My mother was a very smart woman who found ways to impart her wisdom that both felt good—and tasted good. Stories about food and food memories permeate my recollections. In my next three blog posts, I’ll share Ten Turkey Teachings that I learned from my mother along with my plan to infuse these teachings into todays menu of events. These first three focus on BEFORE Thanksgiving.
1. It’s not about the turkey.
2. We don’t REALLY need it.
3. Set the table early.
1. It’s Not About the Turkey
Even though we lived 500 miles apart, my mom and I used to spend hours planning for Thanksgiving dinner. The food itself was never the “main course.” It was more about the planning, the many “long-distance, advance-team” discussions we’d have over every facet of the color scheme, which was the same every year. We’d also labor over every single side dish.
“I found a recipe in the paper for corn pudding. I think I’ll make it this year.”
“Corn pudding? Who likes corn?”
“It’s tradition. The Pilgrims ate corn. Why shouldn’t we?”
“Ma, the Pilgrims ate outside, too. Do I need to pack a tent?”
“Of course not. I already set the table.”
“Thanksgiving’s not for two weeks.”
“I like to be ready. Now, I have time to make the corn pudding.”
“It’s good to try something new.”
“It’s not so new. Your Aunt Florie used to make this, but I’m changing the recipe.”
“I’m going to use canned corn and a foil pan from the Dollar Store.”
“Ma, I get the corn. From a can you don’t need to cook corn and cut it off the cob but, how does a foil pan change the recipe?”
“You try cleaning up a Pyrex® from corn pudding. It changes it a lot for me.”
We always ordered “a good turkey.” My grandfather used to run a chicken and egg store “back in the day” so the man knew a good bird when he saw one—fresh, never frozen and young, never old. Unfortunately, this gift of turkey selecting is not a talent I fully inherited. So, I’ve refined the tradition some; I go online and click a box on the Whole Foods website. Then I hope that the wrapped ready-to-heat bird is both big enough and the one that I ordered.
While the turkey was always the centerpiece of Thanksgiving, my mom firmly believed and instilled in me that “Thanksgiving wasn’t about the turkey.” For years, I attributed this mantra to a desire to focus on family and festivities instead. It wasn’t until I was grown and we were having one of our corn pudding chats that I discovered the other truth: my mother never liked turkey.
Lesson 1: Always dig for the real reason.
2. We Don’t REALLY Need It
As the holiday would draw closer, we’d talk and plan at least once a day, adding side dishes, slipping in one more dessert, and of course, considering each appetizer with great care.
“I talked to Lynne today. She’s going to make the ‘good’ cranberries in that fancy chopper she has.”
“She makes them every year. I don’t like cranberries, but hers are the kind I eat.”
“I think she got the recipe from Cooking Light.”
“I always thought it was her recipe.”
“Maybe it is and she gave it to Cooking Light, then. She can cook fancy things and make it look easy. I can’t because your father, (he was always my father, never her husband, in these situations), gets upset if I even think of using garlic salt or oregano. Makes for boring cooking. Of course, he’ll eat what Lynne makes and think it is good, and that has these spices in it.”
“I know. He’ll never change.”
“It’s just how he is so I also have a can of the jellied stuff for him and the kids, though I need your father to get it out of the can for me. I don’t want it dented.”
“He’ll do that.”
“Of course he will, then he’ll have to take a nap. He’ll also claim he helped cook the whole dinner just by waving around that broken can opener that only he can use.”
“All that for jellied cranberries. I so don’t like jellied cranberries.”
“I know, but they should look good and you just need to pick one or the other. They add color to the plate. You can’t have Thanksgiving without them, so we have options.”
In the next day’s call, we’d run through the menu yet again. I always knew Thanksgiving was almost upon us when our “run-through” conversation would suddenly shift. It typically began innocently enough as a simple question.
“Are you sure we need that (fill in any side dish here)?”
My mother would spend many weeks, gently and carefully adding menu items, only to equally strategically contemplate their last-minute removal. (I’m convinced that after all of those years, every side dish had to know on some level that it ran the risk of a last-minute cut from the final line-up.) In the case of this particular call, it was the green beans that came under her scrutiny, a fairly predictable candidate.
“Are you sure we need that green bean casserole? I throw it away every year.”
“I thought you already bought the little can of onions.”
“I did. I’m just not sure we REALLY need it. We have so much food. People are starving and we have so much food.”
“I thought we already bought that extra dinner for a family. I donated here too. If it makes you feel better about the green beans, I even designed and donated 300 bags to put the food in, so I think we’re good.”
“300? That’s a lot of food. That’s good. (Thoughtful pause.) OK. Fine. The green beans stay. (Shorter pause.) Besides, I always put them in Grama’s flowered Corningware.”
“You know. The green bean Corningware.”
“Besides, if there’s any left, I’ll send them home with the kids.”
(One more slight pause)
“Maybe I shouldn’t make the corn pudding. We don’t really need it.”
“Of course you need the corn pudding. It’s the one thing you want to try.”
“You’re right. Besides, I can always freeze what’s left.”
And so it went. We’d add, subtract, and ultimately settle on including every single thing that had been on the initial master list.
This volleying for placement on the Thanksgiving table was never so much about the food items themselves. It was all about sharing, albeit long-distance, the depth of consideration. We did all of this together.
To my mother, family really was the only thing that mattered to her. To spend so much time minutely and painstakingly preparing for a family occasion was always time well spent. And if we could go through that process together, it was all that much more delicious.
Lesson 2: Know what you REALLY need. Look carefully, choose carefully, and remember, most everything freezes—if you wrap it carefully.
3. Set the Table Early
My mother’s ritual of setting the table up to two weeks in advance used to baffle people who’d stop by. When it was just my parents at home, they “ate in the kitchen” of course, so there was no reason to wait until the last minute to set the table. Not be a newcomer to the pre-Thanksgiving festivities and rituals, I knew there was more to this early table-setting plan. There were three big reasons why my mother spent time setting the table so far in advance:
1. First, she was extremely possessive of the limited time we’d have to be together over the holiday. She never wanted to “waste a minute doing something she could do ahead of time.” Her “I can sleep later when you leave” approach to life is a trait I definitely get from my mother.
2. Second, my mother liked to savor—and control—the preparations. As long as she didn’t have to rush, she really didn’t want help. Monday, she’d shop. Tuesday, she’d cook. Late Tuesday night, with the house to herself as my dad slept in front of the TV, she’d slowly and delightedly get down “the good dishes” and begin to meticulously set the table. Keep in mind that on my mother’s calendar, the Tuesday before could be any Tuesday in November. Two weeks early was typical. You really couldn’t be too early to set the table. Dust? Not an issue; you simply covered the completely set table with a clean top sheet.
3. Finally, setting the table early gave her a preview of the event’s headcount and dynamic. Never one to use placards unless there was a true rift among guests, my mother had what appeared to be a natural flair for deftly directing people to seats in various table positions. All of such maneuvers were designed to maximize success (and keep the stuffing away from my father’s end of the table). In reality, it was more than flair. It was well rehearsed, considered, and the level of care was on par with your average seating chart for a Waldorf wedding.
At my mother’s table, there was always room for one more person, a mysterious third cousin or an uncle we only saw at Thanksgiving. Just like the corn pudding and green beans, we discussed all of this, too.
“I think we’ll just keep it small this year.”
“You say that every year.”
“I know, but I’m just not inviting Uncle Harold this year.”
“Why? Is he sick?”
“No. He’s fine. I just have to drop everything and go pick him up and then take him home. It’s too much.”
“I’ll be there. I’ll go get him.”
(Still resisting) “You have to know which doors at his apartment building and he needs help into the car.”
“Oh, you’re helping him? You weigh 93 pounds. Besides, I did it last year.”
(One obstacle down.)
“We’ll need the bigger turkey if he comes.”
“You already ordered the bigger turkey.”
(Second obstacle conquered.)
“We’ll have to squeeze at the table. You and I will need to sit on the piano bench again.”
“We do every year.”
“You’re right. We do. It’s one of my favorite parts; having so many people that we need to use that bench. You know, I wouldn’t want an empty table.”
“So he’s coming then?”
“Of course, he’s coming. I’ll call him. No one should be alone. It’s Thanksgiving. (Pause.) I wonder if Sylvia and Mel are going to their daughter’s this year. Of course, we’d have to pick them up, too.”
We both knew Uncle Harold was never off the list. It was just part of the process. By setting the table early, my mother could gauge exactly how many more she could add to the headcount. And she always did.
Lesson 3: It’s only when you put in the work ahead of time that it is easy to make it look easy. Whatever it is.
What memories or lessons do these spark for you? We hope you’ll share a comment below.
Stay tuned for our next post on Tuesday. The next three lessons of the Ten Turkey Teachings from My First Favorite Teacher are all about the “days and nights” of Thanksgiving itself.
4. Wait to DO the bread.
5. Time travel—four days for 14 minutes.
6. More than leftovers are left over.