Picture this: I’m eleven years old. It’s the height of the 80s. I’m wearing a bright red, matchy-matchy quilted skirt and vest combo with a suffocating turtleneck shirt. All of this glamour is topped off by a Dorothy Hamill/Prince Valiant haircut. It’s ten in the morning, but Thanksgiving dinner is ready because Pop started cooking the turkey at sunrise.
That’s okay—we’re happy. As every kid knows, Thanksgiving is a warm-up for Christmas, which is a crack-of-dawn event. So what if my raisin bran has a turkey chaser, it’s almost Christmas.
We sit down at our kingly, second-hand dinner table, which shudders under the weight of platters of meticulously arranged gherkins, black olives, inhumanly perfect slices of celery stalk, including the leafy tops—because my 13-year old, detail-obsessed sister, a future graphic designer, is in charge of the crudités.
At this gigantic table, I’m north; my sister, south; my mom, east; and Pop, west. We say grace. Then my father jumps up—actually leaps, because he’s excited—to bring out the food.
In front of me, he sets down a plate of the good china. My parents are not wealthy by any means, but they have some weirdly regal possessions, including a set of medieval-looking silver goblets my mother keeps wrapped in plastic and which we have never used. My father slides a silver goblet into the center of my plate and disappears. We hear a pop from the kitchen. When he returns, he fills the goblet with champagne and then carefully ladles half a syrupy peach into the center. My sister and I stare at each other.
“Should I drink this?” I ask. After all, I’m eleven.
He shrugs. “Just try the peach. The rest is for show.” So I eat the peach, which I like. Of course I like it. I’m the opposite of that Life cereal kid, Mikey—I like everything.
After clearing our dishes—yes, I took a sip of the champagne—he sets down the next plate in front of me. It’s a sunburst of root vegetables—glistening and roasted spikes of red, orange, and yellow radiating outward from a central caramelized whole onion. My plate contains at least five pounds of starch. My sister’s has the same.
“Oh, well. Eat what you want,” my father says and disappears back into the kitchen. My mother says, “Oh, Joe” with that look on her face.
The morning feast continues. My memories are shady, but I have a clear image of a vegetable terrine, a multilayered, gelatinous slice of cold, pureed spinach, potato, and carrot that seems to celebrate Italy in flag-like stripes. It’s pretty, but it tastes horrible. At this age, I have not yet developed a truce with cooked spinach.
What next? Sautéed beef marrow bones sawed in circular cross-sections that remind me of the cell diagrams I had to draw for Science. More gelatinous textures—it seems to be a theme. The centers of the bones contain a clear, fatty substance, which we’re instructed either to slurp out or scoop with a spoon. The outside circle of bone has been fried to a parmesan-encrusted crisp. I slurp. I gnaw. My sister and I agree—delicious.
Then finally, the stuffing arrives on the table. At last, something normal! I scoop up a mouthful and cringe. More jelly. This time, it’s an oyster, which I later learn is traditional for some families. However, I decide I’m not a fan, so I eat around the slimy landmines.
By the time the turkey comes out, I’m completely indifferent and ready to slide under the table to sleep until I have room for pie.
We moved to Arizona when my sister and I were young—I was a couple months shy of three. My mom was from Boston and my pop had grown up in Ohio, and what this meant was all of our holidays were just the four of us. I didn’t grow up with cousins or aunts and uncles or grandparents, even. We never traveled for Christmas or Thanksgiving. And like most things that happen when you’re young, it seemed normal.
You’d think that holidays for us would mean take-out Chinese food or all-day pajama attire, but it was actually the exact opposite. Not having company for holidays meals meant my father had free rein to do what he liked.
For that, I’m thankful.
EM Kaplan’s father died in 2009. Her first mystery featuring cranky food critic, Josie Tucker, is the award-winning, The Bride Wore Dead – and is FREE from Nov. 20-23 on Kindle. You can visit her on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/emkaplan.author) or Twitter (@meilaan).