I start ripping out holiday recipes from newspapers and magazines on or about October 14. Their covers and photos deposit my first layer of guilt: I should attempt a galantine**, a splashy caramelized squash with lemon, mashed potatoes with smoked breadcrumbs (using German potatoes! What the hell are German potatoes?). I have to gather flowers, branches, spray leaves with gold paint! By November 4, I am burdened under five additional guilt layers (as many as compose the apple chocolate almond cake I must, must bake).
I am grateful for my dozen followers (honestly, thank you all!) and if you have spent any time with my writing, you know I’m nothing if not lazy and low-rent. So you will not find recipes, absolutely no decorating/centerpiece instructions here. My menu, except for string bean casserole, will be pretty much old-school, the same one as my mom’s was decades and decades ago. There will be no centerpiece, either. Mom always said they don’t leave room for the food. Any grace notes on my table will be provided by family relics.
Cocktails to start. Both the husband’s and mine families were martini or Manhattan drinkers. Three glasses survive from a set of six my mother-in-law, Sally, gave me when she downsized. The cocktail pitcher is her’s, too. The linen tablecloth, a little too short for my table, with three remaining matching napkins, ice bucket and candlesticks–tarnished and wobbly–are Mom’s. She would have polished the silver and starched the tablecloth the Saturday before.
Next comes the husband’s family’s silver and Mom’s wooden salad bowls. The husband’s family had a sliver of wealth in the 1950s when his dad, Joe Finan was a top rock-‘n-roll disc jockey at the same Cleveland station as the legendary Alan Freed. Joe grew up in Butler, Pennsylvania, a steel mill town. Sally’s dad was in real estate and they lived near Cleveland’s gold coast. She knew elegance; he hungered for class. Up until Joe’s arrest in the payola scandal in 1960, the husband’s family lived high. The plates are engraved with a very elaborate F. The service was once for 12, consisting not only of plates and silverware but water and wine goblets. It’s now split between us and the husband’s brother.
The full set table, with serving spoons representing Sally and Mom. The turkey plate arrived from Sally, a promotional piece for Wild Turkey whiskey.
Dessert is presented on my grandmother’s cake dishes, tea in Mom’s little metal tea pot. She grew up dirt poor, her dad dying right at the start of the Depression, leaving six children behind. What saved them from outright destitution was my grandfather had payed off the house and the generosity of my grandmother’s cousins, all of whom were genuine Irish maids in very rich people’s mansions outside Philadelphia. Before she was married, my grandmother joined them as a cook where she learned French and high-American cuisine. She also took in the manners of the rich, including the expensive habit of ordering chintz slipcovers and sisal rugs for the summer. The cousin’s visits meant waxing the mahogany furniture, ironing all linens and curtains, baking high-tea cake, polishing the tea pot, laying out the cake dishes. Not two pennies to rub together but keeping up the appearance of social stability. My sister gave the cake dishes and tea pot to me, for which I am eternally grateful.
By the time the meal ends, the linen is wine and gravy stained, crumbs all about. The one omission in the evening is small liqueur glasses, of which there is only one. In my family the empty bottle would be Bailey’s Irish Cream, at the husband’s house, Courvoisier cognac.
Sometimes, friends join us. My brother-in-laws often come for Christmas. Unfortunately, there’s been a ridiculous cousin kerfuffle in the my family for way too long and so we can no longer share the holidays. I only mention this because family discord, even in close loving ones such as mine, too often burn along the edges of holiday meals.
Tomorrow it will be the four of us–the sons still single. Yet, in these bits and pieces spread across the table, a score of others will surround us.
Now I must go and iron the tablecloth and napkins, polish the silver, or I’ll descend into a seventh ring of guilt.
Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers and to all your ghosts!
**The reason why the link to the galantine recipe leads to one in french is because this is one hell of a french recipe. It starts with deboning a turkey, making sure the skin and flesh remain in-tack. I attempted this about twenty years ago and am still not over the amount of work it requires. However, if you want to learn more, watch this wonderful video of Julia Child and master chef Jacque Pepin. Pepin makes deboning look like he’s simply unzippering the bird out of its dress.