While this song seems to cover every holiday, this joint is about Thanksgiving.
What I remember of this year’s Thanksgiving, which I hosted, I remember in flashes, much as the survivor of a multi-car pileup is visited by glimpses of the disaster in bits, from the hospital bed: a solar flare and some grinding noise there, guardrail swinging oddly skyward there.
One should not, if one enters a kitchen with the kind of tenderfoot uncertainty that you might demonstrate in a meadow recently swept for landmines, offer to host the one annual holiday that is ostensibly about many things but is essentially only about eating food. Cooked food in a specific array that is basically an obsessive reenactment of the menu Sarah Josepha Hale designed in the early 1860s, after Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. (Most of the presidents presented with the idea before that rejected it because it flew in the face of separation of church and state – the thanks were to God, specifically.)
I mostly offered to host Thanksgiving because I didn’t want to repeat the 7-hour, traffic-clogged drive to Maine that I had made in October, or further discuss the multiple contingencies involved in going to Massachusetts for the holiday. If you ask my mother what time it is, she usually starts off her answer with, “Well, I went to the grocery store because I wanted to buy the paper but the pharmacy was out, and I saw Mrs. Roark…” and then half an hour later she gets to the part where her watch caught on the hooked rug that a friend’s daughter – who is married to such a tall man, so tall! – spilled coffee on and the watchband broke, so the answer is she doesn’t know what time it is.
Similar things happen when you try to make holiday plans, except it takes 100 hours and at the end of the phone call you have pleurisy and an eye twitch and no idea where you are going for the holiday, much less what time to show up. I had invited my mother and assorted siblings to come, but she sidestepped the question so neatly that I thought she just hadn’t heard me, so I kept asking more loudly. But she had heard me. She just wasn’t coming.
But my father-in-law and stepmother-in-law were coming, making the reverse trip from Maine. “Awesome!” I thought. And then it occurred to me that they grow a lot of their own food and can it, wrote a cookbook, and my father-in-law writes a food column with recipes and advice, and dinner is always a lovely and fulsome experience at their place. At this point, six weeks prior to Thanksgiving, I began to panic.
For Type A people, this situation might lead to one of those training and self-improvement montages in the movies. For Type B-ers, maybe some advice-gathering or recipe testing might take place. I chose to mentally and emotionally and practically disassociate from the specter of Thanksgiving until Monday of Thanksgiving week, when I got on a waitlist for a locally-raised, pastured turkey that would have to be a) at least 15 pounds and b) might not exist and c) would cost at least $75 and d) there was some fine print about when and how I would be contacted that was vague so I took my kindergartener to Whole Foods and walked around a large open refrigerated table full of turkeys ranked according to how horribly they died. My kid trailed me as I circled the frozen turkey tank trying to figure out if the Step 1 fowl had a more or less harrowing death than Step 3 birds, which turkeys had been on amoxicillin, which turkeys had been forced to eat Hot Pockets, and which turkeys had helper monkeys and day beds. The entire time I was humming, “Step 1: Cut a hole in a box. Step 2: Put your dick in that box!” and just feeling at sea until the kindergartener asked to please leave the store so I grabbed the turkey I understood to have been somewhat loved during its lifetime.
I still was not ready to confront Thanksgiving in its details, so I texted my husband the following:
Me: Got vintage walkabout chicken for Gratitude Day.
Him: Nice! How big is it?
Me: It’s in the car.
Him: Okay. How big is it?
The next thing I remember is being in our kitchen, and being proudly shown a bunch of boxes of chicken stock, as well as a thing of panko breadcrumbs. “Totally getting ready for Thanksgiving!” my husband says, because those are the only two ingredients you need if you want to water your plants in a savory way and de-ice your steps without salt.
On Tuesday, someone posts a video of Alton Brown preparing to brine a frozen turkey 3 days before Thanksgiving. I had been harboring the idea that one thawed a turkey Thanksgiving morning, which upon even a moment’s reflection registers as a stupid idea. So I go to the freezer and behold the turkey carcass, which is wrapped in Caucasian-Barbie-flesh-tone plastic. “Hello,” I say. “It’s me./ I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet/to go over… everything…” That I don’t know the other words doesn’t matter, because my singing voice is basically the thin, flat whisper of a minor character who dies early in a movie battle or, when filled with joie de vivre, atonal shouting. I transfer the carcass to the refrigerator, because I have read many times that you’re supposed to thaw meat in the refrigerator and not in a pile of maggots on the counter while a vulture stares through the casement windows. But then I watch the entire Alton Brown video and realize the brining is part of the thawing.
I make a brine using water and a cup of kosher salt from a box that my husband has torn open as if he were a bear. He ripped out the little aluminum spout, punched a thumb-sized hole in the top, and then yanked the entire top so that it hangs like mutilated ears and will not close, ever again. He has a long explanation about the design flaws in the salt box and thinks this is reasonable. It is reasonable, if you are a lion who believes that there is a steak in the box of salt. But for a man who can make the act of preparing coffee resemble an industrial accident, this is par for the course.
The turkey in the bath looks sort of obscene. Someone has used the skin of the turkey to tie a knot, a frozen flesh knot, over the main cavity so I can’t tell if there are giblets inside of it. I can’t undo the goosepimply knot. I imagine the whole thing thawing and turning into a sort of biblical/Brueghel hellscape in the fridge, in which any giblets somehow reanimate and climb halfway out of the cavity. I have to make a tin foil tent because we lost the top of our big roasting pan/salty turkey tub, and while I am doing this I make a sort of pleated cheerleader skirt for the bird. That looks worse, so I give it a central crease that just makes it booty shorts.
On Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, I finally go to the grocery store. I have a list in my hand, but the list says things like: “sides for Thanksgiving. Things also for breakfast. Coffee?”
The rest of Wednesday, as I recall it, is filled with the needs of children and several freelance jobs. At some point I start making small settlements of grocery-store purchases on the dining room table, in an effort to conceptualize tomorrow’s dinner.
The children have a thousand questions I can’t answer, and it takes 10 years to get them to bed. At 9 p.m., I check on the turkey in its panties in the fridge. “Hello from the other side/ I must have called a thousand times/ To tell you I’m sorry, for the things that I’ve done…” and then gingerly touch it. It is very hard. I knock on it, and it rings like a metal security door. I decide to turn it over, which involves sloshing cold salty water all over my pants as I slide the morgue drawer out of refrigerated shelf.
That bracingly chilly event should probably have spurred me to further action, but, when I turned to my chosen life partner to whom I am legally bound and with whom I co-parent and he is doing something on the computer and says the best thing to do is start deciding and cooking tomorrow morning and I cannot persuade him otherwise, I shuffle off in my damp jeans to my office and take a grumpy panic nap. During this time, I half-snooze, but mostly I go fully dark. If you ever want to have a completely immersive depressive experience, like if you’re someone who doesn’t know how to relate to your clinically depressed friends, come talk to me at length when I am procrastinating. I can give you an almost virtual-reality experience of unrelenting dread and sorrow. You will need someone else on hand to lead you back out into the light, but really, if you are the kind of person who says, “If Becky would just smile, she’d feel better,” then I can provide you a valuable service. You will empathize. I will take you down the chute, bro.
But I won’t do that here. I ended up rousing my salt-encrusted self at midnight and began to cook. I made onion dip, beginning with actual onions. I made cocktail sauce with red onion and jalapeno for a shrimp appetizer, and prepped most of a sweet potato buttermilk pie from the Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook which is the most delicious pie in the world, including separating the eggs and squeezing and measuring out the lemon juice and putting it all in little containers for the next morning. I made two gluten-free pie crusts, which I have to say are not my jam. The one thing in this life that I can make is a pie crust, because it involves only four or five ingredients (flour, butter, salt and/or sugar, and ice water), involves a cool tool, requires that you start to make it and then ignore it for at least an hour while it rests in the refrigerator. I also like rolling out the dough.
Gluten-free pie crusts require all sorts of additions, including xanthan gum, which comes in a small packet for $14 and smells weird, an egg, for God’s sake, and something I couldn’t find called ClearJel, which I assume is zit cream or an additive VW used to cheat on emissions tests. But I make the pie crusts and pre-bake them, and then make a kind of embarrassing but delicious potato thing made out of frozen hash browns, a can of cream of mushroom soup, cheese, milk, and some other stuff that altogether weighs almost as much as the turkey. At 2 a.m., I start grating kale and Brussels sprouts and toasting nuts for a salad. By 3 a.m., I am experiencing mild hallucinations and some actual magic, including a skunk and a squirrel both on the patio, looking in our glass kitchen door. A bunny that sometimes visits our yard and whom the kids call Ears is sitting very still in the grass, being gently washed by ambient streetlight. I do wonder if the animals are gathering to sacrifice me to something, or what.
I don’t remember going to bed, but I wake up in my clothes and I must have remembered to turn the oven off. My husband finishes making the sweet potato pie, I make a pecan pie, my brother comes to visit for the morning and everyone plays soccer.
I don’t remember putting the turkey in the oven, but I do remember basting it. At one point, about an hour in, when it was still pale but beginning to really cook, I lifted the foil tent top, burned my hand on the oven’s heating element (I do that all the time) and nearly passed out. The sight of the turkey, and the smell, completely unmanned me. Something about that exact moment, when the turkey was on both sides of the boundary, corpse and foodstuff, was ritually disorienting. I have a sense memory of the smell that has come at me like a very mild assault in the weeks since Thanksgiving.
What else? Well, I don’t remember much of Thanksgiving itself, which is a good thing, because I am told that it was fun and everyone ate and enjoyed themselves and I do know that we did get to catch up with family. The good stuff all tends to wash into a river and can feel undefined (at least if one is overtired and dulled of senses). But even if it doesn’t have the sharp-edged clarity of a disaster, I realize that I get to bathe in it, for which I am thankful.