Even after my mother began working full-time (outside the home), every Thanksgiving was an event. It was a time to show your love for your family, to bring them together and to cherish them. However, with the stress associated with this meal…you’d never know that! “Thanksgiving is the hardest meal to get on the table”, she said. And, we all believed that because, though absolutely delicious, it was a truly painful exercise.
My mother would wake at 4am to put the giant turkey in the oven. It had been thawing in the refrigerator for days and it would then take hours to roast. She had made three or four pans of cornbread and the multiple loaves of Wonder bread had been torn apart and strewn around the kitchen and utility room to dry for the cornbread dressing; it couldn’t be finished until after the turkey came out of the oven. You see, we did not stuff the turkey, not because it was a source for food poisoning but because it would be soggy. Therefore, we had baked dressing that depended on the quality of the turkey and its broth. If the turkey broth wasn’t good, then the dressing wouldn’t be good. Anathema! And, don’t even talk about the gravy if the broth isn’t up to par, and bad gravy? Another horror. Potatoes? Well, you could peel and dice them and leave them in cold water but couldn’t finish them until right before dinner. Pies couldn’t be baked until Thanksgiving Day; they would be “old”. Even the cranberry sauce was made from scratch, poured into gelatin molds, covered and left to sit in the cold garage. You can’t put it in the refrigerator; it will weep and not set up properly.
Yes, my mother was a perfectionist. If it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t worth doing. That character trait extended into all parts of her life, the kitchen included; it was her domain, make no mistake about that. Children were not allowed in my mother’s kitchen; they were messy and required supervision. The kitchen was her playing field and she would not, could not allow anyone to distract her from her mission. And, her mission on Thanksgiving was to produce a perfect bird with all of the trimmings on the table with everything piping hot and amazingly delicious. And, no one better get in her way. Her intensity was palpable as she orchestrated the meal and its components. The term “well-oiled machine” comes to mind. The Thanksgiving groaning board had a rhythm and predictability about it. There was the turkey, of course, all 22 pounds, always golden brown and never ever dry, the traditional cornbread dressing, steamy and toasty brown with flecks of celery and onion and the heady aroma of rubbed sage, velvety and buttery mashed potatoes, savory and earthy giblet gravy not to mention the unending variety of vegetables. And, it all had to be there at once, nothing could lag behind. Hence, the incantation – “Thanksgiving is the hardest meal to get on the table!”
But the interesting thing about my mother and her need for a perfect dinner table was that it was also an expression of how much she loved you. It was supremely important for her to know what her husband, children and extended family enjoyed eating so that she could prepare it with great care and love. Having grown up on a farm, she completely respected the food and her love for her family was an extension of that respect. Food lovingly prepared for the people in her life.