Its that time again, isn’t it? Time for that blasted holiday in which we pretend we are grateful for all the stuff we take for granted the rest of the year. Lord, what I wouldn’t give to get out of this annual fiasco. You would think being 143 would give me some leverage on the subject but no; I have a house full of sentimentalists. Chef is always whining about being allowed to cook the Thanksgiving meal because she never got to cook it growing up in France. I would remind her that she is from Indiana and her “accent” is more Julia Childs than French but it doesn’t do any good, she counts her 4 months in Paris during her infancy as her childhood. Mrs. Walters laments not having children for the holiday, which is absurd because they don’t let you roast children. Mr. Brown would be happy enough letting it pass without notice but he understands that keeping Mrs. Walters and Chef happy makes his job easier so he joins the chorus.
So the Chateau prepares: food is brought in by the truckload and the joint is littered with so many pumpkins and leaves, it looks like New England vomited in here. As I whip out my journal to make note of what disaster will befall us this year, I thumb through the tales of Thanksgivings of yore, reminding myself exactly why I despise this fete de overindulgence.
The Haunting of the Honeymoon Turkey
It was the start of the holiday season – my first holiday season as a new bride. I had been reveling in pretending to be a perfect little housewife to my Thomas and made promises to him that our Thanksgiving would be the apex of all future Davenport entertaining. We invited our parents along with assorted siblings who hadn’t fled to foreign shores to double their wealth. There were lengthy discussions with the butcher to ensure the procurement of a turkey that would be robust enough to feed us all. Mrs. Davenport graciously shared with me all the foods from Thomas’ childhood that made him the happiest because that is what I would do – make him the happiest he would ever be.
I bought brand new linens for our new dining table; superfluous given I had received a trunk’s worth when I’d married only 4 short months prior. Flowers were ordered from 3 different florists: one who specialized in foliage, one who imported exotics and one who promised “a vision”; my table would be resplendent.
The morning of Thanksgiving, I woke before the first ray of sun cracked through the room’s floating dust. So confident was I that I had given our cook the day off; he said he was delighted to spend the day with his family, although we knew his “family” would be some fast greyhounds and possibly an unfortunate cock (the bird, you beasts.) I entered the kitchen buoyant, checking that all my utensils, dishes and tools were carefully laid out on the glistening counters. I opened the icebox and cupboards, making sure they were well stocked. I couldn’t really think of anything else to do so I stood in a cold, dark kitchen waiting for something Thanksgiving-ey to happen. When nothing did, I pantomimed how I would look cooking.
At this point, it should have dawned on me that perchance my “studying” had not been quite as extensive as it should have been. Every other household I’d ever been in had people running about, pots steaming and chopping – a great deal of chopping. Instead, I waited for some sign to begin. I suppose the fact that I ended up with three new pairs of boots, a jaunty riding hat and new bustle with nary a spine broken should tell me that Godey’s Lady’s Book got a bit more attention than those fancy cookbooks.
At the stroke of 9, there was a knock on the back door. I put a penny in my pocket to tip the butcher’s errand boy and, with great excitement, threw the door open. Greeting me on the back stoop was an enormous, headless bird standing on two legs; a leviathan of seasoned fowl flesh. The poor child holding it up began to quiver beneath the weight of the Behemoth from Farmer Brown’s Field. As he tried to negotiate the bird into the dungeon that would see its final undoing, he clipped a corner of the counter that held all of my shiny, new, stainless steel bowls, which fell to the ground in a deafening clatter. The fowl gave way, rocketing forward and trapping the lad. Unable to budge it, I screeched at the creature to get off him. Accepting the futility of my threats to an already dead animal, I planted my feet firmly in its breast and, using the cabinets for purchase, attempted to free the child. I succeeded in raising it enough to give him a few needed breaths before the oiled skin caused it to slip again, which may have cracked a rib (not sure if it was the bird’s or the lad’s.)
A very naked Thomas flew into the room with an umbrella raised above his head, the butcher’s boy was sure he had been sent to hell.
“What is that?” Thomas asked without lowering the umbrella.
“Dinner.” I said incredulous.
“It’s mammoth – what do you intend to do with it?”
“I intend to cook it, Thomas. What do you think I intend to do with it?”
“Is that a foot coming out of it?”
“Oh! Bartholomew! Come, help get this thing off him.”
Once Bartholomew was freed from his fowl press, we tipped him handsomely and set him on his way – presumably to whatever therapy existed in 1888. Thomas and I loaded Goliath on a platter and looked at our oven, the odds were not in the oven’s favor.
“There is a way around this.” Thomas said.
“Let’s cut it up and cook it in bits?”
“You don’t have turkey parts for Thanksgiving; you can’t stuff bits. You stuff the whole thing and present it, with flourish, to an awed crowd.” I said.
“What say we throw a coat of paint on it, plant it upstate and use it as our summer home instead!” Thomas teased.
I was about to respond in the manner he deserved when a loud shriek interrupted me mid-swing. In our kitchen doorway stood a horrified and pale Sally, our recently hired, very young housekeeper who had come early to assist in my preparations.
“Good heavens, Naomi – this colossus is scaring the staff.”
“Or perhaps its time you don a pair of trousers, darling.”
Thomas looked down, saw his state and grabbed a several dishtowels as young Sally tried to maintain consciousness.
“I’ve got it!” Thomas said excitedly. “We’ll roast it!”
“But we can’t, Thomas – that’s the whole point.”
“No, we can – the old fashioned way. We build a fire in the pit out back and roast this monster up like our ancestors did.”
Our ancestors were a bunch of entitled, aristocratic stiffs who would no more know what roasting meant, let alone how to do it but I loved his sanguinity. In this moment, Thomas was magnificent. He had just saved Thanksgiving and had done so in a dishtowel kilt.
Thomas and I cleared some room in the leaf-burning pit, cursing every minute of our decision to let the staff come in late. Somehow, we managed to get a proper fire going and threw that ridiculous fowl in the center of it, certain the hardest part of the day was behind us.
Thomas went upstairs for a bath to recuperate from more manual labor than he had endured in all his life combined as I turned my attention to the rest of the meal. I opened all my cookbooks and set them out on the counter; at this point, I still believed this was all going to come together.
The trick about cooking is: you may want to have stepped inside a kitchen for more than retrieving an ice cube prior to actually setting out to cook a Thanksgiving feast. Not one of my blood relations had any idea how to do anything in the kitchen; the only thing my mother had taught us girls was that throwing your crème de menthe on an open flame is no way to put out a grease fire. So I set about trying to guess how to knead, sauté, flambé, baste, deglaze and parboil – all for my magical Thanksgiving dinner. Every time Sally came in to check on me, I was furthered buried in flour, butter and wine; none of my recipes called for wine but I found a way to include it – everything is better with wine.
Eventually Thomas reentered the kitchen, “Say Pet – have you seen the dining room? I am not sure I get your theme.”
Apparently, all of my deep deliberations with the florists were a bit too abstract in description; the jungle of flora that had overtaken my dining room left not an inch of surface visible; there was so much vegetation, the room was producing its own cloud cover. I would have screamed if the pressure cooker hadn’t beaten me to it.
Thomas and I raced back into the kitchen. Green beans had been disgorged from the cooker with such force, the room looked infested.
“Peel them off, Thomas!”
“That’s our only vegetable.”
“Our only vegetable?! We have 10 people coming for dinner.”
“Don’t argue with me – we lost the sprouts an hour ago, the pearl onions were put out of their misery at noon, I can’t find the acorn squash and I am not able to open the mushrooms. If we don’t save the beans, all we have are the potatoes.”
“Open the mushrooms?”
“Yes, they have some bizarre husk to them.” I said, handing him what, in several years hence, I would come to learn was a chestnut.
“Exotic, Pet. You have really outdone yourself.”
“I did but none of it is cooperating – our turkey will be alone on that massive table.”
“How did it turn out?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ve not checked on it?”
“Pet, its been roasting on an open flame for 5 hours? That doesn’t sound beneficial to anyone.”
We walked out the back door and saw a subdued fire lapping at the corners of a charcoal brick that had once been a thriving Tom. Both Thomas and I took a minute to think about the life that poor animal must have had before it was subjected to this perdition.
Ever the optimist, Thomas said, “I’ll bet it’s just juicy as can be once you cut that skin off.”
He was wrong.
We doused the flames and rolled the bird with a pitchfork onto the platter. Little pieces of it sprang off in hopes of freedom from this horrific torture but we needed every bit to try and convince our guests this had once been a proper specimen of game.
Back in the kitchen, I cut the potatoes and placed them in my grandmothers beautiful china serving dish. Thomas looked on confused.
“How are you preparing those potatoes, Pet?”
“Like this, Thomas. The way your mother says you like them.”
“Hmmm. They look a bit different than I remember – are they supposed to be that opaque?”
I grabbed a handful of something green, which may have been parsley or may have been a scorched rag, and threw it on the potatoes.
“Well there you go!” Thomas said smiling broadly.
“Excellent, get me something to put the beans in.”
“Wait a tick, Pet. Should you give those potatoes a quick cook first?”
“I don’t know how to cook them, Thomas! None of these worthless books tell you how to cook anything.”
Thomas leafed through the cookbook nearest him, “Well then we will sue the bastards who published them; charlatans, every last one!”
Our families arrived almost entirely at the same time; a minute after expected so as not to surprise us but not so late as to keep us waiting; they needn’t have bothered with formality. I was covered in various ingredients; a few herbs stuck out from my hair, flour dusted my face, giving me a vampire’s complexion only with less life in it. Butter ran the length of my arm so every hand that landed on it slipped, causing the well-wisher to skid onto whatever was next to us. My mother leaned in and whispered “I told you the first few decades of marriage were rough but you didn’t listen.” Had I not known the punishment I was about to serve her, I would have kicked her.
When it was time, we directed our guests to our dining room, which my mother promptly began referring to as The Hanging Gardens of Babylon; I remembered the funeral pyre out back still smoldered and noted how perfectly my mother would fit on it. Everyone nervously conversed, looking for ways to see each other through the small openings allowed by the plant life. Thomas attempted to show his parents how lovely the Manet they had gifted us looked in the room but was unable to find it. I believe some animal that did not belong to us had taken up residence under the sideboard. Eventually, I brought the immense slag pile into the dining room and laid it before 10 terrified guests. The color drained from Mrs. Davenport’s face; I say it was the dinner but it was most likely in mourning for her son’s future. My mother, assuming my knife throwing skills were en par with my cooking ability, smirked. My father clasped his hands together, declared everything scrumptious and heaped a large spoonful of raw potatoes on his plate. Thomas inserted a serving fork into our entree, which promptly disintegrated. We divided the 5 remaining green beans among us. My mother-in-law, after 45 years of abstinence, began drinking. Thomas’s brother plucked a wax apple from the centerpiece and chewed on it. Thomas put down his knife and fork and announced he was ready for dessert, looking to me expectantly. I stared at him, my eyes blurring from hunger. We stared across the table for some time – he with a ridiculous grin on his face and me rigid; unamused. Slowly, Thomas realized – there was no dessert. I hadn’t thought to purchase sweet potatoes for something called “Sweet Potato Croquettes”, clearly I didn’t have the foresight to arrange dessert. I placed my fork on the table, walked upstairs and collapsed from starvation in the towel closet.
Fortunately, the Goldey’s Lady Book was not the only thing I read while procrastinating on my cooking studies. A small, French “Married Women’s Manual” my Auntie Sarah had slipped me before the wedding gave me a few ideas of how to use my unfed mouth. Thomas ended up giving thanks after all and I finally got some protein.
My point it, darlings, you can always find a happy ending.