November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

When I was a young(er) adult, Elizabeth and I would visit her maternal grandparents for Thanksgiving. There were some significant differences between those meals and the Thanksgiving traditions I grew up with. First, Elizabeth's relatives could cook, and while my mother is a wonderful human being and could make sure that a bird was prepared in a way that didn't kill anyone other than the bird itself, there was a reason why the main meals I learned how to make when I was a teenager involved ramen. Second, at least as much effort was expended in that house in the Poconos on preparing foods that weren't the bird as on the bird itself. That was probably wise, since Elizabeth had been vegetarian for a few years before I traveled with her to her grandparents' house. But among other things, it meant that I had the opportunity to taste homemade pie baked the same day. (Baking was one of the other skills I never learned when growing up, though some of my mother's more distant relatives became bakers, and very good ones, too. The Food Thing was not my parents' thing, and that was fine, because as a result I became very familiar with the suburban pizza joint and the taco joint and eventually a broad range of cuisines outside my family's tradition of... okay, no tradition to speak of in terms of what could be made in a kitchen, though my maternal grandmother made something she called kugel, which had calories and in Douglas Adams's words was almost but not quite entirely unlike every other kugel I have eaten in my life. Did I also tell you why I blame sexism for my deprived taste buds in my youth? My maternal grandfather was a wonderful cook; I only had his cooking once, cold schav, and it was wonderful. But he was a man, and his wife cooked.)

Third -- and here is the part of cultural tolerance that anyone who is in a long-term relationship and visits the in-laws/other's family will understand --  Elizabeth's grandparents drank something strange. No, I don't mean that as a euphemism for alcoholism, or the fact that they had crystal that they obviously reserved for alcohol and enjoyed, which was all just fine with me, because I enjoy looking at glass with odd angles in it, and an occasional distilled beverage is just fine with me. I mean that they truly drank something strange on Thanksgiving: sweet pink champagne.

Elizabeth had warned me some weeks before we drove up State Route 9 (the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Northeast Extension before it was 476) through the Lehigh Valley and through a tunnel under a ridge and then along 209 and the left turn at Broadheadsville onto 115 to Effort (supposedly the Last Effort to gain a post office, now certainly one of those stations being closed), along the river, and up Merwinsburg Road to New York Blvd to the wood-plank house with the straight row of pine trees (another phenomenon Elizabeth had warned me about: there is something sacrilegious about a row of pine trees, though I knew it had been planted as a windbreak from the days that the street was a dirt road). Not only did her grandparents Margaret and Henry live in an exurban landscape in a part of the Poconos where you really wanted to wear warm and very bright clothing in late fall, and not only did her grandparents keep a loaded rifle on the steps leading down from the kitchen to the basement (what her grandparents could do with a loaded rifle when they weren't that steady on their feet at that point in their lives, I don't know, but they were used to it, while it probably kept me usefully nervous), but they stocked several bottles of sweet pink champagne in the cellar. My apologies to those who are particular about their terminology: I should probably call it sweetened pink sparkling wine rather than champagne, because I know that only the sparkling wine from grapes that grow in Champagne should be called champagne, but there was something horribly but perfectly incongruous about the term sweet pink champagne.

And they had their Thanksgiving dinner at 2 pm, while my family always had it in the evening. Elizabeth's grandmother Margaret would bustle around the kitchen for a few hours midday along with Elizabeth and her mother Peggy, and I would generally have my offered help gently refused with the excuse that there were already too many people in the kitchen, though I would be given several ceremonial tasks such as to bring the bottles of sweet pink champagne from the basement to the kitchen or to clear and set the table. (I am very grateful among other things today that I never had the task of ceremonially shooting off the rifle accidentally.) And we would sit down and pass plates around and eat some, and then the sweet pink champagne would be opened, and it would disappear down gullets.

And then almost inevitably, the weather would be cool but not frigid but very damp as Elizabeth and I alone or joined by Peggy would walk along New York Blvd. or down one of the paths along it in a postprandial, anti-cabin-fever perambulation in the late afternoon as the trees would drip down on us. And we would get back to the house around dark, have a small dinner an hour or two later, maybe a dessert when Elizabeth's uncle, aunt, or cousins might join us, and look at the ongepotchket Pennsylvania Dutch decorations that Margaret had acquired over the years and think about the house's ceilings that were about 4-5 inches too low for my taste (and I am not a tall man). A day or two later we would head back to the Philadelphia area, a country with which I was more familiar.

After Henry died a year or two before Elizabeth and I married, and Elizabeth's uncle and aunt moved down to West Virginia, Margaret moved to an assisted living facility near her son and daughter-in-law, and that house has probably passed through a few owners since. Margaret died in the late 1990s, and now Peggy is gone. And we have our own Thanksgiving routines in a suburban landscape in a place far from temperate lands where a fall harvest festival makes much sense, but we will see if any sweet potatoes grew unmolested this year in our yard, and we will make lots of food and maybe open a bottle of wine. My son is the pie fan, and he's made pumpkin pie on several Thanksgivings. My daughter will probably make succotash, and we will make several varieties of cranberry relish from raw cranberries. No pink champagne, but I'll be thinking of it.

I wish a restful Thanksgiving for everyone in the U.S. and an easy workday for everyone else. Don't go too crazy on the pie, and make sure to take a postprandial, anti-cabin-fever walk.

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Posted in Personal on November 26, 2009 5:43 AM |