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The Shipwreck Rose: For the Birds

Wed, 11/08/2023 - 17:34

It probably only happened once or twice that I was dispatched on my bicycle to G&T Dairy on Gingerbread Lane before it closed at noon on Thanksgiving to buy an emergency pack of Baker’s Chocolate or half-pint of heavy cream, but the atmosphere of that bike ride at the age of 9 or 10 along streets emptied of cars, the population of the village shut up in their kitchens, windows of houses fogging with steam from pots boiling on the stove, is what Thanksgiving Day should feel like, according to me: strangely still and slightly exciting. The branches of the trees are bare and you have important things to do.

My children definitely don’t feel the sense of excitement we felt as children at the holidays. They’re quite blasé.

My son is jetting off with his cousins on a sybaritic surf trip to the Dominican Republic, of all things, the week of Thanksgiving and only landing back at J.F.K. at peak turkey-eating hour, 3:45 p.m. on Turkey Day. I expect him to come crash-banging through the door of the house with his luggage at the ungodly-for-Thanksgiving hour of around 7 p.m. He has already announced that he expects to be exhausted after six days surfing in the hot Caribbean sun and has informed me that he will have zero interest in sitting down to a big celebration. He doesn’t like turkey, he doesn’t like stuffing, he doesn’t like oysters, or pie, or sweets in general, but will deign to eat mashed potatoes and possibly gravy. He’s the only boy I ever knew who refuses dessert.

I’m not even sure who will be in the house when Teddy gets back and proceeds straight to his bedroom to sack out at 7 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. My daughter is coming home from boarding school on Nov. 22, the day before; I’ve told her that it looks like she and I will be cooking the meal alone, mother-daughter style. That might be fun? Something different, just the two of us.

“We used to have 20 or 30 people for Thanksgiving, when I was your age,” I keep telling my children, who really don’t care. It’s ancient history and has no bearing on the present, and in the present, Thanksgiving has always failed to deliver. “We used to have a giant party and I’d do most of the cooking myself, with both a turkey and a Hatfield ham, and the adults would get drunk and have a sing-along with pots and pans and piano after the meal.” Ho-hum.

It obviously isn’t true that I cooked alone for 30 when I was a child, but it’s true that I forcibly seized control of both the meal planning and actual food preparation by the time I was 15 or 16. Everyone had to stand back and get out of my kitchen. I love holidays; they are how we ceremonially mark the passage of time, how we make any sense of time and seasons passing at all, and my expectations have always been high. Unreasonably high. Childishly high. Like a little girl who waits at the window in the expectation that Santa will ride across the night sky on Christmas Eve with his phalanx of reindeer, I expect Thanksgiving to be an explosion of the best food you’ve ever eaten, and I expect it to feel like the commerce of the world has come to a stop. The stores are dark, the traffic has disappeared. Our great American holiday. Ever so slightly sacred. Starched white tablecloths, ironed flat.

Who has a good time on Thanksgiving, anymore? Does anyone? The prevailing, received wisdom on Thanksgiving, these days, seems to be that everyone hates it. I’m judging by the humorous cocktail napkins you can buy at the Monogram Shop on Newtown Lane with the words “Forced Family Fun” printed on them. I’m judging by the misery and disaster surrounding Thanksgiving in Adam Sandler movies, the existential depression of Thanksgiving in “The Ice Storm.”

A typical menu circa the late 1980s began with elaborate hors d’oeuvres spread out on a marble table in our kitchen (which is topped with a two-and-a-half-inch-thick slab of marble that came out of an ancient printing press at the East Hampton Star office). There was smoked bluefish, oysters roasted with sorrel and Pernod, Stilton cheese, canapés of pumpernickel and home-cured gravlax, and even — at my insistence and despite the incongruity — two kinds of deviled eggs, one with curry, one with horseradish.

The ham had to be special-ordered from the butcher at the Bridgehampton I.G.A. The bird weighed a minimum of 25 pounds. My mother started making the giblet gravy two days in advance, following Miriam Ungerer’s recipe. The stuffing required stale sourdough bread, Milk Pail apples, and loose sausage from Villa Italian Specialties, a.k.a. the Pork Store. Desserts included a pumpkin mousse and at least three pies, including great-grandmother’s chocolate-sundae pie — a finicky recipe involving a double boiler and custard that had to be boiled to an exact setting point, which I’ve made every damn year since I was 12 and only managed to do just right perhaps a quarter of those many long years. The chocolate-sundae pie must abide.

If you expect Thanksgiving to be a slightly-but-strangely exciting festival of the best food you’ve ever eaten, in company with a few dozen drunken friends and family members who beat on pots and pans as they sing “On the Street Where You Live” from “My Fair Lady,” obviously, there is a good likelihood that the actuality of the day will leave you, you know, a bit crestfallen.

If I pause to consider how Thanksgiving went down the tubes, I think it’s because I left the country and lived in Canada for seven years. Thanksgiving in Canada came in October and was marred in our household by my persistent, low-grade, muttered complaints that, no, despite Canadians’ suggestions that Thanksgiving had originated there, in Canada, no, it hadn’t, obviously. Thanksgiving in Canada wasn’t the second biggest deal of the year, after Christmas, but a bit of a “meh” falling between Easter and Victoria Day in the rankings of majorness. My children were raised in a household in which I stood at the stove on Thanksgiving Day complaining that we were doing it all wrong. And then, too, while I was in Nova Scotia any momentum for securing the attendance of a crowd once we moved back home to East Hampton was lost. Everyone here has their own longstanding plans and obligations, at this point, and 17 Edwards Lane has not been marked down in their November datebooks in decades.

Also, not to be morbid, but since we’re talking about it — I’m talking about, I mean, probably a bit too obsessively for my weekly-column-readers’ taste — the passage of time: Years pass, the wheel of the seasons turns, and the older Thanksgiving guests die, one by one, walking backwards into the mist, holding their pumpkin mousse under one arm and waving with the other as the noise of the party guests drunkenly singing “Night and Day” from “The Gay Divorcee” fades into black.

I’ve given up on ironing the heirloom napkins with “E”s and “H”s for the ancestral Edwardses and Hunttings on them, or my great-great-auntie-whoever’s antique white tablecloths, which lie folded in drawers upstairs in actual mothballs, cotton lace and white linen. It bothers me that the streets in the village are never emptied of cars anymore. Ever. There never comes a break in the rumble of commerce. November is not still. The world does not come to a halt. The sky is gray, the branches are bare, but you can’t even buy a half-pint of heavy cream anymore, only a full pint, and people call it “whipping cream” — have you noticed that?


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