In my blog post yesterday, I described three lessons my mother taught me as we prepared for Thanksgiving each year.
These first three focused on BEFORE Thanksgiving.
1. It’s not about the turkey.
Lesson 1: Always dig for the real reason.
2. We don’t REALLY need it.
Lesson 2: Know what you REALLY need. Look carefully, choose carefully, and remember, most everything freezes.
3. Set the table early.
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.
This post and the one that follows cover the remaining seven of the Ten Turkey Teachings that I learned from my mother over Thanksgivings past.
The next three lessons are all about the “days and nights” of Thanksgiving itself when I arrived at my parent’s home, the little red brick in the image above.
1. Wait to DO the bread.
2. Time travel—four days for 14 minutes.
3. More than leftovers are left over.
Wait to DO the bread.
For my mother and me, the week of Thanksgiving always officially began on the Friday before. While the world got ready for its ensuing BLACK FRIDAY, my mom and I got a jump on it all with our very own PACK FRIDAY. (This was easy for my mother, given that the table had been set for at least a week.) On the Friday night before Thanksgiving, we’d discuss two topics that were on par with the holiday menu: weather and clothes.
With my demanding job, I did these tasks late at night. My mom was always up for a 1:00 AM call (literally and figuratively) about anything. Threat of snow, potential flight delay strategies, and whether the weather permits packing the navy slacks or the basic black wools merited a 24/7 open call line.
Countdown week was always filled with rituals. First, there was the “check-the-weather-again-on-Sunday” ritual. Second, there was the “stay-up-late-on-Monday-to-finish-it-all-before-leaving” ritual. Finally, it wrapped up on Tuesday with the “fit-in-one-more workout-before-eating-too-much” and the “not-enough-time-left-just-pack-it-all” rituals. I’d get to work early Wednesday and tear out by 4:00 to catch the 6:30 flight, arriving on my family’s doorstep at around 10.
No matter how much preparation my mother did in advance, there was one special ritual that she never did ahead of time. My mother would always “wait to DO the bread” until I arrived.
Every year, I’d quickly settle in and we’d run down to the kitchen and “DO the bread.” We’d sit at the little kitchen table which was actually a green Formica® ledge bolted to the clothes chute right next to the fridge. While it was crowded, this arrangement had a few advantages like opening the refrigerator door without ever getting out of a chair.
Four big bags of “bread-too-old-to-eat-but fine-for-stuffing” waited patiently on the little table. My mother made coffee and we began. It was a true “tear-and-talk” session—our time. No matter how many phone conversations we had, nothing ever took the place of being together face-to-face. I can’t recall exactly what we discussed because neither the specifics nor the bread truly mattered. To DO the bread meant finally and formally kicking off Thanksgiving weekend—together. After the waiting and anticipation, the big weekend was finally here.
My mother believed there were three parts to every visit: upfront planning (filled with discussion, anticipation, and excitement), the visit itself (a time to savor without wasting a moment sleeping), and follow-up (the play-by-play recap of all we did). This triad allowed us to stretch our time together and each visit sustained us for a longer time. I’ll always remember the pre-trip phone conversation that confirmed my suspicions: doing the bread was about so much more for each of us.
“I ran to the market again today.” (My mother never walked anywhere; she was constantly in a hurry.)
“Again? What could we possibly still need?” (It’s a wonder the market didn’t restock from what was already at my mother’s house by this point in the countdown.)
“I didn’t like the carrots the other day, they were rubbery.”
“Were they better today?”
“Do you remember Mrs. Kolosky’s son, David, the one I had in preschool? I couldn’t believe it; he’s in graduate school.”
“How is this about carrots?”
“He works the vegetable area to pay for school. I spotted him immediately. It’s the same face. He went in the back and got me some brand new ones. Anyway, you’ll never believe what they make now.”
“What, a new vegetable?”
“They make bread that is already torn up into little pieces just for stuffing. They had these big, long bags all stacked up by the stuffing mixes.”
“That’s a time-saver.”
“I know. And it wasn’t expensive. It cost less than four loaves of bread if you have the coupon they were giving out.”
“Maybe we should get some.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Who needs that?”
“Oh. You already bought the bread?”
“No, that would make it too stale. I’ll buy it tomorrow, but I’m not buying the torn-up bread. Why would I? You’ll be here and we’ll do it (pause) together. ”
Of course we will—and we’ll each savor every minute.
Lesson 4: When rituals fulfill you, protect them at all costs, even when it’s cheaper not to do so.
Time Travel: Four Days for 14 Minutes.
This mantra relates to the Thanksgiving meal as experienced by most people. All over this country, people spend at least four days before this holiday preparing, cooking, freezing, garnishing, chopping, slicing, and dicing. It’s a lot of work. Even when people “delegate out” on a dish-by-dish basis, kitchens all over the country are hot and humming, starting in the wee small hours of the morning on Thanksgiving Day. No matter how late we stayed up to DO the bread and catch up, we were up just hours later to begin the turkey preparations.
By 4:00, everything was done and the house smelled delicious. My mother liked to begin with “light” appetizers. They were always light “so we didn’t all fill up on them.” She’d also insist that everyone “take a break” after the main part of the meal. Then, 45 minutes later, the desserts would begin. (Notice the plural form of that word. We always had at least two desserts per three people present, a portion methodology I continue to employ today. This math explains why I’m always invited to being dessert to every potluck.)
Guests assumed this pause was choreographed so leftovers could be appropriately deployed into respective containers, piled into individual groupings next to take-home bags, and the dishwasher could be loaded. This vignette explains my mother’s timeline.
“Give Penny the sweet potatoes. She loves them. Don’t forget we’ll need leftovers here for tomorrow night, too. After all this, I’m not cooking tomorrow.”
“Want me to start pulling and plating the desserts?”
“Not yet, honey. Go slower. Wait another 30 minutes.”
“Because they’re too full?”
“That, too. Even with all that’s left, everyone ate pretty well, especially your father. He thinks I didn’t see him take that third helping. He takes it when I’m in the kitchen and puts it in the same place on his plate each time so I won’t notice. We’ve been in this house 30 years, and he still has no idea I can see everything reflected in the kitchen window.”
“I’ll give them ten minutes.”
“Let’s make a cup of coffee in here and wait 45 minutes. I’m not having everyone eat and run when we’ve worked for days on this meal. Your grandmother used to say that when she spent four days on a meal, no one was eating it all in 14 minutes. That’s why I stretch it out.”
Lesson 5: Manage expectations for yourself and don’t reveal you’re even aware of it (unless your father tries to go for a fourth helping).
6. More than leftovers are left over.
As guests were ready to head home, they filed past my mother’s version of a “receiving line” to collect their square foil containers placed in brown paper bags, filled with the exact items each guest seemed to most prefer. My mother missed nothing—and we ordered the foil pans in bulk, of course.
“I noticed you seemed to enjoy the potatoes, so I gave you a few extras.”
“Harold, I put in an extra piece of the pumpkin pie. We won’t eat it.” (Pumpkin pie was, of course, my mother’s favorite. However, she’d give away all but a slice or two, unable to truly enjoy it until she was confident her guests had plenty—for a week, it seemed.)
When a guest protested, my mother had a cache of responses, sure to close the deal, each rebuttal more compelling than the last.
First: “Don’t be silly. How can we possibly eat all of this? It’s just us. Look at all that’s left.”
Second: “Please, take it. It would help me a lot. Besides, ____ (fill in any conceivable food item here) freezes beautifully.”
If all else failed, my mother would lean in for the close. In a conspiring tone, she’d whisper, “Honestly, I need you to take this. I just can’t have it in the house or Jack will eat it all. Trust me. I’ll be up with him all night long. I’m just too tired to do that tonight.” Check and checkmate.
Each parcel was carefully packed and labeled. The same was true of our own leftovers. In our house, food moved—in many directions.
First, a portion of the food that wasn’t consumed was distributed out into the world in thoughtful leftover collections. Any food that didn’t make the distribution “cut,” was swiftly transferred from the original casserole into a foil pan, wrapped, labeled, and dated for the “big” freezer.
We had the “freezer” freezer that was part of the kitchen fridge; then, there was the “big” freezer that had been purchased in a Chip, Bump, and Dent Clearance Sale when I was I high school. That basement location was equivalent to the outback, the “deep” freeze. When food was relegated to this frozen tundra, it had a shelf life of about 120 days. At least three times a year, my mother, a true child of The Great Depression, really did use everything she’d frozen. She’d go on her “clearing out the freezer binges” during which time she literally “cooked out of her freezer” until she’d used it all—and she had shelf space to rebuild her stash.
The third and final option for leftovers was where my mother’s biggest lesson evolved. This was the food WE would be eating on subsequent evenings of the holiday weekend. My mother’s food management strategy didn’t stop at give away or freeze. She had a third category: ready to re-plate.
It wasn’t until I got to college when I discovered that some people actually put away a casserole with only half of its contents remaining—and reheated in that same casserole. I’d never seen this phenomenon. My mother would carefully re-plate the contents that remained, choosing a right-sized, smaller casserole for the leftovers, re-plating, re-arranging, and often re-inventing the entire dish. Each subsequent dish was smaller than the last, ensuring that the food-to-container ratio remained in proportion. This is why you could stop in at my mother’s for a meal any day of the week and marvel at the feat laid before you. The key secret words were “before you” because in many cases the initial preparation of the dish took place at least a day or two “before you” arrived. It was simply never evident in taste, appearance, or presentation.
Lesson 6: Always transfer to a smaller dish—when the dish is smaller, the food looks bigger.
In the final post, tomorrow, I’ll wrap up this delicious memory adventure with my mother’s last four mantras:
7. Wear something loose.
8. Pace yourself. There’s dessert.
9. Turn Routines into Traditions
10. Before you go, know when you are coming back.
We hope this post reminds you of a few of your favorite Thanksgiving memories. What did your family TEACH YOU?