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I have been thinking lately of how my Thanksgiving celebrations have morphed over time.
It was so very many years ago—I must’ve been six or seven—that my dad had a friend whose office overlooked the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Our family would drive into Manhattan from Long Island to stand excitedly in that quiet room of floor-to-ceiling glass windows to watch the enormous, resplendent balloons pass right before our eyes. Afterward, there was the drive down to Chinatown and an early evening supper of egg rolls, spareribs, egg drop soup—wonton for my mom—and shrimp in lobster sauce. Fortune-cookie wrappers and half-eaten cookies lay scattered on the white table cloth as we pushed our chairs back and headed for home.
My mother died when I was 20 and my father remarried a couple of years later. I recall being invited to their house in Westchester by “that woman” for only one Thanksgiving and she served capon. To say I was disappointed when she placed that bird on the table is an understatement. Then again, it probably didn’t have all that much to do with the fowl after all.
After Dad’s divorce, we began a yearly trek with him to Philadelphia to share the meal with my brother Buzz and his family. My sister-in-law Wendy and I discussed recipes and planned the menu weeks in advance. Wendy made the most perfect burnished, moist bird, and my brother cooked a duck served with two fruit-based sauces. Everyone in the family contributed something. My dad made a sprightly, piquant raw cranberry relish, and I offered a composed salad and wild mushroom gravy. One nephew served up a pumpkin cheesecake and the other brought a bouquet of fresh flowers. And my sister Janet, the baker extraordinaire, brought an array of sophisticated cookies. The family dynamics were sometimes quite pleasant, other times not so much.
One year, we found the “celebration” particularly irritating and fraught with tension. There was bickering and dissent. I handled the situation badly by sucking over zealously on the wine bottle. On the ride home, Janet and I vowed to skip the assemblage the following year and simply spend Thanksgiving in New York with Pop.
The following November found us dining, oddly enough, at my dad’s favorite Spanish restaurant. I had begun working in the retail food industry and the store in which I worked remained open half of Thanksgiving Day, leaving me no time to prepare a feast. Buzz and Wendy asked if they could join us at Marbella. I should’ve ordered the Spanish food for which the restaurant was known, as the others did, but stubbornly insisted on ordering their turkey dinner with all the usual suspects, poorly prepared, for which I was anything but thankful. Still, we enjoyed each other’s company and decided that the following year, no matter how stressed it made us, we’d return to the fold.
Eventually, though, my job precluded our making the trip to Philly, so Buzz and Wendy hosted the holiday without us, and what did the New York trio do? We had a bird of an entirely different feather. We dined at the Peking Duck House on Mott Street in Chinatown. It was outstanding, if not very Thanksgiving-like. Still, we were together and thankful for the love we shared.
Three months later my dad suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving him confined to a wheelchair and living out the rest of his days, which turned out to be six disturbingly long years, in a nursing home. Janet and I bounced around a few ideas as to how to make the holiday festive. I woke early the day of Thanksgiving and made a mini-version of the meal. Some oven-roasted turkey thighs, a little casserole of herbed mushroom stuffing, spiced cranberry relish, steamed broccoli, and a squash or sweet potato offering. We sat with Dad, happily forfeiting the drab institutional grub he faced daily. We talked, laughed and blew kisses.
After my brother’s death, and soon after, my dad’s, Janet and I found ourselves thankful for each other’s close company. My Thanksgiving odyssey has come to a comfortable, albeit reduced in size, end. Janet and I will have seared, crispy-skinned duck breast—which we both prefer to turkey—with a fig sauce; dad’s piquant cranberry relish; and oven-roasted root vegetables, drizzled with a little aged balsamic vinegar and rendered deeply flavored with the addition of a Moroccan spice blend redolent of cumin, cardamom, ginger, coriander and cinnamon, to name a few. Or maybe, I’ll mix things up a bit this year and try an old recipe I discovered of mine for baked sweet potatoes and pears with maple syrup and cream. Either way, I will give thanks for the life I have, and the many Thanksgivings I’ve shared with those I’ve lost. Happy Thanksgiving to all, no matter what your odyssey.
Spiced Cranberry Relish
2 cups (1 pint) fresh cranberries or defrosted frozen cranberries
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 large orange, including skin and pith, quartered and then sliced, seeds discarded
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup honey
Place all of the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse the mixture about 20 times, until everything is of uniform size. It should be a coarse mixture. Chill until ready to serve.