November 22, 2011

How to cook a turkey--if you're a reader

Are you cooking this week? Here's a tip: buy the biggest frozen turkey you can find. Put it in the oven now. That should give you plenty of time to read my books on Kindle and Nook before you have to serve dinner on Thursday!

The story below was originally from Free Pecan Pie and Other Chick Stories. I'm posting it here because it's about my family. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

A New-fangled Thanksgiving Tradition

Janelle Meraz Hooper
   Thanksgiving dinner was always the same at Mom’s, and that was how we liked it. In a changing world that created new stress by the minute, we could always depend on Mom’s turkey to be perfectly browned, and her cornbread dressing nicely laced with celery, wild pecans, and raisins. Giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peas filled in every spare spot on our plate. There were no tortillas on this day—I suspect because there just wasn’t enough free counter space in the kitchen to roll them out. The rolls we ate were the packaged kind that came in a paper tray and were already partially cooked. The cranberry sauce that replaced the normal salsa was canned and always served on our fancy glass tray that had been around since Roosevelt put a turkey in every pot (or was that a chicken?).
   Okay, so it wasn’t a gourmet meal, but it was good—and the large family that came to share it thought it was perfect. Almost every time.
   But one year, when my mom and her sister were both close to eighty, my aunt arrived from California and brought her new-fangled ideas about tradition with her. Thanksgiving morning, my Aunt Pat got up early and beat my mom to the kitchen, determined to “California-ize” our turkey dinner. The first item on the menu that she changed was the cranberries―she used real ones. Mom was suspicious when she looked at the marble-sized fruit bubbling on the stove with bits of fresh orange peel. She didn’t like the looks of those orange shavings. To her, they looked like something that slipped past the food inspectors. Mom believed cranberry sauce should be pushed out of a can with those little ridges that showed her where to cut the slices. “No one will know what this stuff is.” she worried. “This isn’t what they’re used to. And it smells funny.”
   My aunt stood her ground. Resigned to a cranberry failure, Mom went to the living room to relax and read the paper. She didn’t see my aunt pull my mom’s traditional cornbread dressing out of the oven and stir in a bag of fresh spinach. The last thing my aunt did before she left the kitchen was replace the table butter with an unidentified soy product she’d brought in her handbag from Santa Barbara that didn’t look, taste, or smell like butter.
   The family was sitting down at the table when Mom pulled the dressing out of the oven and discovered that it’d turned green. Her sister told her it was the latest thing in California, and much healthier. Mom was appalled and predicted, “No one will eat it.”
   And they didn’t. That bowl was passed around the table so often it looked like it was in its own special green orbit, and no one would touch it. On one of its last flights around the table, my cousin reluctantly put a spoonful on her toddler’s plate, but the kid broke out in tears, so my cousin took it off and hid it in her napkin. Finally, my aunt mumbled something about taking the dressing to the kitchen to heat it up. It never returned.
   The fancy cranberry sauce met much the same fate. When it was passed around the table, everyone would try to get a portion that was not laced with orange peel. No one succeeded. Soon it entered its own orbit, crisscrossing the orbit of the green cornbread dressing. Around and around the table it flew until the contents of the bowl were just a fragrant red blur circling the Planet Table, not unlike the rings around Saturn.
   Mom and her sister are both gone now, and I think of them often, especially around the holidays. Looking back, maybe green dressing and orange cranberries wouldn’t have been that awful. I should have at least tasted them. Although, sister rivalry being what it was, I’m sure Mom would have never forgiven me if I had.
   It has been years since that dinner, but the saga of the New-Fangled Thanksgiving Tradition lives on to this day. No one in our family will accept an invitation for Thanksgiving dinner without first inquiring, “What’s in your cranberries—and what color is your cornbread dressing?”

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