Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Uninvited for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s something I plan for weeks in advance–pulling out my huge stack of November food magazines that I’ve been collecting for years. The other months’ issues are relatively dispensable as far as I’m concerned. It’s the November issue that’s the crown jewel of the year. I love seeing what new sides the editors have come up with and how they tweaked the old ones. ("Add morels to the mashed potatoes" one year, "take them out and add bacon" the next.) 

The photos of the table settings are always dazzling, and the people in the photos are always dressed to the nines, while having a grand time. Babies are never crying, their tear-stained faces smeared with cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. There are never pictures of drunken Uncle Al or miserably hostile Cousin Minnie. In those photos, everyone is beautiful and laughing, and life is perfect.

In the real world, Thanksgiving is a study of contradictions. It’s supposed to be a day when we turn inward and reflect on all that we are thankful for in life, and then hopefully (at least in my house) we turn outward and express our thanks in words and deeds. Ironically, the things that I find so special about the holiday–being together with family and friends–make other people’s skin crawl. In many homes, the Thanksgiving gods are frauds. Not everyone loves their family. Sometimes harsh words and actions of the past cannot be overlooked, even for one day. The wounds and scars they've left behind are immutable, and being with certain family members merely serves as a reminder of the damage. I can appreciate that, and I feel truly blessed that I can look upon the holiday with anticipation rather than trepidation.

Most of my Thanksgiving memories are happy ones. In fact, there’s only one that I can think of that rocked me to my Chanterelle mushroom-gravy-loving core….

Many years ago our family was “uninvited” to the house of a “friend” two days before the holiday. What we thought was going to be a day spent with that friend and her family was obliterated when she called to say that her mom wanted it to be “just family,” and she hoped we understood. As shocked as I was, there was not much for me to do at that point, other than say “yes,” and as I did, visions of myself running through the aisles of supermarkets searching for dinner ingredients clicked through my head like a film projector on speed.

 I don’t remember why I initially gave up the taking of the helm of the Thanksgiving boat that year. We were relatively new to the area, and spending the day making inroads with some new friends sounded appealing, perhaps.  Ultimately, I did manage to patch together a tasty meal–tears falling into my mixing bowl as I prepared the stuffing and peeled the sweet potatoes. (I know, that’s a little melodramatic, but it is true.) And as salt-bitten and puffy-faced as I was, feeling alone and missing my family 3,000 miles away, my boys, who were very young at the time, didn’t seem to notice me or that no one else was joining us for dinner.

When the sumptuous meal was served and eaten, it was obvious to all that another family (a few families) could have joined us at the table and there would still have been leftovers. 

And then I had a brainstorm: why not share the leftovers with those who had no dinner? 

This was going to be one of those great learning experiences! We told our boys (who were by then, slumped over their dinner plates because we had eaten so darn late) that we were going on an adventure, and as my husband and I furiously packed up the rest of the turkey, cornbread stuffing with sausage, sweet potato and apple gratin, and pie, they looked at each other and rolled their eyes. “Just another one of Mom’s kooky ideas.”

We loaded them and the food into the car and proceeded to head to downtown Long Beach, because if you were looking for people who were not partaking of Thanksgiving dinner in the conventional way, of course they would be just lying on the streets of this urban wasteland…waiting for you! Not!  This was not a well-planned mission–this was a fly-by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants project. We didn’t (I didn’t) stop to think that most people who had nowhere to go were probably being fed at churches and community centers. So, it was no surprise that at 8 p.m., on a chilly Thanksgiving evening, the streets of downtown Long Beach were deserted

We drove around for a while and found one soul pushing a supermarket cart that was loaded with bags filled with who-knows-what.

“Stop the car!” I yelled. “This guy is getting our food, whether he wants it or not.” 

I grabbed one of our shopping bags and added it to his collection. “Happy Thanksgiving,” I said. He nodded, and as we pulled away, I turned around and could see him gingerly looking through the bag.

We didn't stick around to see whether the recipient of our gourmet meal was thrilled or befuddled, but I'm sure there was a smile on my face (first one of the day) as we drove away. “You see, guys, we turned our Thanksgiving around…now let’s go home and have some pie.”

This Thanksgiving parable may sound a little hokey, more like something straight out of an O.Henry anthology or better yet, a Jean Shepherd film, but it really did happen. Did it have a huge impact on the lives of my kids? I’m not sure they even remember it – I’ll have to ask them when I see them on Thanksgiving. But it meant a lot to me. It reminded me of the importance of sharing, your time, your food, your compassion, with others during the holidays. How an act of kindness may sometimes be more valuable to the giver than the receiver. 

I have hosted many Thanksgiving dinners since that one, and invariably there are one or two at the table who would ordinarily have nowhere else to go. These are the celebrations that have left their mark on my sons. They appreciate a full house as much as they appreciate a full plate.

One of my standard desserts around this time of year is Pumpkin Bread Pudding. The only pumpkin bread recipe I use when making this comes from the nuns at The Monastery of the Angels in the Hollywood Hills. They began selling their famous pumpkin bread years ago during the holidays, and rumor has it that they sell upwards of 18,000 loaves a year. I’ve read that the “nuns are skeptical that their bread can be duplicated,” but this recipe is touted as being theirs. If you add some cranberries, dried or fresh, or chocolate chips, it is really good enough to eat all on its own.

Monastery of Angels Pumpkin Bread

3½ cups sifted flour
3 cups sugar
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1½ tsp. salt
4 eggs beaten
1 cup oil
2/3 cup water
2 cups canned pumpkin
Walnut halves
1 cup each, chocolate chips and dried cranberries (opt.)

Sift together flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Combine eggs, oil, water and pumpkin and mix well. Stir into dry ingredients. Gently fold in the chocolate chips and/or cranberries, if using. Turn into 3 greased loaf pans and top with a few walnut halves. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Cool before slicing.  Makes 3 1-3/4 lb. loaves.