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Elise Sax Headshot

My First Thankstaking

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There is no turkey in my freezer. No Thanksgiving shopping list on my fridge. I'm not stockpiling yams, and I'm not counting dinner forks and folding chairs to make sure I have enough for my guests.

For the first time since 1989, I'm not cooking for Thanksgiving. Nothing. Not even a pie crust.

Growing up as the daughter of our extended family's matriarch and bonafide cooking czar, I was brought into the kitchen early on to help prepare the Thanksgiving dinner. As soon as I was old enough to hold a spoon, I was stirring something while my mother barked orders.

The kitchen was her territory, and woe to the person who crossed the border without permission. "Out!" she would yell, her voice reaching more extreme decibel levels as we got closer to the actual meal. As her only daughter, I had access to the inner kingdom, as long as I kept cooking per her instructions.

Same menu year after year. We never ventured beyond the expected, and it was good. Delicious. The best.

So, when the call rang out in my college in Paris, France of, "Does anybody know how to make yams?" Well, I had to say, yes. Did I know how to make yams? I could make yams with my eyes closed while a woman screamed at me about how I destroyed her body during childbirth.

I knew how to make yams.

It was 1989, and the Berlin Wall had only just come down. Western Europe was inundated with Eastern Europeans, walking as if in a dream, disbelieving themselves that they were finally free to leave their borders and free to contemplate a different future.

My generation of college students welcomed them. We soaked up their stories and shared our dreams of change and progress. Food and drink were usually involved, and soon it was time to share Thanksgiving.

Candied yams are the easiest dish to prepare on Thanksgiving, but for some reason it impresses people and leads them to believe you are an accomplished chef. That first Thanksgiving cooking without my mother, I was hailed as a culinary genius.

With accolades and the warmth of giving to old and new friends, my Thanksgiving tradition was born.

Thanksgiving as an expatriate, as an American overseas, can be a challenging experience. Traditional ingredients weren't that easy to find years ago. When an American sundries store opened, I was one of the first customers. Inside, a call rang out of, "Does anybody know how to prepare a turkey?"

Did I know how to prepare a turkey? I could prepare a turkey before dawn while half-asleep with my mother yelling at me that my family better come through with more tables or she's disinviting the lot and never cooking again.

I was surrounded by frantic expatriates in that little store, all taking notes about how to prep and cook a turkey. I was Julia Child, Mario Batali and Rachael Ray all rolled into one... just because I knew what basting was.

Then, I went home and cooked for my expatriate friends, which later grew to expatriate and French friends as the years passed in France. Every year, we would first sit at the dinner table in the joy that we pulled of a traditional American meal in the capital of gastronomical snobbery. We would note that there wasn't one French cream sauce anywhere. Then, the French guests would insist that candied yams couldn't possibly be eaten with the meal but rather for dessert, we would marvel that a tiny French turkey tasted so much better than a giant American bird, and finally with the pecan pie, we were convinced that yes, America has to be the greatest country on the planet.

The peaceful Thanksgiving years, I call them. I was queen of my little Parisian kitchen, and there was a complete lack of family drama year after year.

Twelve years later, I found myself back in my mother's kitchen, pulling pin feathers out of two enormous turkeys. I had moved back to the States. In the intervening years, my mother had drafted the aid of my younger cousins, dishing out the chopping duties to them. Still, there was plenty to do.

My return coincided with the decline in my mother's health, as she battled two kinds of cancer. There was no question that her house would host the holiday meals. I began to cook more and more while she sat by me too fatigued to do much, reminding me to use more fat in every dish. "That's why it tastes good!" she would announce, impatiently. Sometimes, I would prepare the Thanksgiving meal, and we would tell our family and friends that she had done the cooking. No sense in upsetting people, we decided. After all, I had been trained to make her Thanksgiving meal since before I could read. I could copy her cooking like a professional forger.

And then last year, she was gone and her home was sold. For a brief moment, my family didn't know what we do for Thanksgiving, and then one by one, they invited themselves to my home for dinner. I had 30 for the first year after my mother's passing, and I tried to make her meal exactly how she would. I could hear her yelling in my head to add more fat, that "that's not the way to make stuffing!" It was delicious, but slightly off. Like the key ingredient was missing.

This year, one cousin will be out of town, two others out of the country. My son wants to be with friends. Quickly, Thanksgiving became a perfect storm receding far from my kitchen.

We're eating at my sister-in-law's. Instead of Thanksgiving where I prepare food for family and friends, I will be taking. My first Thankstaking. I might need therapy.

Never mind. My sister-in-law just called me. She wants to know how to make turkey. And yams. And stuffing.

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