My turn to manage dinner tonight. Our Friday night restaurant habit, which had turned into Friday night takeout during the pandemic, has morphed again. Takeout on Friday nights turned out to be a poor substitute for what we like about restaurants, especially getting out of the house, being around people, and long, loose conversations. Now we’re taking turns to select and prepare recipes a little more complicated than our normal practice (i.e., following the directions on the Rice-a-Roni box). And the person who chooses the recipe gets to order around the others! Bonus! Last week I was sous chef for Sonny’s appetizers extravaganza. This week, I’m in charge of a casserole and a couple of sides, which looks like it will be straightforward. Given where we are in the year, it’s also a warmup for Thanksgiving. Beyond agreeing on no turkey this year, with six days to go we still haven’t decided on the specifics.
Normally when we decide to skip cooking turkey in favor of a different meal or someone else doing the roasting, I’m ecstatic. However, the dashed expectations this year have me missing things I didn’t even like in the first place. Nine-hour road trips, the New Jersey Turnpike, the aunt who insists on marking each cheek with her sloppy kisses, perilous conversations, green bean casserole.
Dave and I had vastly different holiday traditions, and we’ve spent the past 25 years experimenting with mixing them. His Thanksgivings as a kid involved traveling, several households gathering in one spot, and, often, both pumpkin pie and birthday cake, since he was born in late November. Most of his relatives lived within an hour or two’s drive, short enough to make gathering reasonable and long enough to ensure an all-day event. The TV would be tuned to parades and football. Dave and his cousins would play video games or run around the house, and the grownups would do whatever grownups did. As it turns out, once we started participating in these gatherings as grownups: stress about the food, snipe at the in-laws, compare one’s house and children to other people’s houses and children, and try to steer clear of talk about politics and religion. If we gather on Thanksgiving, it’s with friends, rather than relatives. Tradition abandoned.
On the other hand, my childhood was spent hundreds of miles from our relatives. Thanksgiving was usually just the five of us. Sometimes we were joined by a colleague of my father’s. If we had a visitor, there was no television; otherwise, it was parades and football. For anyone not cooking, Thanksgiving was simply an hour of a day off from school as well as one of the three days a year that we ate off of china instead of melamine plates and had lasagne, the true star of the day. This delectable concoction made its way from the china to my stomach much faster than the turkey, sweet potatoes, or quivering discs of cranberry gel. My mother’s lasagne was insanely good; I’ve eaten hundreds, probably thousands, of lasagnes since and never found its equal. It took ages to prep, though, so it only showed up on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I rhapsodized to Dave many times about mom’s lasagne. One year we decided on lasagne instead of turkey. I fought my way through the grocery lines on Wednesday for bay leaves and tomatoes and beef and the like, returning home triumphant. At 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving afternoon, I laid out the ingredients and realized that I had forgotten to buy the lasagne noodles. Dave headed for the grocery stores: all closed. Three 24-hour, 365-days-a-year drug stores later, he found a package of spaghetti, so that’s what we made instead. It was good, but it wasn’t lasagne. Tradition fail.
There are some years when I roast a whole turkey; some years it’s just a turkey breast. We’ve gone to relatives’ houses, had relatives come to us. With a small kitchen and my mediocre cooking skills, the holiday wasn’t all that fun. Tradition put on indefinite hold.
A couple of times we’ve gone to a restaurant, if we arrange reservations early enough. That might have been nice for this year, but…coronavirus. Tradition deferred.
This year, unless I succumb to guilt or mania at the last minute, will probably involve pizza. Maybe homemade, maybe delivery. This actually harkens back to our first Thanksgiving as a three-person family. It was the day after Sonny came home from almost a week in Boston Children’s Hospital. Emergency surgery had saved his life, but he was fragile and exhausted, and so were we. Dave and I had caught a nasty bug that was going around Boston Children’s Hospital. We got back to our apartment, canceled our visit to Dave’s sister, and asked no one to visit because we didn’t know whether we were contagious. Then we ordered in pizza.
Twenty-three years later, it’s probably time for a repeat. Tradition win.