Monday, November 08, 2010
Thanksgiving in a Box
The week before the feast day, I leafed through the adverts in the mail and found in the Safeway circular, a ready-made Thanksgiving dinner. I signed up at the deli counter, and picked up my order the day before Thanksgiving. At home, in the company of my parents and grandparents, I opened the large cardboard box to reveal our dinner in a box.
1 shrink-wrapped defrosted, uncooked turkey
1 foil roasting pan
1 box Safeway brand frozen Bread Dressing
1 box Safeway brand frozen mashed potatoes
1 tub refrigerated Ocean Spray cranberry sauce
1 tub refrigerated turkey gravy
1 dozen fresh dinner rolls from the Safeway Bakery
1 boxed Entenmann’s pumpkin pie with a red ribbon printed on the packaging
There was nothing technically “wrong” with this dinner, and if the advertisement had shown the components fully prepared and steaming in china serving dishes, well that wasn’t uncommon.
It was simply that until that moment, I hadn’t fully appreciated the heroic efforts my grandmother had undertaken each Thanksgiving and Christmas. She constructed elaborate centerpieces and made decorations for each plate setting (one for each dinner guest and dozens more of that year’s craft to sell at her church’s holiday bazaar). Her home resembled Santa’s workshops for weeks before the feasts, as she and my grandfather ran their jigsaws, painted, and glued. She put every leaf in her dining room table until it nearly filled the room to accommodate ten of us and a myriad of china serving dishes. She pressed her best tablecloth and set out the fancy china and crystal goblets for our sparkling apple cider.
Her food was fabulous too. The hors d'oeuvres tray was plentiful and healthy: carrot and celery sticks, crackers and dip, and black olives that my sister and I would stick on our fingers as children. Her menu consisted of turkey, of course, and a stuffing that contained onion, celery and giblets as well as breadcrumbs and broth. The potatoes were russets, mashed with milk and butter. The gravy was whisked thick from basting broth with giblets and cornstarch with no trace of lumps. There were green beans topped with Durkee onions. The cranberries were whole and mixed with chopped orange peel and nuts to make chutney. She baked pies, pumpkin and apple with a flaky crust we raved about, and served them with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream.
My grandmother, whose energy was a constant source of amazement, would stay up nearly all night before the feast days, perfecting everything. On the big days, running on two, maybe three hours of sleep, she would dress up, tie an apron around her waist, and zip around her kitchen, attending to every detail, when launch into the role of gracious hostess as her company began arriving.
One year her turkey wore a vest, collar, cuffs and spats perfectly crafted dough, shaped into clothing and made more realistic with the application of food coloring and an egg wash. She took a photo of that turkey in the kitchen, and also on the table. She always took a photo of the fully decorated table, although I’m not sure if she snapped pictures of her guests.
There was no chance my Thanksgiving in a box could compare to the care and craftsmanship evidenced in my grandmother’s kitchen. My kitchen had temporary plywood countertops and all the overhead cabinets had been ripped out so we could knock out the upper half of the wall, making a large pass through into a bedroom that would become a dining room. We ate in a nook just off the kitchen. Our table sat eight and was much too large for the space. One long side was shoved against a wall so we could squeeze past it into the kitchen proper. Our Thanksgiving meal of 1993 would be served directly from foil, boxes and plastic containers onto paper plates, and eight of us would crowd around three sides of a table covered with a red and white checked plastic coated cloth.
Instead of despairing, we laughed. My grandmother––given a reprieve from her usual time consuming preparations––laughed first and longest of all. We were all together, great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and children, and we would celebrate. It was Thanksgiving, and just as tradition dictated, my grandmother artfully arranged the components of our dinner in their colorful wrappings atop my dining room table. Then she fished her Kodak Instamatic camera from her purse and photographed our feast.