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?