Many years ago, at an elegant Thanksgiving dinner in Manhattan, the hostess served roast pheasant instead of turkey, parsnip soup instead of acorn squash, wild rice instead of mashed potatoes, and honeydew sorbet instead of pumpkin pie. It was all spectacularly delicious and terribly original. But after my boyfriend and I said our goodbyes, I burst into tears.
“What’s the matter?!” he asked. “I’m so sad we missed Thanksgiving!” I whimpered. “But we just had Thanksgiving!” he said. “That wasn’t Thanksgiving,” I said forlornly. “That was a dinner party.”
Both of my parents grew up in Illinois, on or near family farms, and when they married, they made sure their version of the nation’s annual harvest feast reflected the homespun abundance they remembered from childhood. They knew how to make souffles and veal piccata, flan and chicken Kiev. For New Year’s Eve, my mother would whip up a Gâteau St. Honoré. But Thanksgiving was not that sort of holiday. It was not supposed to be exotic. It was supposed to be bounteous and, above all, familiar: an homage to the taste memories of our Midwestern palates.
Every year for half a century (barring that post-collegiate outing in Manhattan) my brothers and I, along with our relatives, friends, partners and children, have gathered around my parents’ table for the feast — first in the college towns where we grew up, in Michigan, Indiana and Oklahoma, and, later, in Northern Virginia, where they live today. The faces around the table vary from year to year, but the menu does not. For my family and for those who habitually join our celebration, Thanksgiving is The Meal That Must Not Change.
The platters and bowls that rub rims on our Thanksgiving board hold more food than 30 farmhands could polish off.
I suspect many Americans feel the same way. There are those, I’ve heard, for whom Thanksgiving is unthinkable without green bean casserole thickened with Campbell’s condensed mushroom soup; candied yams with marshmallows; and cranberry relish from a can. I would shudder if those monstrosities appeared on my parents’ sideboard. But I understand that others might feel just as leery of my family’s gustatory gallery.
For us, the menu must include: a giant turkey from a nearby farm; baked acorn squash glistening with caramelized brown sugar; mashed potatoes with turkey gravy (for Nana, my father’s mother); lima beans with garlic-sautéed mushrooms; corn pudding (for my sister-in-law Vic); pineapple-cheddar gratin (for me); and Grandma Hartwig’s cherry salad (for my sister-in-law Phong). There also must be at least three pies – pumpkin, pecan, and either lemon chess (for our friend Tico) or venison mincemeat (for Mama), all encircled by the fluted borders of my mother’s prize-winning lard pie crusts.
The platters and bowls that rub rims on our Thanksgiving board hold more food than 30 farmhands could polish off, but those of us assembled make our best effort, then take a postprandial amble through the neighborhood to make room for the pies.
Whenever anyone tells my mother she should remove a dish from the rota, she always agrees. But when she asks: “Which one?” no one can decide. There’s no element that wouldn’t be missed by somebody. When my brother Justin was 4, our granny forgot to put out her homemade cinnamon applesauce. Surveying the festive table, Justin cried out indignantly, “Where’s the sauce?!” That’s how all of us feel when any favorite threatens to leave the lineup. (Granny ran and got it, and harmony was restored).
A decade ago, my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She remains very much herself: She and my father entertain frequently, and she still orchestrates our multi-generational reunions. But her motor troubles add a level of stress and difficulty to the preparation of elaborate meals. Since she got sick, I have grown used to sous-cheffing for her, trying (usually failing) not to get on her nerves by bossing her around in her kitchen.
Last year at Thanksgiving, as I took my place around the living Kodachrome of our immutable holiday spread, I ticked off the checklist of dishes on the sideboard. Was something missing? No. Everything was as it should be. The mood was warm and merry, and there were 15 of us at table.
After Papa read grace from the Book of Common Prayer, my mother raised her glass. She wanted to make a toast, she said, to me. I looked at her in confusion. Me? What had I done? I had cooked the entire feast this year, for the first time, she said, which reassured her that our family’s traditions would continue. I looked at her, tearing up. I hadn’t realized the extent of the tasks I had executed as I hustled to complete them. She had made the pie crusts, even though I filled them, I pointed out.
Looking at the beloved faces around the iconic meal, watching light from the candles communicate among the glasses and flicker on the children’s shining hair, I wondered if one day, far in the future, those kids might find themselves at a beautiful dinner in a distant metropolis and feel a wistful pang, thinking to themselves: But this isn’t Thanksgiving; no, this isn’t Thanksgiving at all.
I hoped they would. And I hoped they would feel thankful for the Thanksgivings they had shared with four generations of our family, over The Meal That Must Not Change.
Liesl Schillinger is a writer, translator and author of the book “Wordbirds.”