November 26, 2009

Stuffing Wars, The Dish Lottery, and Other Holiday Customs Posted by Kate Flora The other night at dinner, my husband was asking about my family's holiday traditions. I must be a bear of little brain, as Pooh says, because I can't remember very many traditions. I think I spent my entire childhood being unobservant, because I always had my nose in a book. Also because holidays tend to be those occasions when people fight, and having your nose stuck in a book makes it easier to filter out the raised voices. However, under his persistent questioning, I was able to dredge up a few memories of turkey days past. Here are the ones that top the list. The Year My Mother Outraged My Father's Family! Thanksgiving seems to have traditionally been held at our family farm in Union, Maine. Depending on the year, we would have my grandmother, her sister Lillian, Lillian's son Richard, his wife, and their too-sweet daughter Sherry. Uncle Kleba. Uncle Guy and Aunt Lucille. Against this overwhelming onslaught of Clark relatives, my mother created her own protective device--the collection of strays. That meant that along with all the people who, in my father's opinion, BELONGED there, my mother would collect a tiny handful of little old ladies who lived alone and a few odd folks from church, and they would also be included. By the time my parents were done, we had a rather large crowd gathered around the table. And after the tiny green glasses of creme de menthe to aide the digestion were downed, we had rather a large number of dirty dishes. Feeling, most righteously, that she had already spent the better part of the day in the kitchen, my mother evolved an equitable system for assigning dish washing duty. Everyone got a number, and people did five or ten minute dish washing stints according to their numbers and a kitchen timer. My poor father, who was always desperate to avoid being embarrassed in front of his relatives, used to writhe in humiliation as the tottery old Uncles and Aunts were marched to the kitchen, wrapped in aprons, and set to work doing dishes. He never got used to it. I expect the relatives, particularly the elderly male relatives never got used to it either, and my brother John, my sister Sara, and I marveled at our mother's courage. Stuffing Wars. It is a fact well known in any blended family that THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FAMILY doesn't make stuffing that is as good as ours. I think we've gotten over that, for the most part. My mother made wonderful stuffing. My mother-in-law's stuffing is better. By contrast, my uncle Kleba's wife made the world's worst stuffing--miserable, tasteless bits of burned, dry bread that no amount of gravy could resuscitate. Interestingly enough, my mother-in-law's sister also made awful stuffing. We used to hope for Thanksgiving at our house so we wouldn't have to eat the gummy mass thick with chunks of liver and giblets that one relative produced. And one year, my sister Sara, who had spent her summer working on an island off the coast of Maine as the cook for a picky and eccentric New York interior designer, decided that we needed to get just a wee bit more sophisticated in our tastes, and brought a separate dish of oyster stuffing. She was a fantastic cook, and it was a hit. (As long as there was also mom's stuffing for the ritual next day turkey sandwich. Oysters don't quite make it in a turkey sandwich) It is very easy to assume that stuffing really doesn't matter very much...whether it is good or bad...until somehow, the stuffing gets completely forgotten. Which is what my brother John did one year. He got the job of fixing the turkey, and completely forgot to make stuffing. A fact that wasn't revealed until everyone had searched the table, and the oven, and the carcass, repeatedly, assuming it had to be somewhere. He has never been allowed to forget this dereliction. Indeed, some years, he gets a phone call, reminding him of the importance of stuffing. And the terrible year of NO STUFFING is always mentioned several times during dinner. Thanksgiving is also not "right" unless there are too many pies. Usually, a ration of one pie for every three people is considered correct, but my sister Sara used to get a bit manic about baking pies. She never could make just one. Or two. Or three. One year, she showed up with five. Among them, since toward the end of her insane baking spree she was running low on ingredients, was a pie that was a mixture of sour cherry and raspberry. Not a traditional turkey day offering. Bar none, the best pie I've ever eaten. I'm waiting for the next generation to start a few wars of their own, once we get the family horse-trading straightened out and figure out who has to go where each year to appease which family. Meanwhile, we've only got three styles of cranberry relish. Whole berry (I made my own this year), jellied, and the wonderful raw cranberry, apple, orange relish my son Max makes. Surely there must be some other styles. Surely we can find room for one more dish on table? Or maybe not. Oops...forgot perhaps the best T'day story of all. One year, my friend Nancy happened to have Julia Child at her house for Thanksgiving. Julia arrived with the turkey, and a separate oven to cook the legs. Nancy, who gets a bit nervous about entertaining anyway, got so flustered she forgot to serve about half the things she'd prepared. Who among us would have done any better? Finally, no Thanksgiving Day is complete without the ritual reading of Art Buchwald's column, Explaining Thanksgiving to the French. You might find it here: Meanwhile, I'm avoiding all the TV shows that tell me that by just picking five nuts off the pecan pie I can save 100 calories. Dieting on Thanksgiving Day is a...

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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