Tales of Thanksgiving Food and Friendship
By Andrea Israel and Nancy Garfinkel,
Authors of The Recipe Club: A Tale of Food and Friendship
For some people, Thanksgiving evokes warm feelings triggered by memories of a close-knit family gathering, where relatives share traditions and a home-cooked meal.
For others . . . it's the beginning of a holiday season stuffed with lunatic relatives, family dysfunction, bitter recriminations, and heartburn.
We heard a wide range of Thanksgiving Tales this year while traveling around the country for our Recipe Clubs. Inspired by the plot and structure of our book, Recipe Clubs are storytelling and friendship circles in which women gather to share true-life food-related stories along with recipes. Recipe Clubs are not about cooking; they're about creating community and fostering friendship . . . they're about laughing and crying . . . they're about honoring our own lives and the lives of others. They show us how the simplest, sweetest, or funniest tales about food can turn into deep revelations about our lives.
Just about everybody has at least one quintessential Thanksgiving food memory that perfectly captures the complicated feelings surrounding the holiday. Here are some of our favorites:
One Recipe Club friend recalls the first time she ever cooked a Thanksgiving meal on her own. Her mother, who traditionally did the meal, was recovering from surgery. Her father was working. And her sister was flying in just in time for the meal, but not early enough to help cook.
So our friend rose to the challenge, proclaiming that she would do the entire meal, on her own. No problem -- until reality set in. She woke at dawn, shopped, chopped, and soon realized her oven was half the size it needed to be. By the time the turkey wanted basting the chestnut stuffing required baking -- and the brussel sprouts were definitely not cleaning themselves!
But things really went south when it came time prepare her grandmother's famous pumpkin pie. This was the pie recipe that had been handed down through generations. If it didn't come out perfectly, our friend knew she'd feel like a failure.
Of course, nothing went right. The pie crust was too wet, then too dry. There was too much nutmeg, not enough ginger. With every crimp of the dough her head swam with the imagined voice of her southern grandmother: "A woman is judged not just by who she is, but by what she can bring to the table."
When the pie came out of the oven, the crust was too brown, and there was a giant crack running down the middle of the filling. Our friend fought back tears, took a deep breath, and set the pie out to cool, knowing more clearly than ever that neither it -- nor she -- was, or would ever be, perfect.
But when it came time for everyone to gather at the table, something shifted. Her parents and sister praised her hard work and loved the meal. And our friend realized she had somehow been carried on the wings of the generations of women who had cooked before her, without complaining, to serve a Thanksgiving meal to their family. She felt truly thankful for all the work that her mother, grandmother, aunts -- indeed all the women she'd known through her life -- had accomplished each holiday. Triumphant, connected, and happy, she understood that food cooked with love is its own kind of perfection.
FINALIZING THE DIVORCE
One Recipe Club friend recalled her first Thanksgiving after her divorce.
Since carving the bird had always been her ex-husband's job, she delighted in finding a new, turkey-free recipe. She settled on an apricot-glazed ham, and went to work cooking a glaze of brown sugar, cloves, and apricot nectar (an ingredient that gave her extra pleasure knowing her ex-husband detested it.)
When her grown children came for dinner, they were childishly upset not to have their usual 12-pound bird. But it was delicious, and in the end each one complimented the chef. On her way out, the youngest daughter told her mother, "maybe we all need to learn how to gracefully accept change."
For this new divorcee, serving ham became a way of asserting her independence, showing her children there was life after marriage, and teaching the whole family to find new ways to be together.
IT'S ALL RELATIVE
The truth is, we don't pick our relatives. So if the Thanksgiving gathering of the clan is an annual emotional challenge, you aren't alone.
In a recent Recipe Club circle of old friends and new acquaintances, we met a woman who admitted that for most of her life she dreaded Thanksgiving; all it evoked for her were memories of family fights. The contrast of what she knew Thanksgiving was "supposed" to be, versus what it was in her home, always made her feel ashamed and disappointed. And yet every November she felt compelled go home for a family Thanksgiving meal.
But one year, that changed, when her parents and brother decided to have Thanksgiving away from home. They journeyed together to Nantucket, where they ate dinner at a seaside inn. The inn served a New England clam chowder, rich with cream and warm on a cold autumn night. And they discovered that a new location, with new foods, away from the house where memories were often more fiery than the jalepeno cornbread, turned out to be just what the family needed.
Now, every year, back at home, they have a new tradition: serving New England Clam Chowder at their Thanksgiving feasts, each spoonful bringing back fond memories of a peaceful and loving family holiday.
A FAMILY OF FRIENDS
Finally, a little tale of food and friendship.
A reader of our book told us that she had a choice this year. She could invite Uncle Tim and Aunt Zoe, the way she does every year, and spend the entire holiday worrying about whether or not the perpetually complaining couple were happy. She could include cousins Beth and Sean, knowing they would be competitive, putting down her choice of food, her way of cooking, her table setting. She could extend an invitation to her brother and dreaded sister-in-law, who would sit in silence the entire meal and pick at the food.
Or . . . she could shake things up and do something entirely different: invite only friends. True friends. People she enjoyed being with. Who made her laugh. Who spoke truthfully. Who shared her passions for good books, good wine, and good music.
She took the leap. She dumped the whiners, broke with tradition, irritated several family members -- and never looked back. The moral: good food and good friends are the perfect combination. Sometimes it's a good idea to trim the guest list before you serve the bird with all its trimmings.
©2009 Andrea Israel and Nancy Garfinkel, authors of The Recipe Club: A Tale of Food and Friendship
Author Bios for The Recipe Club: A Tale of Food and Friendship
Andrea Israel is a producer/writer for ABC's Focus Earth. She was a producer/writer on Anderson Cooper 360, Dateline, and Good Morning America (which garnered her an Emmy Award). Her story In Donald's Eyes was recently optioned for a film. Ms. Israel is the author of Taking Tea. Her writing has appeared in many publications.
Nancy Garfinkel is co-author of The Wine Lover's Guide to the Wine Country: The Best of Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino(Chronicle Books, 2005). A creative strategist, design consultant, writer, and editor for magazine, corporate, and non-profit clients, she has won a host of graphic arts and editorial merit awards. She has written extensively about food and graphic arts.
For more information please visit www.therecipeclubbook.