Ten Thanksgivings are gone. I simply can’t remember them. What does it say about me that I only recall the really bad ones? The post-divorce ones. There must have been happy holidays before I turned 10; family members (whomever was on speaking terms with the others at the time) gathered around a table, some assortment of my much-older brothers and their various wives and kids or step-kids. I’d need to be shown a photo to believe it though.
Now, there is no question where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing. I can re-construct it down to the hour because it’s the same each year. We travel from wherever we happen to be living (my husband and I have resided in four states together) to New Jersey to spend Thanksgiving with his family. My mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and I spend days in the kitchen deciphering our notes from years past about what people ate and what we had too much of or too little leftovers of. We mix and talk, saute and joke, chop and sip wine (a potentially dangerous combination).
Meanwhile my other sister-in-law acts as the unpaid, and likely under-appreciated, nanny. She is Mary Poppins without the British accent and splayed feet. She corrals the kids, engaging them in crafts and acting as the happy audience for the so-bad-only-kin-could-love-them shows they produce.
The utter chaos of this holiday makes me notice the raw joy that is happening all around me. While I am writing this, I can hear chopping from the kitchen and a discussion of seating arrangements for the twenty-five family and friends who will fill the table this year. The television is on but no one’s watching. There is some Spanish being spoken. Four little five-year-olds are running around chattering incessantly like magpies, their words criss-crossing and never stopping. My son is belly-down next to me (likely hiding out from said five-year-olds), reading a book his aunt gave him. Someone is calling down the hall for someone else. And this is the day before thanksgiving. The guests have yet to arrive. We are all filled with happy anticipation.
This same scene is playing in households all over the country. I think my acute sense of appreciation for it comes directly from my childhood and the dichotomy between those unfulfilling holidays and my current ones. When I was ten, Mom won Thanksgiving in the custody agreement (though “won” is a strong word when it felt like we all lost plenty). But frequently, neither Mom nor Dad had the means to fly me from Florida to her North Carolina home.
Dad took me to Morrison’s cafeteria once for the holiday. A cafeteria Thanksgiving is one stocked with outsiders: one-offs not invited anywhere else; the elderly or too infirm to travel anywhere else; those bone-tired and desperate for a meal between their shifts at the mall and the bar; the mentally ill. And us.
Imagine a man in his early sixties, hair carefully combed over his rapidly growing bald spot, openly flirting with the hair-netted woman running the cafeteria line. What do you recommend, (peering at her name tag), Rita? You must also conjure next to him a pre-teen girl--self-conscious and mostly knees and elbows--rolling her eyes and ordering triple desserts in a passive-aggressive bid to punish her father.
Another year when I should have been at Mom’s table eating giblet gravy and cornbread stuffing, I was instead across from my Japanese step-mom. Dad and I wrinkled our noses at the sushi but ate the skewered Tonkatsu (breaded pork) and green onions. My step-mom’s friends came over--displaced from their own country while working at a mock-up of it at Epcot. They spoke fast Japanese, gesturing toward me and Dad with their chopsticks, talking about us but not to us. It had been better to be with a bunch of misfits at Morrison’s. At least there we fit in.
Because of the wide gap in what I wanted my childhood Thanksgivings to look like and what they actually did, it’s easy to muster gratitude for what I have now. My Thanksgivings have taken on a steadiness and predictability yet I do not take them for granted.
I already know what the day will hold. I will sit between my husband and likely one of my sister-in-laws--it doesn’t matter which since they each have become like sisters to me. My father-in-law will stand at the head of the table and raise a glass of wine that he won’t actually drink; he’ll make a toast and each of us will gleam at being mentioned in his sweet shout-out. The eating of the food that took days and weeks to prepare will last thirty minutes.
Bellies will be patted; yawns stifled. Before we all go to bed, we’ll break down the tables and chairs and by morning it will seem as if no holiday happened at all (that is if you ignore the throng of jammied family members in the kitchen wantonly eating leftovers cold and straight from their containers). But it did happen and it turns out that the joy was in the planning and preparation and anticipation as much as it was in the actual day itself. All of the moments warrant gratefulness.
Since Thanksgiving is a food-centric holiday and this a baking blog, I should now be regaling you with the story of how my mother-in-law taught my daughter and me to make apple pie (which she did). Instead, I am going to stop writing and go join the fray. The recipe for the pie is below, make it with someone you love and enjoy--it’s delicious.
Happy Thanksgiving. We all have so much to be thankful for.
Gail’s Apple Pie
1 ¾ cups all purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 stick of butter plus 3 tablespoons (she uses salted butter), cut into bits
¼ cup cold apple cider
Blend all ingredients except cider in a food processor until the mixture resembles meal. Add cider and combine to form a dough. Shape into a ball, wrap in wax paper and refrigerate for 1 hour (her recipe says “1 hour” but we only waited 30 min and it was still good).
Preheat oven to 450. Roll dough into 12 inch round and fit into 10 inch pie plate (she rolled the dough right on the wax paper then inverted the rolled dough into the pie pan and peeled off the paper, voila). Crimp the edges of the crust.
6 large MacIntosh apples, peeling and sliced, approx 8 cups
1 ⅔ cups sour cream
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
⅓ cup all purpose flour
2 tsp vanilla
Pour the filling into the shell.
Bake at 450 for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and bake another 35 minutes.
the struesel topping:
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1 stick butter, softened
⅓ cup granulated sugar
⅓ cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
Mix all ingredients till crumbly. Take pie from oven and light mash apple filling. Sprinkle streusel over the top and bake for another 10 minutes.
Eat. Smile. Repeat.