I have more than half a century’s worth of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners under my belt (quite literally, at this point). Most of the memories are of tasty and pleasant meals spent in the company of generally agreeable relatives. There is a fairly wide gap between cousins in my family and we did not have a children’s ghetto table, so I always got to sit with the adults, ensuring that I did not miss out on anything passed at the table, be that food or gossip. Most of these memories, however warm, remain a bit fuzzy and vague.
It is the bad, weird, unconventional or haywire holidays that stick like burnt cranberry relish in the saucepan of my mind. I am betting the same is true for everyone else. How often do we talk to each other about perfect holiday meals? That’s what cooking shows and magazines are for. The blundered holiday meals are the ones we talk about, when all is said and done (sad and overdone).
My first bad Thanksgiving was when I was about eight. The plan was to do the across-town trip to my grandparents’ house, where we would always have delicious dinners on exquisite china and eat with elegant silverware that really was silver. Thanksgiving that year was also my birthday, which meant presents and cake! That morning dawned cold, grey and with every unprotected outside surface covered with a gorgeous but transportation-halting layer of ice. Nobody went anywhere. The only thing my mother had in the house was leftovers. I am sure we probably all got together later that weekend for Grandmother’s dinner, but all I remember about that year’s Thanksgiving was the bitterness and gall of chewy pork chops instead of turkey, and no birthday presents or cake. When you are eight, this is about emotionally crushing as it gets.
The very first time I cooked Christmas dinner was also memorable. I was living in Chicago, and back in the early 90s nobody was into organic or local turkeys. I decided to get a fresh turkey at a butcher in an ethnic neighborhood that featured live, fresh birds. The place was hard to find and stank like a slaughterhouse (which it basically was). The chickens and turkeys were in little compartments behind a clear plastic sheet that hung between them and the sales counter. I watched as Eastern European housewives came in, rattled off a string of commands and packages came out for them. I finally got to the front of the line and gave my order number. A clerk emerged a few minutes later, carrying a plucked and dressed turkey, which he heaved onto a large stainless steel scale. My turkey was weighed and wrapped. Then, while I was paying for it, someone came from the back carrying a very large and very lively rabbit by the ears. The rabbit was more or less chucked into the same scale where my naked turkey had just been sitting. I was completely terrified for the rest of Christmas that one of the dinner guests would come down with tularemia.
This year’s Thanksgiving will go down in my memory as “Küchedammerung.” About a month ago my refrigerator began making odd, Wagnerian noises. The weekend before Thanksgiving it was no longer maintaining safe temperatures and my freezer contents had to be hastily transferred to a friend’s freezer, where their unfilled antelope tag meant they had room for my stuff. It was getting steadily warmer in the fridge, and this year I didn’t have the free refrigeration fallback that cold weather normally affords. Thus began the gel-pack shuffle between my dying fridge and a neighbor’s. By Thanksgiving Day, it was barely working at all. Midweek, my oven abruptly decided to cease its normal good behavior; its temperatures varied so widely I had to find a backup location for the Sunrise Rotary Pumpkin Pie Bake-Off—nobody wants raw pumpkin custard and gooey pastry. Using a gimpy oven approaches the challenge that cooking in an old-fashioned frontier cookstove presents in terms of achieving and maintaining a consistent temperature. Thank God I had asked someone else to bake rolls for Thanksgiving. Then, on Thanksgiving morning, my kitchen faucet sprung a leak that resulted in needing to sweep all the cleaning products out from under the sink and replace them with a bucket. Like I said, “Twilight of the Kitchen.” Sears got a lot of my business last week, largely because there is no longer anybody in Laramie who fixes appliances for a living, and I am not convinced my aging, suddenly demonic appliances deserved to be fixed, anyway. A shout-out to Eagle Plumbing, who came promptly to my house on what I am told is “black Friday” for plumbers.
It brings you back to reality when a tragic opera unfolds in your kitchen at holiday meal time. However, I am at peace with this. I have learned that as embarrassing or inconvenient as holiday culinary failure can be, love is still there. Everybody gets fed something, and a good time is still had by all. Hang on to those bad holiday meal memories—after all, nobody really wants to hear about your Pinterest-perfect Christmas dinner. A frontier-conditions Thanksgiving dinner in Wyoming is a much better story.