Sometimes I’m paralyzed by the idea that I can recall so few specifics about my grandmother. She was a cook undaunted by crowds lining up outside our church—serving three hundred or more in a night with her massive chicken and biscuit dinners. She’d feed multiple generations and all our last-minute guests and hangers-on. “Bring ‘em. There’s plenty,” she’d say.
-photo courtesy Wikimedia, Chef Sean Christopher
What I do know is that working in the kitchen—at home, at church, at a girlfriend’s house—puts me in a grandmother frame of mind. I connect with her there, somehow.
Thanksgiving week puts her to mind at most, not only because I’m so thankful I had such a strong force as this hardworking, salt-of-the-earth farmwoman in my life—but because she inhabited kitchens like no other. And Thanksgiving was her meisterwerk—masterpiece.
She made it look easy. Everything floated to the table cooked just right: steaming juice-laden turkey—aromatic stuffing tumbling from the bird onto the platter, magenta cranberries studded with bright orange peel, volcanic mounds of fluffy potatoes, cut glass bowls jiggling with festive ribbon Jello she’d started layering days before.
Expat Orphan Holidays
When I first started cooking my own Thanksgiving—the first for a crowd of holiday orphan expats in Germany—my appreciation of my grandmother’s skills refreshed itself… . How did she get the timing right? How did she do all this on one day? Not used to planning or getting myself in the right frame of mind for such, I’d tried to wing it.
My first Thanksgiving, I’m certain the potatoes were cold by the time the turkey emerged from the tiny German apartment oven. And forget getting squash and corn in Europe. The former is unheard of unless it’s pumpkin and the latter is considered “pig-food,” therefore unavailable to humans.
Surrounded by expats and asylum seekers—Afghan professionals banned from their country, Chernobyl survivors, and other refugees that first Thanksgiving away, I soon came to realize the importance of rituals. What held each of those friends and families together were their rituals in the face of being cast out from their homeland.
Writing and Cooking Rituals
In life, as in writing, rituals are important to set the stage for creating. One ritual I perform that intersects in both my writing and daily (cooking) life is that of scouring the sink. Scouring the sink allows a clean space to prep for food. Scouring the sink, cleaning of the table and making the bed signal my brain that it’s on deck to start the writing process.
I’d like to think I have a clear memory of my grandmother scouring her sink. Hers was always clean. Perhaps she cleaned it in the dark hours before my sister and I and our neighborhood friends burst into her kitchen after school in search of milk and cookies. Perhaps she did it and I was too busy to notice. Sinks did not have priority over post-school chocolate chip cookies when you’re a kid after all.
But in order for my creative side to show up—I need to set the stage—to make a ritualistic invitation. This morning I scoured my sink. When my sink is clean, I can buzz around the kitchen and set up for the large work of preparing a multi-course meal.
The same goes for writing. When my desk is clean, my bed made—my mind is free to wander where it wants on the page. Yet, creativity over time is inspired by the moments when ritual shifts. How many times have I sneaked oyster mushrooms and tamari into the dressing? Or used soymilk in the pumpkin pie? (Plug your ears grandma!)
This year though—we will have squash—well traveled squash. My parents will arrive with a pickup truck filled with that and apple wood, and apples from New York. Why? Because I love my squash and home foods, yet we have altered our Thanksgiving ritual to include a second smoked turkey… our ritual has to include leftovers!
It’s been a trying year in so many ways. So I will take comfort this Thanksgiving in not wavering my grandmother’s meal: turkey (stuffed), (except for one smoked), squash, fresh cranberry-orange relish, mashed potatoes, homemade stuffing, gravy, and two pumpkin pies.
Simple. Forthright. Traditional. Thanks.
And my writing ritual—will involve clearing the desk and letting the mind fly free of the daily ritual of writing, for a few days of thanks. Thank you for joining me on this drafty journey and other stories on unpacked this past year or more. I am grateful to have you along as readers.
What rituals do you find soothing during the holidays? What rituals influence your writing and creative processes?
Oh, Renee, we are so similar! I must make my bed before my day starts. A hot cup of coffee first thing in the morning helps, too.
My first turkey dinner was a disaster! I started at four in the morning and worked my tail off until eight at night. The turkey was overdone, the sides were cold, and the kitchen was a total disaster. I still laugh about that first meal. But I learned so much: How to plan, prep, and cook a few dishes ahead of time.
Our first Thanksgiving in Ohio was better, but I found out a couple days before the meal that we did not own a gravy boat. It had to a certain color (white) and not too expensive (we were students). With no World Market or Pier One stores, I was rushing through the mall trying to find a gravy boat. Everyone else must have discovered they didn’t have gravy boats either, because I could not find a single gravy boat! I finally splurged and spent more than my budget on a gravy boat I still have today (I can’t give it up because it has a great story attached!).
Thanks for sharing your memories. I know you are making new ones for your lovely girls!
I know! I know! Routine has become so much. In my early years I thrived on unpredictability and spontaneity. What-the-h-e-double-hockey-stick happened? Love your first Thanksgiving adventure description. And, the gravy boat. I got mine out this year just because you mentioned it…otherwise, we’d have been spooning right from the pan! Loved your share! Hugs, R
I had to laugh at the “pigfood” comment. My father refused to eat corn because “that’s what you feed the pigs.” I used to feel so sorry for him missing out on that sweet peaches and cream corn on the cob. But I understand why he thought corn was pigfood. In Europe they grow a much coarser corn for feeding the pigs, and possibly they let it mature much more than the sweet corn we eat. It’s not the same thing at all.
Pigfood. I know right? Anneli- You’re the first person who has explained this so succinctly. I finally understand! Thank you! Makes so much sense. I can excuse some of my husband’s air self-righteousness on this topic now!
What a great memory of your grandmother and what a wonderful cook! Yes, we’ve altered our rituals, too. But there is always part of the old to go with the new. And the new gets absorbed so quickly. Happy Thanksgiving, Renee!
Luanne – thank you for honoring my grandmother with me! I like your idea of the old with the new. Given your family, I can see how important it is to meld, bend and alter traditions! I’d love to know more! Hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving! R
Thanks, Renee! You too!
Luanne – your post this morning hits home… no time to reply – maybe when I’m played out on cutting up my book today. yes – I’m highlighting with markers and physically chopping on my hands and knees today. Windy has a freakin’ book for you: Blueprint Your Bestseller by S. Horwitz… it’s perfect for your process at this point. PERFECT!
One of my grandmothers was a great cook and the other was a very talented sewer and dressmaker. I like to think I inherited a little of both and have passed something of them on to my daughters.
I love how we find those proclivities running in the family!
It’s nice to think that I have some of each of their abilities. Both my daughters love to cook.