Holiday dinners usually make for unforgettable occasions, whether in a good way, or not-so-good way. Of course, we always envision a splendid, wonderful time, with delicious food and conviviality and camaraderie; however, sometimes these gatherings falter for one reason or another, and other times, they are the joyous, heart-warming, grateful gatherings we all hope for. Here are some memorable Thanksgiving experiences shared by our writers.
“Sharon, I need your help.” That’s how one Thanksgiving Day began many years ago. A glassy-eyed relative cornered me, whispering that he’d dropped acid earlier and things weren’t going so well. “Can you stay with me? Make sure I’m OK? I just need someone to tell me everything’s OK.” I’d never had any direct experience with this drug before, but how could I refuse?
I think dinner was the hardest. Too much chatter, too many social cues that seemed impossible to follow. His eyes would dart to mine, and I’d mouth, “Everything’s OK.”
I turned my back on him for a minute. My aunt was cleaning up and had scraped the food from the plates into the trash. Later he explained to me that the effects of the acid caused the food on the top of the trash to appear beautiful, glistening, moist, and inviting. I walked in just as he was asking my aunt if he could eat it. “That’s garbage!” she shouted. “Are you crazy?”
We can laugh about it now. The best part of being a member of a large extended family full of eccentric characters is that I never know what to expect. There’s never a dull moment. For that, I’m thankful. And everything’s OK.
— S. Anderson
A TURKEY DAY AND BEYOND
I’ve always been one for Thanksgiving table decor, complete with foil-wrapped chocolate turkeys at each place, colorful centerpieces, and matching candles. And I wanted this particular Thanksgiving to be especially festive because it was a gathering of 12 people who barely knew each other, but all of whom would figure in each others’ future lives:
Peter (the man, many years my junior, I’d eventually marry); his mother, Pat (a new and genuine friend, one year my junior); Phillip, my ex-husband (our host); Sheldon (the man I’d fixed Phillip up with weeks before); Sheldon’s mother and father; cousin Nancy; Ben and Alex (Nancy’s teenagers); and Christina and Katy (Sheldon’s teenagers).
There were also three dogs.
The gay men and Sheldon’s mother ran the kitchen, cooking fabulous food. Sheldon’s father watched football (someone had to … it was Thanksgiving). Peter, Ben and Alex tossed a ball outside as the girls watched, and I discussed life with Peter’s mom as the house filled with the delectable aromas of cinnamon sweet potatoes and roasting turkey.
Gradually we all became more comfortable with each other, and by the time we sat down, common interests were coalescing, love was happening, and a family was forming.
Sixteen years later, much of the same family is gathering again, and I know we’ll laugh about that first time we carved turkey together.
— E. Baron
THE HAPHAZARD GOURMET
When I was a randy bachelor, my friend Richard Gehman came to visit at Thanksgiving. Richard, also a randy bachelor, was a writer of novels, movie star biographies, and cookbooks. I lived on Telegraph Hill. Richard lived in New York. But we saw each other a lot here or there, in search of fun and frolic. I called Richard the haphazard gourmet because he had once written a book with that title. He was a fine, but limited, cook — and he was indeed haphazard.
Richard had a turkey recipe given to him by a New York sportswriter. We planned to try it out for a couple of young neighborhood ladies.
Richard’s recipe called for a 16-pound turkey to be stuffed with, among other things, crushed pineapple, apples, bamboo shoots, preserved ginger, garlic, chopped green pepper, breadcrumbs, some ground veal and pork, about a pound of butter, some cooking sherry, and about a dozen other unlikely ingredients. Our bird was dutifully stuffed and then came the eyebrow-lifting step — coating it with a stiff paste of flour, hot dry mustard, egg yolk, onion juice, garlic powder, and a lot of cayenne pepper. It was then roasted in a hot oven for five and a half hours while Richard and I and our brave neighborhood friends dipped into that cooking sherry.
When we took the bird out of the oven it looked like a 16-pound dead raccoon. Richard and I lost our credibility with the neighbors.
— E. Beyl
FULL BELLY, FULL HEART
My job as a restaurant columnist is on many levels a dream job, but when things like whole pies show up at my front door, it makes me cringe a bit inside. It can be too much.
I try to balance the over-abundance by doing what I can to support the CHEFS program (Conquering Homelessness through Employment in Food Service), an incredible organization. They do so much to help people get back on their feet after being on the street.
One of the most poignant experiences I’ve had was a few years ago. My dear sister, a nurse, had to work. So instead of not having her at the Thanksgiving table (unthinkable!), we postponed our gathering. There was a shift open to serve Thanksgiving dinner at one of the Episcopal Community Services shelters, and I took it.
I’m sure it was hard for some of those shelter residents to be in that dining room under the harsh fluorescent lights, eating off a tray, surrounded by strangers. My throat felt tight, knowing the table I would be dining at with my sweet family. I asked each shelter resident what they liked most, and made sure to put as much of whatever they wanted on each tray. I wanted to serve each resident with love.
The next evening, as I sat with my family around our candlelit table, I really, truly, gave thanks, for everything. The bounty that was on the table was the least of it.
— M. Gagliardi
THE FLOORED TURKEY
I’m a turkey baby. Yep, born on the very day, yet some years I am spared having to share my day with a stuffed turkey and candied yams.
In my early 20s, I drove to my parents’ house, a hour or so north of where I was living, eager to visit not just them, but my absolutely favorite aunt and uncle, both of whom I positively adored. Every occasion was always better when they were there. Plus, this year included a cousin and his wife.
Things portended well when I arrived, and my mom had pasted on the garage door, “Happy Birthday, Lynette,” in large letters cut from the newspaper. I was warmed at the effort, not recalling any such display in all my years growing up.
The afternoon proceeded quite well, with much conversation and conviviality, until my dad apparently thought my mom should be proceeding more with dinner instead of convivial-ing. Next thing I knew there was sufficient and prolonged shouting from the kitchen, which resulted in, oops — the turkey on the floor.
Even Uncle Howard and Aunt Laura couldn’t save that dinner, with their usual easygoing, joking manner. No one knew what to think or do or say. We all ate in stiff silence, and I cried the entire way home.
— L. Majer
THE POP-UP THERMOMETER
After my mother died, my father rather quickly married a beautiful, accomplished and much younger former colleague, Jill. My sister Elizabeth and I couldn’t help but resent this woman who had taken our mother’s place in Dad’s heart.
When Jill extended a Thanksgiving invitation, we were skeptical. From what we’d seen, she wasn’t much of a cook. Mom had been a foodie whose Thanksgiving feasts had been nothing less than fabulous. Still, my then husband and I packed up our two kids and flew to D.C., and my sister and her family drove down from New Jersey.
On Thanksgiving Day, we arrived at Dad and Jill’s lovely home at the appointed time. My sister brought a pie and a pan of our mother’s special stuffing.
As the guys sipped wine, and the cousins became reacquainted, Elizabeth and I headed to the kitchen to see if we could be of help. Jill, exquisitely dressed, was flushed and flustered. “I thought the turkey would be done by now, but the button hasn’t popped up yet.”
My sister and I exchanged a glance. We hadn’t seen a turkey with a pop-up thermometer since we were little. We peeked inside the oven. The turkey sat in an aluminum pan, deeply submerged in its own juices and far from brown.
Thankfully, we’d learned something from our mother. Jill’s oven had a convection function she’d never used; we took the turkey out and siphoned off most of the liquid and then returned it to a hotter oven. Jill was clearly relieved and turned over the rest of the meal to us.
About two hours later than planned, we all sat down to one of the best Thanksgiving dinners ever. It turns out a turkey that’s been prebasted is pretty darned moist and tasty. And we all began to love Jill that day.
— J. Mitchell
AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER
One Thanksgiving, we invited a family of relatives to stay with us, a husband and wife, and their grown kids. We knew this couple was in the midst of some marital discord, so we were surprised when they accepted our invitation.
They all came — for the entire week! They brought a $5 hostess gift and made no offer to pay for any meals or expenses, although I served the whole bunch of them three meals a day, and we took them out on several excursions, driving them around town wherever they wanted to go.
One of the kids brought his new girlfriend. She uttered less than 10 words the entire week and then came down with a horrible case of the flu, turning my daughter’s room into an infirmary. The husband and wife bickered and squabbled almost constantly.
On Thanksgiving morning, the men and kids went on an outing and the wife stayed behind. While I chopped and diced and sliced and baked, she sat and watched while drinking an entire bottle of wine … then proceeded to tell me about her husband’s several affairs, the evidence of which (love letters and journals) she had recently found.
For the next several hours, I cooked and she cried in the stuffing. That night, when a couple of my close friends joined us for dinner, she told each of them the whole story again. Meanwhile, her husband got drunk and hit on two of my friends, while the sick girlfriend wandered down in her pajamas to grab some turkey in between naps.
THE GOOD BROTHER
It’s painful to recall the wretched, near hopeless feeling that overwhelmed me in mid-November 2008, as I wrestled with the crippling aftermath of a motorbike accident from a week and a half before. Facing the possibility of losing my left leg, dealing with an apartment that was nowhere near handicap accessible, but determined to do whatever it took to walk again, I was fortunate that my brother and his family were living reasonably close in Monterey. He never hesitated to offer me shelter and assistance, picking me up at the hospital, taking me to his house, fixing up a corner of the place to accommodate me, and driving me back and forth to the necessary doctor appointments.
Thanksgiving rolled around, and though I was hardly rolling with my shattered tibia and my walker, I looked forward to the comfort of food and family. My brother, sister-in-law, and some neighbors laid out a massive holiday spread. As I savored every bite of dinner, I looked around at the smiling faces, marveled at the generosity and patience of my family, and felt waves of gratitude that chased away my fear and trepidation — the first step on what would be a year-plus journey to recovery.
— M. Snyder