For holidays, we usually went to my father's side of the family in New Jersey. There, my mother didn't have to cook anything. My grandfather, Lucius (can you believe that name?), and his wife (whom we called "Aunt Marion," since he was a widower and she was his third wife but we adored her!) hired a cook and her son and daughter-in-law to run everything in the kitchen. We had both sets of grandparents there, and sometimes my two aunts with their families. When Mary sent word came from the kitchen that the turkey was ready for carving, we all gathered in the dining room at a large mahogany table with wall paneling to match. My grandfather disappeared into the kitchen and re-emerged to "Ooh"-ing and "Ahh"-ing with a platter boasting the gigantic turkey, browned and crisp that Mary had put in the oven at 5 a.m.. Lucius placed the platter on a sideboard and flourished his weapons (carving knife and fork), telling us to watch his time-honored method. As he sliced deep next to the breastbone, white juices followed the sluice. Our mouths salivated. After each slice, he raised the shimmering knife and fork head-high and brought them down again into the tender breast. When the slices and dressing covered a serving platter, Mary's son appeared to hold the platter so each of us could help himself. My grandfather stepped on a button in the floor and the side dishes began to appear, Mary's daughter-in-law rotating through the swinging kitchen door with her husband.
So when I got married, Charley knew he'd be my guinea pig. He married me anyway. I tried simple meals first, like baked boneless chicken breast with a slice of orange on top (I called it "chicken a l'orange") or omelettes, usually burned on the bottom but runny in the center. Somehow, Charley forgave me and kept eating whatever was put before him.
On our first Thanksgiving we were stationed at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. One of Charley's four brothers came down for a visit. I attempted my first turkey - a boneless roast. I didn't dare attempt cooking the entire bird. I took the roast out of the freezer Thanksgiving morning, put it in the oven in the early afternoon, and proceeded to make the apple pie, mashed potatoes, and beans.
When I put the browned roast on a platter for carving, Charley's flourish of weapons didn't exactly resemble my grandfather's. In fact, his knife got stuck in the center, where it was still frozen solid. I put the boneless breast back in the oven and we continued drinking.
After the meal, I asked Charley's brother how he liked the apple pie. He said, "Well, the apples were good" (meaning the crust was a soggy pile of dough). That taught me never to ask a guest's opinion of my cooking!
|Someone else's apple pie without soggy crust|
After that, I bought Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It taught me a lot about sauces and what wines to serve with what, but didn't teach me how to cook a turkey. This was in the dark ages, before I could Google "How do I cook a turkey?"
After a couple of more years in the Air Force, we lived in New England. We went to Charley's parents' house for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. All I had to do was buy some pies.
Then we had kids. I'd already graduated to chicken parmesan, rib roasts, and lasagna, so I brazenly bought my first whole turkey to cook on Christmas. I made the stuffing and put it in a casserole dish because one of my girlfriends had told me it was unsafe (bacteria-wise) to put it in the cavity of the turkey. I weaved together the legs and tail with metal skewers and dutifully basted the bird every hour. Charley brandished his weapons to carve, reading from instructions on a sheet I'd picked up at the grocery store. It was a repeat of Delaware. The center inside was still frozen, where the bag of unthawed giblets hid.
It was The Joy of Cooking that finally gave me specific instructions, but to this day my kids claim they suffered with my cooking. I blame it on my mom, who can't answer.
|This year's side dishes|