Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Another Day, Another Turkey

November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving in Hoboken is a little different for me, partly because I’m not cooking. I’ll leave tomorrow afternoon for a visit with the family in upstate New York and come back Friday by noon for a little Hoboken day-after-Thanksgiving party. This will be my first Thanksgiving in the Northeast in a long time. Have you ever noticed that the day before Thanksgiving always seems like Friday, Thanksgiving Day always seems like Sunday, and then you get Friday the day after again followed by Saturday. No wonder we’re confused!

Sometimes the holiday gets out of hand. I love the movie Home for the Holidays when everything goes wrong until it goes right—a warm and funny romantic comedy with people like Dylan MacDermott, Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft and Robert Downey, Jr. Rent it—it’ll take you right into Christmas!

Hoboken used to have the tradition of trick-or-treating for Thanksgiving. That’s right, it was a custom in Hoboken and other urban areas surrounding New York (notably Brooklyn) for little kids to dress up in rags and go door-to-door asking for change on Thanksgiving. I think Halloween was more for pranks, but there was some request for candy and handouts too. The costume of the day was “ragamuffin,” a look that was once acceptable for children in Hoboken, especially on certain days. We still have the Ragamuffin Parade, but these days it’s on Halloween.

I like to cook so I’ve always enjoyed Thanksgiving. It’s a nice meal because, for one thing, it’s a feast, and secondly because it’s so easy. Nobody wants you to veer too much from the traditional, especially from their favorites. It’s a menu that is prescribed by law, with the few variations being allowed for occasional modifications of the side dishes or the rather recent admission of wine to the table. As to the difficulty, and the extended preparation time we see taking place over the years, let’s face it, somebody is making much ado where it’s not necessary. All that’s important is the smell of roasting poultry coming from the kitchen. Even as a young bride who had hardly seen the inside of a kitchen I was able to cook a turkey without a whole lot of agony. I was married on October 29 (1960) and prepared not only a roast turkey for the boss and his wife, but also oyster dressing for it. That’s the only thing I remember making, but it was a hit, and there was no flop.

I decided turkey was so easy I should cook it often, and I did, that year. But I don’t any more. I hardly make it for Thanksgiving if I can avoid it; I think duck is better and I don’t get any objections from my guests. I vary the side dishes from year to year, but love the homemade cranberry-orange relish that is made in the food processor (and not cooked). I discovered rutabagas about 10 years ago and love the look of them on the Thanksgiving plate. Pecan pie I mastered at a very young age (I was lying about not having seen the inside of a kitchen). I’ll never forget how, a few years ago, I tried to spring an exciting dessert on the assembled crowd – my own creation based on Maida Heatter’s Polka Dot Cheesecake. Ms. Heatter’s features huge, gorgeous chocolate polka dots within the cake; I made a pumpkin cheesecake mixture and piped it in similar fashion, and my eaters looked as if I had just shot the dog. “Where’s the pecan pie?” was all that they said. I love it, but I hadn’t known pecan pie was a requirement at every Thanksgiving meal.

My daughter is known as an expert baker of pies; this year we’re going to have apple and pumpkin. I’ve seen Thanksgiving turn from a relatively simple family holiday in my childhood (Mama always baked a chicken) to today’s overdone overindulgence pushed by the turkey industry, the cranberry industry, the orgy of television specials on heroes and the needy (and, this year, “going green”), and that old Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover.

My Thanksgiving advice is to do it your way, the less fanfare the better—have a small potluck with favorite family and a few friends, and a little gratitude for your good fortune in having them. Keep in mind what we learned from the pilgrims: Thanksgiving is a beautiful day, but it’s probably going to be a long, cold winter.

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