after the dishes were done and movement had rearranged the contents of the alimentary canal somewhat, one might venture on a sandwich of turkey and cheese on a knot roll. or just pick at the carcass.

Ann tells the tale differently. She remembers that there was a farmer's wife near our house who always saved geese for us. For Thanksgiving, Christmas and Henry's birthday. The goose is all dark meat.
But that was a different town from the one that features in my memories. For most of the time we lived in that house Ann was in college or beyond. She also always liked turnips. Of late years I do too.
For recipes see: Thanksgiving Breakfast
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