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Patricia Aranka Smith Headshot

My Big Fat Jewish Thanksgiving

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THANKSGIVING
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Part of the Jewish experience is talking (or screaming) at the top of your lungs and laughing (or arguing) over a fully loaded dinner table while consuming copious amounts of food and setting aside your differences as long as your mouth is full. When it comes to the holidays, they require one volume only: loud. No self-respecting Jew comes to the holiday table empty handed of family accomplishments, their very own ailments or a sense of humor. They are mandatory side dishes.

As a child, Thanksgiving was all about the sights, sounds and smells that pervaded my nostrils throughout the day. Images of my mother peeling hot chestnuts until her fingers bled all in the name of her glorious stuffing are married with the memory of bittersweet cranberry sauce (en gelée, delivered directly from the evil interior of the ribbed shaped can). Somewhere between all the delightful flavors and textures and the façade of Happy Family that make up that centerpiece-of-the-year meal, lies the truth.

One photo finish shot frozen in my memory is of the horrified look on my mother's face when she discovered our clever cat Rocky had taken down the 20 lb. turkey as guests milled about the living room completely unaware and unfazed by the crashing sound that came from the kitchen and the mayhem that ensued. Gin may have been partially responsible for the haze.

My mother sprinted to the kitchen as if she had suddenly been pumped with performance enhancing drugs. Moments before, the turkey was resting comfortably. Now, that steaming bird and all its drippings taunted her from the floor as it oozed juices and created a slippery reflecting pool that required tourniquets of paper towels to absorb. The frantic look on my mother's face as she scooped the splattered Ms. Butterball from the floor remains embedded in my mind like a YouTube video. I think she was more afraid of my father finding out than of the guests discovering the grisly truth of the scene that had unfolded. And yes, the five-second rule did apply.

My mom saved that turkey from further disaster in one fell swoop and served it on the platter in all its Humpty Dumpty glory. My father's annual chainsaw massacre (he could give "Mad Men" a whole new meaning) with the carving knife followed and everyone ate and drank happily ever after. I would swear that the cat was laughing from the kitchen.

There was that horrid Thanksgiving where, against our better judgment, my friend Lydia and I allowed our gay stand-in boyfriend with show tune benefits (who should have his card revoked for complete lack of taste in décor, fashion or food) to coerce us into eating a dinner that is probably still hiding in parts of my colon as part of the "Whiteness Protection Program". It's also on the FBI's "10 Least Wanted List". There was absolutely no color or taste to any of the food that he prepared. Unfortunately, there was also no pet to feed it to. If our old cat Rocky had been alive, he probably would have hailed a cab or run away to the Humane Society claiming abuse and won a judgment against Jerry. It was that inedible. Once is more than enough. While people dream about White Christmas, no one dreams of a White Thanksgiving. It was a nightmare I would never repeat again.

There was the Thanksgiving in Paris that took place at a Chinese restaurant and was hosted by my friend Gary whose claim to fame was as the voice behind those old Grey Poupon mustard commercials. A dozen of us got food drunk on crispy duck and Singapore noodles, chicken, clams, pork, greens and God knows what else. There was no turkey, but we were definitely stuffed. It seems so last century to say that we paid for that meal in Francs.

Last year I was "Chef in a Car". I loaded my SUV with every kitchen gadget, utensil and piece of equipment possible. I drove two hours to a friend's home and took over her kitchen. There was a 48-hour marathon of cooking and prepping and laughter and drinking (and thankfully, a heaping pile of stone crabs to sustain me) prior to the actual meal. Not to be outdone by my own feline story, my friend's cat, "Sweetie" had her own personal seat and place setting at the table. She was perfectly behaved and had better table manners than some two leggeds I know. Without at least one stray of some sort, Thanksgiving would not be the same.

This year may very well go down in the history books for supplying more than one could ask for as a writer, Thanksgiving keeper or historian of dysfunctional family gatherings. I've been asked to oversee/pass on my recipes and traditions to my friend's son (read: cook it myself if I want it turn out like it should). The attending cast of characters looks like a Jewish twister board with ex-husbands and ex-wives, cousins, uncles and two people going through chemotherapy. I am the only person who is not related to any of them. Though there may not be a cat in sight, I suspect there is plenty that will be let out of the bag.

I try hard each year to replicate the very best things about my holiday history, by following traditions and recipes I learned when I was young and combining them with other elements, locales and people as the years unfold. I write about them so I won't forget.

I do so especially for my mother, who unfortunately has lost the ability to remember many of them.

Happy Thanksgiving.