My memories of Thanksgiving are not exactly the stuff of Norman Rockwell illustrations. Oh, there have been plenty of fond memories, just not your typical textbook Americana vignettes. For one thing, I didn’t grow up in a traditional American household. My mother and father were Italian immigrants, as was the overwhelming majority of my cousins. I was born here, but my first words were probably spoken with an Italian accent.
The traditional American Thanksgiving dinner consists of roast turkey with cranberry sauce and dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans and other assorted goodies. My Thanksgiving dinners came with most of that, plus a steaming bowl of homemade pasta smothered in homemade tomato sauce and a huge platter of meat that had spent hours simmering in that sauce – things like homemade meatballs, braciole and salsiccia (aka fresh Italian sausage). There was always homemade wine and homemade bread on our dinner table. The insalata – a tossed salad dressed with vinegar and oil, plus a small plate of olives on the side, in case anybody wanted some – came after the main course and before the dessert, which may have included pumpkin pie, raisin pie (my father’s favorite), biscotti, and who knows what else.
On any Sunday or holiday, my mother would get up around 5:30 and start preparing dinner, which we ate at noon, or shortly thereafter. By 9:00 AM, if you walked anywhere near my mother’s kitchen, the aromas alone could cause you to gain two pounds. And if she was expecting ten people for dinner that day, my mother cooked for twenty. That woman would rather have died than see us run out of food. My father used to say, “If you leave my table hungry, you’re a damn fool.”
When I was a child, back in the 1960’s, there were still a good number of live poultry shops in the Chicago area. And since my grandfather, who briefly shared ownership of a small restaurant, refused to eat any bird we hadn’t killed ourselves, the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving dinner was usually still walking during the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. I still recall a particularly traumatic experience I had one Wednesday afternoon prior to Thanksgiving, when I ran down to the basement of our Blue Island home, probably looking for my father, and came face-to-face with a tom turkey that was every bit as tall as I was. Maybe taller. We both stood there for a moment, staring at each other in the dim light of what was remaining daylight filtered through a small basement window above our heads.
The turkey said nothing. I turned and bolted back up the basement stairs, yelling at the top of my lungs, “Mmmmaaaaaaaa!” In the decades that followed, for as long as that house remained in the family, I always approached the basement with caution.
As time went on, it became apparent that nobody in our family cared all that much for leftover turkey. So by the mid 1970’s my mother had discovered the perfect solution to this: She stopped making turkey for Thanksgiving and baked a ham instead. This went on for years until 1986, the first year my new bride and I had Thanksgiving dinner at my folks’ house. A few weeks before, my mother turned to my wife and asked, “Karen, what would you like to have for Thanksgiving dinner?” Ma was just was trying to be accommodating to her new daughter-in-law. And in a similar spirit, not wanting her mother-in-law to go out of her way, my new wife responded, “Oh, a turkey would be fine.”
We had a huge turkey that Thanksgiving, plus all the other stuff – even a small ham. When Karen found out, after the fact, that my mother hadn’t cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving in years, but in fact had prepared that trophy bird just to please her, she seemed irritated with me for some reason. “I’m gonna’ kill you,” she hissed at me as I drove us home. “Why didn’t you tell me?!”
“But dear, had I done that, you would have given an answer to please Ma, when all she wanted to do was please you. See?”
Let me tell you, my wife may have been small, but she could sure pack a punch.
I’ll never forget the first time my wife baked a big, beautiful ham for dinner. Within 30 minutes, the whole house was filled with this burning chemical stench. It seems my bride had removed the outer plastic wrapper without realizing there had been a second layer of plastic beneath it. I came running into the kitchen just as she was removing our slightly charred, plastic-glazed dinner from the oven.
I tried to lighten up the situation by exclaiming, “Oh, look, a laminated ham!” Man, that woman can really swat when she wants to.
So yeah, our Thanksgiving gatherings may sometimes be more suitable for a slapstick comedy that the cover of Life magazine, but they are no less memorable. And it’s still very much about family for us. Grandparents. Parents. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Brothers. Sisters. And always, always children. These have surrounded me on various major holidays throughout the years – and there have been a lot of them now.
One last thought: Traveling has become a little easier for me over the years. When I first got married, starting the Thanksgiving holiday with a full tank of gas was very important, because even the local gas stations were closed on major holidays. I can only speculate that this is because, being people, retailers back then had their own families with whom to spend their holidays – and hearts that made them want to do nothing less. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that again.
To all of my readers, old and new, I wish a happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!