A Thanksgiving Lesson

Fifteen years ago, my mother and I fixed our last Thanksgiving Dinner together.

Mom, who is our usual chef and organizer of fantastic feasts, declined hosting the celebration due to a painful hip.  Since my husband and I recently purchased our first home, I jumped at the chance to hold an All-Lori, All-About Me Thanksgiving Spectacle. Our aging Montgomery Ward table would creak under the weight of my homemade repast.

The day before the dinner, I invited Mom over to prep. Vegetables would be chopped, bread cubed, and chardonnay sipped.

Mom pulled up at noon in the family ¾-ton van. Limping heavily, she asked me to unload boxes. I swung open van doors to a staggering assortment of containers. I should not have been surprised. Mom’s approach to everything is militaristic—a task to conquer and subdue. Incredible detail goes into her perfect dinners.

Box one contained two quarts of crystal clear turkey stock for gravy. Formulated from organic turkey necks, gizzards, and her proprietary bouquet garni, Mom detailed its production and the how to achieve the broth’s jewel-like clarity. I discretely poured my murky, gritty broth into our dog’s dish, making a mental note that furious and prolonged boiling of animal parts is better suited to making glue than gravy.

Mom’s second box held her seasoning blends. Handpicked and hand mixed, the aroma evoked decades of Quaker Thanksgiving pasts.  Generations of women before us used these same herbs, perhaps even diced and rubbed with the same fastidiousness.   Butter, margarine, and two kinds of cooking oil nestled in the third box. I smiled, remembering Mom teaching me about the properties of cooking oils. Peanut oil is flavorless and rarely smokes. Butter needs special attention lest it burns.  I make a mental note to scoop my recently charred onions into the compost pile.

Box four held folded parchment paper and ancient copper cookware. “Always buy quality,” Mom reminded me, “Good equipment means good cooking.”

I opened box five, a 12-gallon metal-hinged storage container. Mom’s bundled cutlery collection shared space with her favorite chopping blocks and a hodgepodge of, plates, dishes, and 1970’s Tupperware. Mismatched measuring cups and favorite stirring spoons protruded from items wrapped in decades-old (but immaculate!) dishtowels.  As I hauled in a sixth box (Favorite frying pan! Gargantuan whisk! Metal bowls I remember from first grade! ), I felt overwhelmed by the Mom-stuff, crowding my newly appointed Dollar Store kitchen. Was the idea of post-Thanksgiving washing and packing up thirty years of loved kitchen supplies daunting? Not as much as feeling small and un-hostess-like.

I equipped Mom’s cooking station, according to detailed directions. Each instruction rendered me younger and younger until at last, I was six years old. My broth sucked. My onions burned. My spices stank. How could I host such a special event? Tension stirred my shoulders, but remembering my real age, I poured us each a glass of wine. Conviviality resumed.

Back to following instructions, I handed Mom her largest cutting board delicately wrapped in a pillowcase that once belonged to my grandmother.  Mom unmasked it with a musical “Tada!”

I cringed.  Satan’s unsavory, punched-out-by-Jesus incisor would have looked more wholesome.  An abundance of crisscrossing knife marks etched and blackened its putrid yellow surface. Mom, noting my grimace, reminded me that her chopping block was quite sanitary since she microwaves it daily. “Bleaching your chopping block,” she said, “ruins the taste of the food you cut on it.” The knowing twinkle in her eye tells me she is teasing–I disinfect with swathes of Tilex Mold & Mildew Remover with Bleach, which she finds revolting.

Mom launched into her chopping ceremony with a knife sharpening ritual (she also brought her sharpening kit). I washed veggies and used the food processor to mince Vidalia onions for my famous green chile cranberry sauce. My mechanical dicing scandalized mom, who discussed it with our dog Misty (“Food processing destroys the cellular structure of the onions, Misty!”).  I joined Mom at the cooking station, with my super-ultra-white bleached cutting board.

Mom’s freshly sharpened knives gleamed before her. She described the particulars of her favorite cutting tools selected to optimize the paring, chopping, dicing and trimming of specific ingredients for tomorrow’s meal. When Mom sensed me drifting off, she addressed Misty. Here is a knife for onions, a knife for celery, a knife for bread, a knife for me to stab myself in the head with, and so on.

The more she instructed, the more irritable I became.  I was the hostess! This was my meal to screw up or succeed. I wanted her to listen to me, be proud of me, and accept me and my burnt onions as good enough because I was her daughter. Of course, I didn’t say this. Instead, I snapped at her when she asked Misty why I forgot to buy shallots.

“I didn’t forget them, Mom! I burned the shallots along with the onions,” I said, showing her my pan of shame.

Mom pursed her lips and eyed Misty, but wisely stayed silent.  I huffed around the kitchen for a bit, until I noticed Mom and Misty regarding me with amused affection. I shook my head and laughed, meeting Mom’s warm eyes.  She laughed, too and Misty dashed around the house in celebration.  An unspoken peace presided. Mom praised my green chile cranberry sauce, and I offered her my special nut-chopping knife.  Compliments flowed. With her guidance, we served an excellent meal.

As I look back, I realize I missed what was happening. Mom was passing the torch to me. I became the maker of Thanksgiving Feasts, and Mom was showing me how to do it right. She packed up her whole kitchen with delicate care. She assembled ancestral herbs spices and took her time to walk me through it step by step. I was so enamored by the thrill of being the host; I forgot the tradition, deliciousness, and my dear mothers place in our family history.

Mom and I now live 2,000 miles apart, so we don’t cook together any longer. Her lessons, however, are still with me. I burn onions and dry out the turkey, but now these misadventures are funny stories we share. Maybe the biggest lesson I learned was to accept myself as imperfect and know that I am loved.

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