I was a little out of sorts this Thanksgiving. It was just over a year ago that my beloved died suddenly and tragically. I was far away from family and from my many friends in Northern California. So on Wednesday morning, I packed my car with cranberries from a farm stand in Maine, got a Vermont farm-raised, free-range turkey, and fresh andouille from a rural smokehouse in Western Mass, and drove to Manhattan. After making one last stop for molasses and crème fraiche at Fairway Market on 125th St., I pulled into a miraculously open parking space on upper Riverside Drive. My old friend, Russ, came downstairs with his shopping cart, and we loaded everything up to his top floor apartment to begin the preparations.
Russ and Carol have a gift for hospitality; their large apartment is often filled with guests from somewhere. Carol also has a special gift for maintaining friendships. It's not unusual to find a classmate from junior high, or a grown child of one of her life-long friends, among them. I am one of their fortunate recipients. They even let me cook.
(with homage to Diane DiPrima's "What I Ate Where"; Photo by Zandy Mangold)
Meal planning and cooking is a sort of religious zealotry with me. I believe passionately in the magic of real food, lovingly prepared and consumed slowly, with interesting conversation. Everything should go together so one course leads gracefully to the next. The wine should be chosen to complement each dish. I think more than four side dishes muddy the palate; potlucks are my nemesis.
The people who love me best indulge this obsession and even revel in it. Russ is one of my best partners in crime. We can really go to town in the kitchen, and often do. This year's theme was Southern cooking. We began with that dangerous New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac, for which Russ found a recipe on the Internet, including rinsing the glass in Absinthe. Then we happily began cutting the butter with knives into our wheat-free piecrusts (yes, it can be done, and still be flaky). While waiting to roll it out, Russ rubbed the turkey with Cajun spices. I grated a tangy relish of fresh cranberries, ginger, oranges, and apples. We dressed it with Russ's homemade mayonnaise mixed with crème fraiche and garnished with lavender salt (it turned out to be the hit of the meal).
After combining Russ's homemade corn bread with chopped onions, celery, New England apples, big golden Turkish raisins, and a pound of andouille for the stuffing, we rolled out the crusts. The recipe on Norah Ephron's Blog for Caribbean Sweet Potato Pudding sounded just about perfect, so we set about making the pudding to fill them. By bedtime, camped out on mattresses with the other houseguests, I drifted off on the smells of warm spices and fall filling the apartment.
In the morning after the Macy's parade, Carol and Jill (another house guest, from Berkeley, and director of Camp It Up! inclusive family camp) set up bridge tables and put out plates and linens for thirteen, while we listened to Broadway show tunes and animatedly sang along.
By the time the rest of the guests arrived for dinner, the pies were cooling on the window sill, the stuffed turkey was roasting and being basted regularly with bourbon and juices, giblets were boiling in a pot for gravy, the Beaujolais Nouveau was chilling, the mashed cauliflower soufflé was baking, and the green beans were slowly cooking, Southern style, with a ham hock and bay leaves. I was caramelizing onions in olive oil with a balsamic glaze, to pour over the spinach and radicchio salad garnished with goat cheese and dried cranberries.
In came Carol's brother, and his wife, with their two smart sons, eleven and fifteen, carrying bags of heavenly cookies available only at the Lakota bakery, outside Boston. Then Aunt Ulla, dynamic and fascinating at eighty-four, arrived with her famous homemade pâté and a hand crafted ceramic olive dish. Zandy, someone's thirty-something distant cousin who stuck, recently returned from photographing a marathon in the Sahara, arrived with homemade killer chocolate cookies, and his camera. There was the tall, beautiful and savvy web designer, June, who made menus on the spot and put them at all our places. Arriving last was the poetry slammer son of an old friend of Carol's, and his college roommate from Santa Cruz. And then we were all sitting around the table, Black, White, and Asian; eleven to eighty-four; gay, straight, and bisexual; Jewish, Christian and agnostic. I took out my grandfather's carving set, while Russ offered a toast. "Every morning we wake up and look in the mirror, and we know all our flaws, all the ways we wish we were better, all the ways we are not worthy of love, and yet we find ourselves at a table like this, where we are loved."
We are. I am. That's what family is. After dinner, Carol pulled out a keyboard and kitchen instruments of graters and wooden spoons. Jill played and we all sang. I cried for my beloved, who would have loved every minute. But also I cried because this is how life can be, and every once in a while, actually is.
Family values at their best prevailed as this diverse bunch assembled and celebrated our good fortune in the ancient manner of feasting. They are the kind of family values Jesus was speaking of when he asked his disciples. "Who are my mother and my brothers?" and answered his own question, looking at the many kinds of people seated in a circle around him "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother." (Mark 3:31-35). Or, in the words of the Native Americans, "All my relations." We are not all the same, but we are all part of life's richness.
I am well aware that not all people are so fortunate. We toasted them, too, wishing an end to war and policies that cause poverty and pain. But we also feasted, as people have always done, rich or poor, here and everywhere.
It may be this very custom of sharing food that makes us human. People worldwide have traditions of killing the fatted calf, preparing the Sabbath meal, pouring three cups of tea, or breaking bread in communion. We sit down at a table together. We take time. We laugh and tell stories. We serve each other. Call me superstitious, but I don't believe this kind of magic can come from turkey purchased pre-cooked at Safeway, or even at Whole Foods, and gulped down in front of the television.
In the breaking of bread, in the love and attention that go into preparing and sharing food in community, we become related. We truly see one another----in our wholeness and our brokenness. We extend our love beyond just blood ties, and embrace the many ways of being human. We are all family. Maybe that's the real meaning of family values.