Or, How a Sense of Humor Can Save the Day …
Thanksgiving, our uniquely American tradition, comes but once a year and families proudly assemble in homes across the country to be together and express their gratitude for all the blessings in their lives. Sometimes they travel great distances, face airport delays, traffic jams and inclement weather conditions. Year after year, as the song goes “we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.” But sometimes, things don’t go according to plan …
I remember one Thanksgiving Day many years ago. We were newly married and were going to spend Thanksgiving with my husband’s family on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was a three-hour drive from our home in Connecticut. Weather in New England is always unpredictable. It was a cold, gray day and snow flurries escorted us during the drive. The highways were clear, and we had very little trouble—until we hit the notorious Mid-Cape Highway, a two-lane road that bisects the length of Cape Cod. It is the main artery. It is always backed up, bumper to bumper, in the summertime, as anxious vacationers make their way to the beach. But Thanksgiving traffic can easily rival July’s. We’d left early enough, we thought. Crawling along, we arrived four and a half hours later. These were pre-cell phone days, so my mother-in-law had no idea when all of us were going to arrive. Her sister and her husband were arriving from Philadelphia, and another cousin was coming in from Boston. And yes, everyone was doomed for the Mid-Cape parking lot highway.
The uncertainty of everyone’s arrival time confounded my mother-in-law, Connie. Connie was an extremely organized, well-planned, highly programmed woman. She ran her home with military precision and if anything ever went off course, it was cause for a meltdown. She wondered when to put the turkey in the oven. Since we were all prisoners on the highway, she delayed and delayed. Slowly, we all drifted in during the afternoon. The television was blaring a football game and we were happy to see each other and really grateful to be out of the car.
By her own admission, Connie hated to cook. In fact, she loathed it. By contrast, my mother, whom we lost years prior, was a fabulous cook. Not a gourmet chef but as close as one could be in the 1950s and ’60s. Connie, an avid golfer, would rather spend her time on the links than in the kitchen.
My husband says, “We ate convenience food, if Stauffer or Swanson didn’t make it, we never had it.”
By contrast, I never had anything that was prepackaged. My parents were from the South and I grew up on cornbread dressing. Yes, we called it dressing. The cornbread would be made the day before and the warm aroma would remind us of the upcoming feast. My husband jokes that the sound of tearing open the plastic stuffing mix package always makes him nostalgic!
Now that the guests were assembled, drinks were served and snacks set out. The men were watching the football game and the women were doing whatever we do. And Connie suddenly remembered, the turkey! Better get that bird in the oven! Connie turned on the oven to 350 degrees. It wasn’t that large a bird and should cook in a couple of hours; we’d eat dinner eventually. After all, we were all here and Connie delighted in the company.
The turkey had been defrosting in the fridge for several days and should be ready for the oven. Connie prepared the roasting pan, placing the rack inside the large pan. When she cut open the plastic wrapper that encased the bird, a terrible look came across her face. “Oh my goodness—it’s bad!” Each of us was invited to take a sniff—ugh! Yes, indeed, that turkey was spoiled. All at once, a news report came across the TV in between football games. There was a nationwide alert that a certain national turkey purveyor, a major company, was recalling all its turkeys due to spoilage!
Panic set in. By this time, the snow flurries had accumulated into inches, but the roads looked passable. The men formed a hunting party to procure a turkey from whomever they could. There were no 24-hour markets on the Cape at the time. It was Thanksgiving day and snowing! The hunting expedition traipsed from closed store to closed store—nothing. No Thanksgiving turkey? What to do? A house full of people and no turkey! Exasperated, the men trudged into a convenience store, just off the aforementioned, horrible Mid-Cape Highway. It was the only thing open! They asked the clerk about a turkey. “I have no turkey” the clerk replied. Sensing the dire nature of the request, he said, “I have turkey loaf, for sandwiches!” with a big grin on his face. The men were thrilled; they had saved the day! They were heroes. They bought the whole 10-pound loaf. Trudging back through the snow, the men arrived home. With their chests puffed out, in they marched with the prize—a turkey! Or turkey loaf, to be precise.
Onward. We were going to have Thanksgiving dinner, no matter what! The loaf assumed position in the honorary roasting pan and in the oven it went. Next up were the side dishes. They were easy enough, thought Connie. Creamed spinach—Connie usually purchased the Stauffer’s frozen creamed spinach, but this year she was going to try to make it herself. She put the spinach in the blender and turned it on full blast. She blended and blended, then poured in into a pan and added a can of cream of mushroom soup. She followed the directions on the stuffing package and into the oven that dish went. Next up, the cranberry sauce. Cape Cod is where most of the cranberries are grown in the U.S. To her credit, she made whole berry cranberry sauce.
At about 7 that evening we all sat down to Thanksgiving dinner. We said grace, we clinked glasses and began the feast. The turkey loaf was so salty, you could only eat it if you smothered each bite with cranberry sauce. The creamed spinach, which was a bilious green color, was so pureed, you needed a spoon. The stuffing got a little burned while the turkey loaf was ceremoniously carved. We all agreed it was the worst Thanksgiving dinner any of us had ever had. But we were together, we laughed and joked and had a really good time. The food didn’t really matter. We had each other. We were warm and safe and loved. We were thankful.