While not subject to rites of passage that need commemoration with such tribalistic traditions as scarification and branding, we in the western world do have at least one ritual that is noteworthy. That, of course, is the matriculation from the kids’ table to a seat at the table where the adults celebrate Thanksgiving.
Children are generally stupid little creatures who don’t know a good thing when they see one. This is especially true when it comes to holiday seating arrangements, which always include as many degrees of separation from grown-ups as are possible in any enclosed area. Children are seated at folding card tables that have been erected over thick sheets of plastic drop cloths. Food—from a kid-tested and kid-friendly menu that includes both hot dogs and SpaghettiOs®—is distributed on paper plates. Plastic cutlery is provided, as are spill-proof cups for the sparkling apple juice that is considered festive by those who have never tasted it.
At the kids’ table, there is little fuss about etiquette. Napkins, though needed, are optional and rarely used. The conversation is typically limited to whatever it might take to make cousin Laura cry. There is a lot of farting—both real and imitated using either mouth or armpit—and usually a burping contest that cousin Laura finds amusing enough to stop crying.
God only knows why any kid would aspire to the adults’ table when there is so much pure, unadulterated joy to be had squishing cranberry sauce between one’s toes and recreating John Belushi’s inspired mashed-potato scene from Animal House.
But we all do. And we live to rue the day.
I can’t quite remember how old I was when I was given a place of honor at the adults’ table. But I do remember that my “place of honor” was sitting between Aunt Bernice, whose mustache was the envy of most men, and Uncle Earl, whose eyebrows reached up toward what had once been a hairline. Each year Uncle Earl amazed everybody by eating an entire meal without ever closing his mouth, stopping talking, or removing the cigar from the corner of his mouth.
He called his beloved cigars “she-rootz,” which had a decidedly vulgar tone.
It is abundantly clear that Uncle Earl belonged at the kids’ table. While the adults found Uncle Earl’s table manners enough to make them wretch, we kids were at once wide-eyed and spellbound by his oral agility. Plus, he used words we weren’t allowed to say.
Sitting next to him at the grown-ups table was a different story.
Nobody knows for sure how Uncle Earl came to be part of our Thanksgiving festivities. We’ve always assumed he was related to our family, but nobody quite remembers how. It’s more likely that nobody wanted to lay claim to him.
For many years Uncle Earl just showed up on Thanksgiving to eat and drink more than his share. Before he left, he would manage to create at least one incident that would result in somebody’s emotional meltdown.
To say that Uncle Earl was unpleasant is to say that rain is wet. An egomaniacal drunk, he was sexist, misogynistic and spiteful, with political views unrecognizable on any political spectrum known to man. He had a crude nickname for just about everybody, especially politicians and children. He could wax idiotic on any subject. He believed that professional wrestling was real. He wondered aloud once if Idi Amin had ever dined with the Donner party.
Uncle Earl was rotund in build, to say the least. To say the most, he was remarkably obese. In fact, he wore his belt buckle on the side of his waistband so he could at least have a fighting chance at reaching it should some need arise.
Sitting next to Uncle Earl that first year of my joining the adults was when I finally grasped the full meaning of the descriptive noun “putz.” It was also the occasion when, because I was at the adults’ table, I introduced a new word to my vocabulary. That didn’t turn out as I had planned.
Memories of Uncle Earl notwithstanding, I like Thanksgiving. The cause of the celebration is repugnant, but I enjoy the fact that it is a holiday based on an entirely predictable menu of comfort food whose inclusions can reveal where you grew up. Seriously. I read a story some thirty years ago in the Los Angeles Times about some guy who could do that within 50 miles. For instance, if you had tamales…well, you get the picture.
Geri and I are on our forty-second year of having the same Thanksgiving dinner she designed—bland, pale in color, enough starch to require that a cardiologist be present, processed vegetables with little onion rings or marshmallows on top. It is a meal usually served at least an hour late, at room temperature; it is mostly admired for its vast quantities. Oh, boy. (Just for fun, I’m thinking of making a risotto with sun-dried apricots, capers and minced lamb’s tongue with a mole sauce. Don’t tell Geri.)
Turkey is, of course, the meal’s main attraction. (I’d like to institute a holiday that requires you serve a standing rib roast.) But back to what could have been our national symbol, had Ben Franklin had his way. The Bird. Uncle Tom. The President’s pardon. Memories of the “WKRP Thanksgiving Turkey Drop,” the funniest two minutes in television history. Where was I? Oh yeah. The turkey—dried-out breasts, under-cooked thighs, tendon-filled legs, and skin charred black. And to think we place this almost-recognizable creature in the middle of the table to admire for just enough time to convince us it’s not made from tofu. That’s a good thing. Nobody likes tofu. It’s bad for you, and it tastes like liquid cardboard seasoned with bleach and rubber cement.
If, by the way, your turkey weighs in the neighborhood of 24 pounds and it’s not yet properly thawing, you’re screwed. You’ll be having Thanksgiving dinner sometime after Black Friday. Or, you can sculpt a turkey out of the aforementioned tofu.
Before we met, Geri cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving. She hadn’t thawed it because that step was not specified in a recipe she found for turkey that promised to remind one and all of Depression-era Kansas provided you ate if off of tin pie plates while sitting on the running boards of a ’27 Chrysler. Anyway, her guests were arriving in less than six hours. Always the clever one, Geri hung the 24-pound frozen turkey carcass over the shower head by the little wire doo-hickey thingy that keeps the turkey’s legs modestly closed and turned on the hot water. Nobody died. It was reportedly very moist. Everybody sang several choruses of “(Somewhere) Over the Rainbow” while banging together pie plates. Another Thanksgiving success!
And that, of course, is why many people pray before dinner. (Stay with me; I’m almost done.)
In France, nobody says grace because the French know how to cook. In Italy, everybody knows how to cook too, but they are the most religious people on the face of the earth, so they pray between bites, which is why dinner in Italy takes no less than three hours, unless you’re having more than one course. In Ireland they pray that the potatoes didn’t overcook or take on any flavor during the process. “Ah, sure Jesus, Mary and Joseph, these potatoes have salt! Feckin Eejit!”
Those three countries don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, by the way, although Italy might still celebrate Columbus Day. They don’t know the joy of sitting slumped over worn furniture like tryptophan junkies on the verge of death in an episode of Chicago P.D., currently my favorite police drama…a show that celebrates good guys doing really horrible things to bad guys without any interference from the courts.
Speaking of which, did everybody enjoy the Impeachment Hearings?
I’m guessing that by now Uncle Earl has gone on to meet his maker, whoever that might have been. We don’t expect his presence at this year’s Feast of Genocide against the people who were nice enough to teach us how to grow corn—an indigestible food with no nutritional value that is no longer served at Thanksgiving. Look who’s laughing now.
But I’m not taking any chances. On Thursday, I’m sitting at the kids’ table. Please pass the SpaghettiOs®. And the ketchup. Brrrp!
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
The directions for most Thanksgiving entrees and sides are typically printed on the packaging. Not so with the mashed potatoes. This is my favorite.
3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
1 1/2 cups whole milk
6 Tbs. unsalted butter
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Cut the potatoes into 1-inch cubes and place them in a large pot. Cover the potatoes with cold water and add a tablespoon of salt. Bring to a boil; lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 10 to 12 minutes, until the potatoes fall apart easily when pierced with a fork or other sharp utensil.
Meanwhile, warm the milk and butter in a small saucepan, making sure it doesn’t boil. Set aside.
When the potatoes are tender, drain them in a colander. Using a food mill or ricer, process the potatoes into a glass bowl. As soon as the potatoes are mashed, slowly whisk in enough of the hot milk/butter mixture to make the potatoes very creamy (not soupy). Add 2 teaspoons of salt, the pepper and the sour cream. Whisk to combine. Taste for seasoning and serve hot. Serves 4-6.