Monday, November 17, 2008

in which I am happy that it's almost Thankgiving day here in the US

Although it's not yet Thanksgiving here in the United States, it's not too early to start thinking of that day.

I'm not deliberately an iconoclast but I'm not a very enthusiastic celebrant for most holidays. Christmas? I had a tree once as an adult but never bothered with decorations since then. I give gifts (and occasionally remember to send out cards) but don't decorate. (One of my colleagues was shocked to her very core when she found this out. "Why don't you celebrate Christmas?" she asked, once she was able to pick her jaw up off the floor. "Well, for starters, I'm not a Christian." "It doesn't matter! Christmas is a secular holiday!" It's funny how Christians are the only ones who think that way. I know some secular Jews have embraced the secular Christmas tradition and get trees, although a much more common practice seems to have been inflating Hannukah into the "Jewish Christmas". Since I'm not Jewish, I'm just parroting a conversation overheard between some some Jewish colleagues. In case you are curious, you can file my religious affiliation as Christian Apostate, although there are plenty of people who will argue that the Christian tradition I grew up in isn't actually Christian at all. Since so many people have strong feelings about that particular tradition, I almost never tell people what the tradition is because what follows is a lot of prejudice from those I'm talking to. This often puts me in a very uncomfortable position of having to defend that church. I left it based on my own personal experiences, but I've never conflated my experience to damn the whole tradition. It's kind of like saying that since you had a bad marriage, that the institution of marriage is inherently flawed and that everyone who is married is just brainwashed or victimized. Yes, I know there are some people who do feel this way about marriage, but how seriously do you take them?)

My lack of enthusiasm for Christmas certainly didn't spring from my family background. My grandmother and mother both loved Christmas and all the decorations, music, etc that went with it. The day after Thanksgiving, my grandmother would start decorating the house first thing in the morning and it was always decked out by lunchtime. I don't ever remember her having a big tree; she had a tabletop ceramic tree with little colored glass (or plastic) "ornaments" illuminated from a lightbulb within. Yes, a bit kitschy, but then, so was my grandmother. (Unironically so.) She would whip up Christmas excitement to a fever pitch, so much so that we always opened gifts on Christmas eve because she couldn't wait until Christmas morning. But Dec 26th? Christmas is over and done with baby. First thing in the morning, everything came down and was put away. Contrast this to my mom who never, ever wanted Christmas to end and never hurried to take down the decorations (we had a fake tree, so there wasn't even a slowly decaying piece of shrubbery to serve as a memento mori. How long did it take to remove the Christmas decorations? One year, I found an Easter egg hidden in the Christmas tree.)

But I've always liked Thanksgiving. How can you not when the whole focus of the holiday is a really great meal? I don't go all out with decorations (you might have guessed that I'm not one for decorating--not my house, not my yard, and not even myself. I appreciate the effort that others do but really, it's not for me. Honestly, I think people should only go through with decorations because they want to, not because they have to. But with that thought, we have new neighbors on our street who put up a big display for Halloween and I wonder what they will do for Christmas. I really hope they won't have anything inflatable.)

I've also found that people are extremely particular about their Thanksgiving meal traditions, as becomes obvious when people outside of your immediate family try to share a meal. Oh, the mashed potatoes aren't quite right. What, where are the candied yams? No ham? Green beans with pearl onions? It's like every family has a set of dishes that are only eaten on Thanksgiving and that's what Thanksgiving dinner is.

In our family, it was roasted turkey and gravy (no giblets), mashed potatoes, green beans, candied yams, and jellied cranberry sauce (you know, the stuff straight from the can, which still retained the shape of the can even in the serving dish) and for dessert was pumpkin pie, mince meat pie and this weird dish called "ambrosia" that my grandmother made. I never liked it but everyone else did. (All I remember was it had colored marshmallows, some creamy stuff that was probably Cool Whip but may have been mayonnaise, and toasted coconut. I think there was canned fruit in there too.) I liked everything except the candied yams and minced meat pie (and the ambrosia). In fact, I don't think anyone ever ate the candied yams except my grandfather. (I think they were always fed to the dog.)

Well, for all this talk about people being so traditional with their Thanksgiving dinner, I'll be a big ol' heretic and admit that I really prefer ham to turkey. I'll eat roasted turkey, of course, but if I could only choose one to make or eat, I'd take ham. I have since found out that candied yams (which I still loathe) are not the same as sweet potatoes, which are actually pretty good when roasted and not drenched in caramel and marshmallows. Freshly whipped cream is way better than Cool-Whip. Cranberry sauce is super easy to make and there's no reason to buy the canned stuff. (This is the one thing that I am a purist about. Cranberry sauce is cranberries and sugar. Period. Keep your orange rind, coconut, carrots, apples, and what-have-you far away from my cranberry sauce.) My mom's basic mashed potatoes (made with plenty of white pepper and garlic) are really hard to beat but mashing freshly roasted garlic in with the potatoes is worth the extra effort.

But you know what my absolute favorite Thanksgiving food memory is? Saturday after Thanksgiving in La Paz, Bolivia, 1992. I was joining Oscar's family at his grandmother's house for their large weekly meal, always an elaborate affair. For dessert, she surprised me with a homemade pumpkin pie because she knew it was Thanksgiving in the US, and that it was an important holiday and she didn't want me to miss out. It was so thoughtful of her and so unexpected! And absolutely delicious too. Pumpkin pies aren't traditional in Bolivia but she had the recipe right and it was scrumptious.

1 comment:

L J said...

Food Glorious Food. Doesn't matter to me what is fixed... so long as it is good and there is plenty of it! :-) Thanksgiving is and always has been my favorite holiday.