Thanksgiving time is a powerful season — so powerful that it inspires in me a Will to Grow Up, which in turn has the superpower to vanquish my usual non-cook stance. My non-cook stance is a no-confidence, can’t-style configuration that includes a lot of cooking avoidance and a lot of apologizing for the food when I do have to cook. But every Thanksgiving, I give it up.
Once upon a time, there was the Thanksgiving of My Dreams. The Thanksgiving of My Dreams was the Thanksgiving I’d spent with extended family at my Aunt Marilyn and Uncle Seth’s home in Cleveland before my parents were divorced. We had to get all the way to Cleveland from East Hampton, so that was a big deal to begin with, and then the actual Thanksgiving was impressive, too — a large gathering with all the Cleveland people on my dad’s side, even the ones who were normally a little bit marginalized.
There are photos of my cousins and me dressed up in Pilgrim-girl dresses. I remember people watching “King Kong” in the family room. They were the kind of family with a family room. I have zero memories of the food or who cooked it, but I know there was plenty for everyone. This Thanksgiving wound up becoming a kind of idealized holiday with a lot of yearning/longing/missing/hoping attached to it. In the years following my parents’ divorce, my access to this gathering felt fragile, tenuous, and distant. Aware that the Harris Family Thanksgiving was happening, I looked in at the warm, vibrant scene through the window of my memory.
Not that mine was a childhood without any stuffing! To be sure, my mom and I attended perfectly good Thanksgivings each and every year with family on Mom’s side or good friends. Turkey was served and eaten up, my mom always did her parsnip-and-pear purée, and I never turned down a dollop of cranberry sauce.
Yet for me no gathering we visited stuck, no tradition really connected. Stubbornly attached to the Thanksgiving of My Dreams, I became a girl with no turkey to call her own. For many years, a forlorn gobble-gobble echoed in my heart! But let me move quickly to the empowerment part.
The first year my beloved husband and I lived in our house on Three Mile Harbor Road — this was back in 1999 and actually we were not married yet — I finally decided to take the Thanksgiving matter into my own hands. Non-cook notwithstanding, I was going to come up with the whole turkey dinner. Since my beloved husband is from Japan, and there is no such thing as Thanksgiving in Japan, there were two things at play on the upside:
He wasn’t going to know if the food didn’t taste how it was supposed to taste.
He wasn’t going to be measuring the event against the Thanksgiving of his dreams.
On the downside, my beloved husband (an excellent cook) wasn’t going to heroically step in and make the meal.
In any case, I cooked.
I made the turkey and the stuffing and the corn dish and the cranberry sauce and the sweet potatoes and the pearl onions and the string beans and the pumpkin pie. I think I even tried to make the gravy that year, though in the future I would fob it off on someone else — an unsuspecting guest or the unsuspecting boyfriend of a guest.
You see, that first year it was just my beloved husband and me and our cat, Neko, but the next year and all the years that have followed, we invited guests: friends who did not have a connected Thanksgiving or whose connected Thanksgiving was on the other coast and an expensive plane ticket away. We also invited friends who are not American and would not have known a connected Thanksgiving if it gobbled at them, forlornly or otherwise, which helped to lower the pressure with the cooking.
Now, naturally, the day includes our children (what will Thanksgiving come to mean for them?) and, also very happily, my mom and her parsnip-and-pear purée (this year there’s also talk of a coconut cake).
Every year my impulse to create and claim Thanksgiving conquers my impulse to shy away from the complex responsibility cooking both is and implies. Believe me, if I could do the Thanksgiving without cooking, I would. But that wouldn’t be taking the matter into my own hands. Every year I suspend my non-cook pathology and stop worrying that I can’t cook competently, stop fretting that I have failed to achieve this hallmark of the grown-up — and jump in with superpowered turkey feet to cook as I do.
Several years ago, a couple of days after Thanksgiving, one of our guests called to thank us for the dinner. I think he also might have been looking for a scarf he left behind. Someone always leaves something behind. I said you’re welcome for the dinner, and then, because the Thanksgiving charm had worn off and my no-confidence, can’t-style non-cook stance had taken over again, I apologized for the food.
He was surprised by this. He told me that there was nothing wrong with my cooking. He told me he liked what he ate. Outrageous! I protested, and we went back and forth for a while. Finally, he disarmed me with the following question: “Why do you think you can’t cook?”
This is a question of some depth. Was he offering me a key? Or at least a keyhole through which to look? Was he gently suggesting that I might take matters into my own hands at other times of the year? After all, the Will to Grow Up doesn’t have to be seasonal. Why do I think I can’t cook?
I told him no one had ever asked me anything like that. I told him I’d have to think about it, and I have been.
Meanwhile, it’s time to get out the baster and start cooking for the Thanksgiving of my reality.
Evan Harris is the author of “The Quit.” She can be found online at pickygrouchynon-cook.com.