Thanksgiving, 2001. Manhattan. I’d been a guest at my best friend’s mother’s Park Avenue apartment many times- right through college we’d descend not just for Thanksgiving but also for Rosh Hashanah and more casual feeds, too. Later, we brought babies, husbands and our own friends along for the ride and always, our hostess fashioned an immaculate table groaning with all the obligatory traditional dishes and trimmings of whatever holiday was being celebrated.
That year, though, the running order took a turn. Drinks with the crazy aunts in hair helmets and not-yet-out-of-the-closet cousins was presided over by the Dowager Granny as ever but as soon as we were all seated, an impromptu, Waltons-style round robin of what we were thankful for began. It started off slow with an Irish-American son-in-law. His firefighting brothers were first responders at the Towers where he had once been a trader and what he had to say was unbelievably poignant and sad but relatively brief. He ceded the floor to an in-law whose college classmate had been in Windows on the World for a breakfast meeting. Finally, an elderly uncle (who had himself survived a concentration camp) called time. The outpouring of more than gravy was making him uncomfortable. He preferred his disasters served neater, with a dash of black humour. Or a lashing of schmaltz. And, he was apparently hungry, to boot.
Loading our plates up, conversation returned to how the City smelled differently since September and how there were more rats about, even on the Upper East Side and how so and so couldn’t get back into their apartment downtown to water her plants. Nothing Uncle Bernie said could shift attention away from the main event. That is, until the Great Stuffing Debate began.
Traditionalists will never be happy with more than breadcrumbs laced with a few roasted chestnut bits and herbs. Using croutons or stale baguette would be going off piste to them. So, no wonder there was an audible, collective gasp when our hostess debuted a completely carb-free interpretation whose glue was essentially a dried fruit and nut concoction that you might have found in a souk. The group reaction was duly noted by the hostess (with palpable glee) and things got, for lack of a better word, animated. Coming from a house where Christmas dinner could have been anything from a kohlrabi loaf to an Asian-style barbeque, I kept quiet and observed. People really cared, and I mean cared.
See, most folk come to a holiday table with highly developed expectations of what it should look like and taste like, based on their own rich childhood memories. There will always be camps who respectively parboil the roasties, swear by duck fat or just lob the feckers in raw swathed in oil. And ne’er the twain shall meet. Put wine in the gravy and there could be tears – of disgust. Forget the Brussel sprouts and there could be war. Never mind what time the whole lot should be served and how. On the whole, experimentation is not terribly welcome within this landscape. Tradition even trumps taste.
Taste memories are powerful things, as is holiday protocol; both can paradoxically override manners and soothe the most battered souls. At this year’s Thanksgiving celebrations (which we held early so we could do our bloating over the course of a whole weekend), one friend arrived with a giant cast iron pot full of her Minnesotan take on sage stuffing. Thanksgiving may be, as she rightly said in her toast, all about being with people you care about and sharing but it’s also about personal nostalgia, great big heaps of it. It’s basically symbolism you can eat that truly nourishes the soul a bit. Americans are lucky because wherever we are we get two helpings of that goodness- maybe the spacing could be better between the two big holidays but I’m not complaining. We’re truly blessed.