Thursday, November 26, 2009

Whatever your tradition, Happy Thanksgiving

3:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning and I’m wide awake. I’m writing this from a little town dotted in the middle of a cornfield (literally) in Northwestern Ohio. This is where Lisa’s family lives and where I’m thankful she escaped from. If I wanted a life partner that hails from some romantic far-off shore, I looked in the wrong place. Her family is as pure bred mid western American as it gets. All are hard working with a do-the-right-thing mentality. They were warm and inviting when I met them for the first time – 10 Thanksgivings ago –and they are no less today. Lisa’s Dad is an interesting man. He’s a guy that can fix anything and he is quite accepting of the fact that I can fix nothing. Instead of lecturing me on how I should possess some of these qualities, he just brings his tool box down to Florida a couple of times a year and swings his hammer around my house until the jobs are done. He’s fixed soffits, rewired rooms, built gates, installed lighting and generally picked up the slack for his inept son-in-law. His conversation is intelligent and engaging. I love when this guy visits and I love visiting him. So here I am.

Earlier this month I wanted to get a traditional Thanksgiving recipe up since I haven’t written a new recipe in a while. I’ve come to realize that wasn’t going to happen. It turns out my life isn’t very traditional. Currier and Ives has no colorful depiction of my last 43 years. Now this isn’t a complaint, mind you, just a fact. I’ve travelled for a living for the past 7 years and I now have an apartment in Ft. Lauderdale where I spend my weeks as my family continues their life 4 hours away. As a very young boy, I recall a family steeped in tradition. We all gathered at Grandma’s house (on my mom’s side) in Erie, Pennsylvania and sat at one very long table that ran the entire length of their formal dining room. I remember saying grace then passing around platter after platter of very traditional fare. From a foodie point of view in the 21st century, most of you would have been appalled. Boxed, canned and processed was considered en vogue. In the 1960’s, canned foods were in their adolescence and the idea of opening canned corn and canned cranberry sauce was way more appealing than making it. I was well into my 30’s before canned vegetables disappeared from my own pantry. Still, it was these moments that I remember from my earliest Thanksgivings and Christmases that are the only remnants of true traditional family holidays.

When I was 6, we moved to Florida permanently. Like many others, my folks really needed to escape the cold weather. Winters in Erie could be brutal. My dad’s parents had already made the break to the south some years earlier and we had spent a year there when I was about 3 before returning to the snow. We actually rented a place just a few blocks from where I currently live on Lake Tarpon while my parents had a house built. We returned to Erie a few more times over the years for occasional holidays and family get-togethers. Our last big family gathering was when I was 16 for my grandmother’s 90th birthday. All my cousins and aunts and uncles celebrated her joyous life. She was humble and ladylike in all she did. She never wore pants, only skirts or dresses, and her hair and makeup were always done just subtly perfect. I was her youngest grandchild and she paid me every bit of attention that a youngest grandchild could ever hope for. The next year, grandma died. She left with me, though, the memory of a striking woman who took her matriarchal responsibilities very seriously. Now that mom and her siblings are also all gone, I’m glad I had those times.

After those early years, holidays became a hodgepodge. When we didn’t go up north, we would have Thanksgiving and Christmas with just the three of us. It was caring and loving and I was oh-so-thankful that I could ride a new bike on Christmas morning without the cold, but there was something missing without the family all gathered together. When I started my own family, I was in the military where tradition is hard to maintain. Then my colorful 20’s produced a couple of marriages and 5 kids. This made it even more impossible to make holiday gatherings consistent. Make no mistake, we’ve had spectacular holidays. It’s really about surrounding yourself with those you love and not who’s house you gather at. My kids and I have managed to be together most holidays and for that I am grateful.

Being with Lisa’s family transports me back to a time when I was a child. Her dad’s house has the same creaky floors that grandma’s did. They use a tea kettle that whistles and the coffee is instant. When we gather later today at Aunt Linda’s house, the cranberry sauce will come from a can and I will eat it. The green bean casserole will be topped with canned fried onions and I will eat it. There will not be one dish from Bon Appétit magazine or The Food Network or anywhere else other than the 3x5 card index that Aunt Linda has been using for as long as she’s been making the holiday meal. I can’t wait for the raspberry pie (made with raspberry jell-o, sugar, cornstarch and frozen raspberries). The kids will run around like mad, the ladies will gather and chat and the guys will gawk at the always lopsided Thanksgiving football games. Later, a friendly card game will develop in the basement where I plan to clean out Aunt Betty yet another year. While I’m not with my older kids this Thanksgiving, I am helping my 5-year-old Olivia form her future tradition with Lisa’s family. My wish is that she grows to cherish that as I did.

Sorry for no Thanksgiving holiday recipe this year (it is a food blog after all), but instead just a hope and wish for you to be surrounded by loving family. I do plan on cooking for Christmas and I do plan on playing with a few new recipes for the holiday meal, so I will be sharing that in the coming weeks.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!!!!