Cooking My Mother's Gravy
It's not always easy for mothers to give up directing the Thanksgiving meal.
—Debra J. Dickerson
Like Emily Y.'s trouper of a mother-in-law, my Austrian oma cooked the full Thanksgiving dinner until she was in her 90s. Though she didn't immigrate to the United States until she was 25, she quickly embraced this very American holiday. It's always been the big one in my family: We're Jewish but not especially religious, so we don't really do much for the Jewish holidays and celebrating Christmas is out of the question. Oma had a slew of dishes that she cooked every year—a delectable sweet potato soufflé, a rich stuffing with wild rice and sausage. Each year the dishes would taste slightly different, because although my grandmother followed recipes, she was wonderfully imprecise and would only ever think of them as rough guidelines. If the stuffing tasted especially fantastic one year and you'd ask her what she did differently, she'd say with a giggle, "I have no idea!"
Oma died last year at age 96, on the Monday before Thanksgiving. My mother was determined to have Thanksgiving as usual. She and my father woke up early and they prepared the turkey and all of Oma's traditional sides. We all missed her very much, but thought that she would have liked that we cooked the meal she created, and she would have hated to think that we wouldn't carry on with our lives. Like Oma, my mother thinks that children (even when they're pushing 30) should just relax on Thanksgiving, so she did not accept any offers of help with the meal. Unlike Oma, my mother is extremely meticulous, so I bet that the sweet potato soufflé will taste almost identical to the way it did last year. But maybe my mom will throw in an extra dash of cinnamon, in rakish remembrance of her charming mother.
My mom always does the turkey, waking up alone and early to get the big bird in the oven, and later, my dad carves it. My two brothers watch football or go on a jog while the four girls divvy up the rest of the cooking with my mom. Yes, it splits along old-fashioned gender lines, but I'd rather have old-fashioned good pie than gender-neutral goop, on Thanksgiving at least.
My sister Clare, who is both my very best friend and deepest rival, also happens to be an excellent cook. She is particularly good at flashy desserts, and usually Thanksgiving is her big annual showcase. Last year she started a job in Doha, Qatar, and couldn't be home for Thanksgiving, so I ended up cooking more than my usual share. My mom commented about how tasty one of my dishes was, and, in a moment I may never live down, as a supposedly secure adult woman of 25, I turned to her with a wild look in my eyes, and said, "Well, since Clare's not here, it's my year to shine!"
This year Clare is again in Doha, and my two married sisters have other Thanksgiving obligations, so my mom and I are cooking alone. It's going to be a smaller gathering than other years, so we're feeling a little more experimental, e-mailing recipes back and forth that we want to try—there's less pressure to reproduce the usual traditions, and maybe it'll be less diminished-feeling if it's not a simulacrum of our usual. So I suppose it'll be my moment to shine again, but there's no fun in victory if you don't get to make your sisters taste the Brussels sprouts that toppled their reign.
My mother may never forgive me for sharing her secret to a delectable Thanksgiving: the grocery store's Thanksgiving package. For a reasonable price, we get a turkey, the traditional sides, and a couple of pies; the turkey is already cooked and just needs to spend an hour or so in the oven. We supplement with family favorites and are happy feasters.
It wasn't always this way. Throughout my childhood, my mother, a marvelous cook, woke up at dawn on Thanksgiving to bend the turkey to her will. My father's responsibility was to take my brothers and me into Philadelphia to watch the parade—more to get us out of our mother's way than to sate our appetite for local marching bands, I've always suspected. But after my father died and life interrupted in other complicated ways, Thanksgiving became more of a chore than a delight for my mother. Worst of all, we moved to house with a truly terrible oven, whose temperature frequently varied from the readout, making it impossible to gauge how long a turkey would have to cook. Each holiday, my mother became more stressed, taking some of the joy out of the holiday. Then, one magical Thanksgiving, she took the plunge and ordered a Genuardi's holiday dinner. The stress dissipated, and no one mourned the more elaborate to-do. It was beautiful.
This is the first year that my older brother and his fiancée will be hosting Thanksgiving, and I expect my dear soon-to-be-sister-in-law will be outdoing herself (with a free-range turkey!). It will be delicious, I have no doubt. But part of me has come to treasure those low-key holiday feasts. Maybe one day we'll pick up another boxed dinner from Genuardi's.
My mother makes Thanksgiving without a fuss. She is a good cook who doesn't insist that any particular thing in the kitchen must be just so. I miss her over the holiday, which we go to my in-laws for, but I don't long for her squash or worry when my mother-in-law cooks the turkey for a shorter time at a higher temperature. Holiday meals are capacious: There is plenty of room to improvise. My own contribution, apple pie, isn't a family recipe. My mother doesn't make pie. When a friend taught me how after college, my mother's role was to marvel at the accomplishment. It's the gift of cooking freedom, of quietly making sure the meal comes off while passing along the credit.
My mom and I did our Thanksgiving bonding over pies. Thousands and thousands of pies, over the years. My parents owned a mom-and-pop grocery store, one with a reputation for the best meat (nothing prepackaged on Styrofoam trays and swaddled in cellophane) and homemade pies in town. So naturally, the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving were the busiest days of the year.
Every year, the store sold about 1,200 pies—enough to serve, in theory, about one-fourth of our small town. And we did so with a bakery that was smaller than many of today's household kitchens. To pull off this feat, the bakery staff worked through the night on Tuesday, took a break for breakfast, and went right through until early afternoon on Wednesday. My mom didn't work in the bakery, but every year she oversaw the Thanksgiving production process and innovated through the years to improve the process and match the pies to their orders while also placating the last-minute shoppers who forgot to place an order.
Starting in high school, I got to join the all-night baking crew. As I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I looked forward to this out-of-the-ordinary shift (it didn't hurt that my mom called me off school on Wednesday) and did whatever I could to help—counting pies, boxing the cooled pies and matching them to orders, doing dishes, whatever was needed. It was during these crazy nights that I got to see my mom at her best. The business was always a joint venture between my parents—my dad ran the meat department, my mom oversaw the clerks, they did the accounting together—but the Thanksgiving baking was always her show.
By the time Thanksgiving itself rolled around, we were all exhausted. And my mom couldn't bear the thought of touching a pumpkin pie. She sometimes rallied and still put out a tasty Thanksgiving dinner, but as my brother and I got older, we frequently broke with tradition. One year, it was game hens. Another, steak. Now that my brother and I have our own families, we've returned to the tradition of a Thanksgiving feast. My mom is more than happy to let me play hostess, though she does just as much work as I do. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
The Thanksgiving of my youth bore some resemblance to the immigrant version Chang Rae Lee described in last week's New Yorker, only instead of Koreans in New Rochelle, it involved Israelis in Queens. My mother had no idea how to cook a turkey. In fact, she was faintly repulsed by the idea; it struck her as the equivalent of cooking a large dog or a horse. Instead she found a biggish chicken to roast and made some brisket just in case. Then she'd put it on the table and … what? We would just stare at each other, because in Jewish holidays there are rituals—you light candles, eat challah, say certain prayers. But in this case we had no idea what to do or say, and yet we felt if we did not somehow sit around the table and try something, they would revoke our green cards and ship us back home. One year out of sheer confusion and boredom, we brought out the dreidels.
Photograph by Stockbyte/Thinkstock.