The year my husband and I were married, I hosted my first Thanksgiving. We were living in Philadelphia and our home had somehow become the destination for my husband’s family, my mother-in-law, my new sister-in-law and her husband, plus my mother, too.
I sat down with my Food and Wine magazine the month before Thanksgiving, and I made a list. I planned out what I could do five days in advance, four days in advance, three days and so on. I made lists of ingredients by recipe and then a master list where all the ingredients converged, such that I somehow noted that I’d need a total of 7 sticks of butter, 1 lb. of mascarpone, and 2 cups of heavy cream, as well as 2 dozen eggs, high cholesterol be damned. My planning was epic. A caramel-almond french toast bake for the morning, and for dinner, maple whipped sweet potatoes, mustard seed string beans, apple cider cranberry sauce, caramelized carrots, homemade gravy, apple-chestnut stuffing and a cranberry cheesecake tart. Boom.
I wanted my Thanksgiving to be nothing like the Thanksgivings I had grown up with. No canned cranberry sauce or instant mashed potatoes with the grated cheddar cheese you buy in the bag. No burnt freezer rolls or canned sweet potatoes in a bowl lined with canned pineapple slices with marshmallows and peanuts on top. No canned pumpkin pie filling poured into a pre-made crust. And none of the chaos of my childhood Thanksgivings. I wanted a Food and Wine Thanksgiving.
But even with all the planning, that first dinner didn’t turn out perfectly. I vaguely remember something about the tart left in the garage to stay cool because there was no room in the refrigerator being nibbled on by a critter and the gravy being congealed and lumpy. Plus there was my raging allergy to dairy that was only diagnosed years later, sadly.
In the years since, the holiday hasn’t been all that impeccable either. There was the year of the under-cooked Brussels sprouts and beets or the year my husband did something incredibly wrong to the apple pie crust and we all had to pretend it didn’t taste like melted plastic. One year my son sliced his eyebrow open ice skating but I just butterfly taped it because… Thanksgiving. (Such a scar!) Then there was the drunken Karate Kid kick at the sink that resulted in me loudly breaking my toe on my husband’s shin. Not a Thanksgiving goes by in fact without some sort of awkward mishap or annoying family drama.
And yet it’s the holiday my husband likes the best. He likes it so much, I cook up homemade stuffing and cranberry sauce with a roasted bird on any given fall Sunday just so he can get his Thanksgiving fix on.
My father liked the holiday, too.
When I was a kid he would sit at the head of the table weighted down by a life too filled with illness and responsibility for a 120lb man, and he'd get sentimental peering out at his five children, including two with major disabilities, along with his brother and sister-in-law, my mom, and my cousins.
"I'm just so thankful," he'd say, with a pile of medicine next to his sparsely covered plate. "I'm so thankful to be here." He'd murmur, struggling to hold up his head.
And we'd go around the table awkwardly, declaring our mumbled thanks, for each other, for family, for our new Cabbage Patch Doll or whatever seemed most important, one after the other.
"I'm so thankful for all of you," he'd finish, teary-eyed, raising his martini glass. And then with a quick "Come Lord Jesus, be our guest..." we'd pass the canned gravy to my aunt and uncle, the frozen beans, the Kraft cheddar potato buds. We'd fill our plates with the packaged food lovingly heated, tell stories about how my parents met, about my mother's first Thanksgiving with my dad’s family.
They're mostly gone now, my father, my aunt and uncle, my brother, all passed on to a place where the martinis flow freely and they’ve outlawed pumpkin pie in favour of apple, I hope. And in the corporeal world, we've added a posse of kids, newly minted aunts and uncles, and those in-laws from that first Food and Wine Thanksgiving.
And of course, the canned food is gone. I could whip up fresh cranberry sauce tipsy with a freshly broken toe, apparently. But the sentiment, I guess, is mostly the same.
Time can't change what's most important here, and perhaps the experience of growing our own families distills the experience to its essence. It was never about the quality of the food, not really. Or the picture perfect vision of the day. It was about the gratitude for all we have, even if what we have before us is a little burnt or canned, scarred or broken.
And so every year I sit at the end of the table, gazing out at the faces of my four healthy children, my mother, my husband, my in-laws, our family and friends. "I'm just so thankful," I say, holding my glass high, just like my father used to do. "I'm just so thankful for all of you."
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