I was 21 when I hosted my first Thanksgiving. I was kind of young to take that on, but my mother was getting divorced for the second time and she'd end up spending the day alone if I didn't step up. My boyfriend Daniel's mother, Esme, invited us to her house, but along with playing savior, I was drawn to creating my own day. My tiny East Village apartment kitchen had zero counter space, and was so narrow that I could touch both walls if I reached out my hands.
Esme gave me a frozen turkey that she'd bought the year before, right after Thanksgiving, for $5, and lent me her hardcover 1982 Martha Stewart Entertaining book; the floral arrangement on the cover is bigger than Martha is. Her Gunne Sax dress, white, ruffled, and eyeleted, matches the tablecloth and napkin perfectly. She even bears one corner of the tablecloth aloft, as if to say, isn't it clever that we match? Her book revealed very colonial indoor Connecticut scenes.
Although Daniel had initially been game to spend Thanksgiving with my mother, my sister, and me, the day itself found him bereft. I expected that he would pitch in and do the day with me, but "I don't cook on Thanksgiving," he said. "I watch football."
"I need your help," I said. I handed him a dust rag and a broom.
When I came in a few minutes later to check on him, he was moping. "I miss my family!" he said.
"Why don't you go to your family, then?" I asked. "Really, I can do this on my own."
"No, no," he said. "You're my girlfriend and I should be with you."
He did a purposely slapdash job of dusting and sweeping, and then plopped in front of the little twelve-inch television, surly. I was beginning to understand what my mother had felt like on Thanksgivings past. I had a stack of things to do, a messy apartment, and worse-than-no-help help, and was on my third crying jag of the morning.
Since we were in our twenties and from terribly toxic families, Daniel and I called each other insulting phrases and then retreated to our different corners of the apartment (which were less than twenty feet away).
One of the beautiful gifts of a long career preparing the Thanksgiving meal is the understanding that the more you do in advance, the more you will sail through the actual day. I had no concept of this, so I was behind, shot through with adrenaline and cortisol -- possibly in worse shape than the cheapo, cryogenically preserved turkey, which at least was kosher. I wasn't blessed by any rabbis, and any Jewish blood that I maybe had was from my mother's father (possibly another of my mom's wishful-thinking family "facts"), which didn't count -- and that made Daniel's mother very, very unhappy. She'd refused to meet me for months.
The stuffing I made that day was a radical departure from my grandfather Jimmy's bread-based stuffing; it was composed of basmati rice, shiitake mushrooms, diced apples and fresh herbs. Outside of the bird, it was a passable pilaf, but cooked within the cavity, it was drenched with roasted juices, each grain swelled to the utmost, almost a risotto. The apples were no longer apples, as their flavor had been surrendered to infuse the whole, which had turned around and infused the apple bits with broth. And the mushrooms, which I appreciated for the earthy meatiness they lent to vegetarian dishes, now threw their robust weight behind the turkey.
Once I had prepared -- but not yet cooked -- the stuffing, I turned to the turkey. My first bird. Per Martha's instructions, I slid my fingers between the skin and the meat, cleaving each from the fascia. I placed butter and sage leaves in between the layers, arranging the velvety oblongs in a mosaic pattern.
I was aware of the barbarism of my gesture, as well as the sensuality and tenuous nature of each centimeter gained. I had to see with my fingertips. And given my callow inexperience, I did rend the taut, thin skin near the thigh.
I washed my slick hands and spooned the rice mixture into the cavity, and sewed the opening closed with special twine and hooks. At that moment, the idle thought went through my mind that I could have, with the right encouragement, become a surgeon. I slid the turkey into the oven, a reverse birth.
Now on to the cider. Martha had remarked that the lovely thing about mulled cider was that it scented the home, like a potpourri. I poured the cider into a stockpot and added the cinnamon sticks and whole allspice.
"Daniel, could you stud these apples with cloves?" I asked. He groaned.
Twenty minutes later, after peeling the white and sweet potatoes, I came back to get the apples. He was still on the first one. He had made a Fabergé-inspired design on the sole apple, choosing and placing each clove as punctiliously as if it would be featured on Martha's next television show.
"Why aren't you done yet?" I asked.
"I'm only doing this during the commercial breaks, if the commercials are boring," he said.
I grabbed the apples and cloves and finished the job myself inside of three minutes.
"Serve hot from a large earthenware bowl," Martha advised. My stockpot (and my boyfriend) would have to do for the time being. By the time my mother and sister rang the buzzer, the apartment was tidy, the oven was at full capacity, and the air was perfumed with the vapors of mulled cider. They came in, wreathed in smiles, smelling of damp, cold New York autumn and bearing plump, shapely pies.
I hugged them both tightly to me and said, "I'm so glad you're here."
When it came time to make gravy, my mother performed her magic, passed down to her from Grandma Marie. Pull out the bird, put the roasting pan on two burners, and heat the drippings to a fare-thee-well. Then fill a tall glass with water, put in a heaping spoonful of flour, and whisk it until there are no lumps remaining. Swirl it into the pan, stirring, stirring, as the floury water blends with the broths and drippings and becomes perfect, flavorful gravy.
Before long, we crowded around the tiny table, my mother said grace, and we took our first bites. I had done it.
"Oh my God," Daniel said.
"What?" we all asked.
"There's no vegetable."
I looked at the spread. Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and gravy. "The potatoes," I said. "There's no green vegetable," he repeated. He shook his head with a smirk. "I can't believe you forgot the vegetable." My eyes met my mother's and my sister's. Just as our violent stepfather was ejected from our family circle, had I ushered in a replacement killjoy? I knew Daniel would bring home this failing of mine to his judgmental family as proudly as a cat brings home a dead bird.
"It's fine!" my mother assured. "It's a perfect meal. You did a great job."
"Thank you, Mom," I said.
Future Thanksgivings would be busy and sometimes complicated, but they'd never again be fraught with the panic of the unknown, or the presence of Daniel.
[Excerpted from Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity (Seal Press, November 2012).]