Call Her Margaret

This is not going to be one of those stories. You know, where I explain my love of cooking with misty memories of my mom and grandma in the kitchen. That’s not my family. I didn’t learn food in the kitchens of my childhood; I learned guilt and shame, like a good Catholic.

I.  At seven, in my mother’s kitchen, I learned not to call my mom’s mother Grandma.

I was returning from backyard exile, flushed and sweaty from the July heat. I gave the woman a warm (and sweaty) hug. “Hi Grandma!”

She sucked air in through her teeth—a hiss like a snake, or the shocked sibilant of a vampire doused in holy water. “Grandma is for someone…” She paused. …warm? …inviting? …loving? She failed to finish her sentence, starting a new one instead. “You call me Grand Mother or nothing at all, you understand?”

I looked at my mom, wondering if it was too soon to retire to my bedroom with a book. Come to think of it, Mom looked like she could use a dose of Beverly Cleary, herself.

II. Every Thanksgiving I learned that, no matter what someone makes for you, you have to eat it.

Grand Mother’s signature dish—Jello salad—graced Mom’s table every year. It was neither Jello nor salad, but shredded carrots suspended in a sea of orange gelatinous goo. I retain only a whisper of memory when I was taught to suck it up and deal with how awful this food abomination was. I do recall, with startling detail, dutifully scooping orange jiggly carrots onto my plate and eating every bite.

III. At six or seven, I learned that you can do the wrong thing without even knowing it was wrong.

I was sitting at Grand Mother’s kitchen table, eating the sandwich she made me. She was standing several feet away when she bent over and looked under my chair to make sure that my Mary Janes did not touch the wooden spindles of her chair legs. Mary Janes have buckles, and buckles spell disaster for wooden chairs.

IV. At nine or ten, I learned that cheese makes you fat.

I stayed the night at Grand Mother’s house—an occasion that my mom forced on us both. Saturday morning, I sat in my pajamas at the kitchen table, slathering my bagel with cream cheese. Grand Mother watched me shrewdly. “You really like cream cheese, don’t you?” She drew out the word really until it was almost a song.

Later that morning, I dressed in my pale pink skirt set for the wedding we were attending. I emerged from the spare bedroom, nervous without knowing why. Grand Mother beckoned me over, turned me around. “You can certainly see where all the cream cheese is going, can’t you?”

V. At twelve, I learned to call things by their proper name.

It was Easter dinner at Grand Mother’s house. I had already learned the importance of being polite at the table; Grand Mother’s family had a lot of rules, like which direction to pass food and which fork to use to eat your salad. Of course there was a ritual for asking someone to pass you a dish.

Accordingly, I waited for an opening in the conversation before politely asking my cousin, “Laura, can you please pass the butter?”

“There’s no butter at this table,” snapped Grand Mother.

Terrified and confused, I looked to my mother. She smiled tenderly, sadly. “She means margarine,” Mom said, to me or to Grand Mother, I’m not sure.

“Well,” Grand Mother huffed. “Margarine and butter are not the same.”

I certainly knew the difference between the two, but in our house, you treated yourself to butter on a fucking holiday. Everyone understood my polite request, anyway, since the margarine was already en route when Grand Mother brought the snark.

If using the wrong fork or asking for the wrong spreadable fat was such bad form, how was it appropriate to make a twelve-year-old feel like shit at the dining table? Such was etiquette, in our family at least: a set of complicated rules wielded as power. Somehow, for Grand Mother, etiquette never extended to the good treatment of others. It only encompassed an invisible, ever-shifting set of rules she used to make everyone else feel inferior.

VI. At seventeen, I learned about rebellion and smarts.

I returned home, carrying the soda my brothers requested. Everyone was in the kitchen, setting the table. My quest had taken me to the grocery store in town; I hadn’t thought to check the newly constructed Walgreens on the corner.

Grand Mother, of course, had something to say. “Anyone with smarts would have checked Walgreens first.”

The woman passed out her insults with passive aggressive panache. It certainly wouldn’t bother her to call me stupid, but she never would do so in front of my family. Even if she did, probably nobody would do anything. It isn’t good etiquette to form a mob and hunt down your Grand Mother. With pitchforks. And shovels.

Good etiquette would have me tuck my tail apologetically and live a long, timid life without striving for greatness, in or out of the kitchen. But that’s not what I did.

I stood tall and looked her in the eyes. “What are you saying, Grand Mother, that I’m stupid?” Everyone in the room knew the complete opposite; she and I both knew she couldn’t say those direct words here.

For the first time, I had silenced my Grand Mother.

VII. Almost twenty years later, Thanksgivings in my home are full of friends and love.

Every dish is a tiny rebellion—brined turkey, gorgeous roasted vegetables, rolls made from scratch, and pies that make you give thanks.

We don’t serve judgment or Jello salad.

There is butter, made from goat’s milk. You just don’t have to ask for it by name.


Thanksgiving Countdown

Double double,  boil and trouble

Thanksgiving may be Thursday, but I’ve been making food for four or five days now.

Today’s adventures included Apple Cider Caramels from the Smitten Kitchen. (Deb Perelman is a god, by the way.) Do you say kair-uh-mel or car-mul?
The best part of making caramels? Feeling like a witch over a cauldron as the concentrated liquid love grows and grows and grows in the pot on the stove. The color deepens as the sugars, well, caramelize.
I would make an excellent witch, mostly because I heed carefully constructed and documented scientific procedures. Heat the potion to precisely 252 degrees Fahrenheit? Check. Remove from heat and stir in final ingredients? Check. Chill in refrigerator for an hour, then cut into precise one-inch squares? I got this.
Go ahead. Try one. I promise it isn’t poison.

Negotiations Are for Turkeys

I’m shoring up shopping plans for tomorrow. This, of course, means consulting a half dozen cookbooks and the Thanksgiving Spreadsheet. The following conversation with Husband ensues:

ME: We need to buy a turkey of 12 to 14 pounds.
HIM: What, now? I’m not wearing pants.
ME: No, tomorrow. When we’re at the store.
HIM: Hmm. Okay.
ME: Good.
HIM: Wait. I think we need a bigger turkey.
ME: No, we don’t. Remember last year?
HIM: No, it’s more than a week ago.
ME: Last year, you picked out the biggest turkey they had. Kitchen disaster ensued. And we had waaaay too much turkey.
HIM: No such thing.
ME: Yes. You even admitted as much.
HIM: That doesn’t sound like me.
ME: I don’t know what to tell you.
HIM: Shouldn’t we do some math, figure out how many pounds of turkey per person?
ME: Who’s eating POUNDS of turkey?
HIM: Me, easy.
ME: Listen, it’s like four people who will actually eat turkey, and you’re one of them. I think 14 pounds of turkey will suffice.
HIM: I don’t know…
ME: Pal, this is not a negotiation. We are getting a turkey of 12 to 14 pounds.
HIM: 14 pounds, then!

It’s All in the Stuffing

What I remember most about Thanksgiving when I was a kid is my mother’s stuffing. I would sit up with her late at night, Thanksgiving Eve, thinly chopping celery and dicing onions. (Onions didn’t make Young Megan cry.)
For this magic concoction, Mom used a special cauldron. She’d duck into the garage to hunt it down, bring it inside, and wash it in the sink. Only this pot could hope to contain her creation as it morphed and grew.
The sausage went on the fire…pop pop pop.
The onions were browned in butter…sizzle.
Then the celery.
And cubes of stale bread…chink chink chink.
Finally, some herbs.
All in the pot it went.
Then the tasting began. In dove the small spoon, quickly disappearing into Mom’s mouth. I could see her rolling the flavors around, deciding what she needed to add.
A dash of pepper here. A bit of salt there. Maybe some more celery?
The mixture grew in the pot as flavors were added and balanced, like a terrific-smelling abacus there on the stove. Finally, Mom would consult me. “Taste this. What do you think this needs?” Of course, I didn’t know. But I loved to taste, anyway.
Only when Mom was satisfied was the stuffing declared ready. What followed was twelve hours of torture in which I tried not to think of what awaited us in the refrigerator the next evening.
Years later, stuffing remains my favorite part of the meal. You can take my share of the turkey; just pass the stuffing.

The Thanksgiving Spreadsheet

Wait. So you’ve never heard of a Thanksgiving spreadsheet?

As a vegetarian on a food-centric holiday, Thanksgiving historically offered little to me. That is, until I was able to host my own. Not only did it guarantee me food I actually like to eat, but it really let my inner Julia Child shine. Now, Thanksgiving is the Big Show. Step aside, bitches; I am a kitchen diva and this is my day.

You all know Charles M. Schultz, right?

Rolls are made from scratch. The turkey is moist and tender. My mashed potatoes are the creamiest you’ll eat. (Got spoon?) Stick with me, kid, and you’ll have your choice of homemade pie.

All of this, pulled off in a two-bedroom in Albany Park, doesn’t happen without planning. I’m a nerd, so of course I make a spreadsheet. I’ll tell you how it’s done.

I gather my dishes–good little soldiers that work hard, look hot, and make the perfect team. Once I have the lineup complete, I catalog the dishes in a spreadsheet. For every one, I list each ingredient and required quantity. Next, I sort the ingredients in alphabetical order.

Finally, the coup de grâce, I program the spreadsheet to calculate the total amount of each ingredient I’ll need for the entire meal. Sure, I need flour for my rolls, pie crust, and the gravy. But how much do I need overall? I use the calculations to generate my grocery shopping list, which is, of course, organized by store and section.

You think I’m done? Not a chance.

Next up is mapping out my time the week of the big day. Dishes are color-coded by day they will be prepared. For the night before and the big day, I break down the time table to an hour-by-hour accounting of prep work, oven space, reheating requirements, and cooling time.

Perhaps this all makes me a spreadsheet nerd. But days of planning and shopping also makes for weeks of anticipation. You may think of Thanksgiving the week it happens, but it lives in my heart for much longer.

Bring it, Thanksgiving 2014.