A few years ago, my sister Janet hosted one of the all-time great Thanksgiving dinners and I wrote a story about it. I hope you enjoy!
efore the feast we crowded into the dark, warm cave of the kitchen to see the bird, as Janet dragged its enormous pan from the oven, and we ooh’d and aah’d over the mahogany-crusted, 25-pound, glistening turkey, spitting fat, big and plump as an overstuffed easy chair. The turkey was basted with broth, and was slid, shoved, and tackled back into the oven to continue its magnificent roasting. Fran bowed and said “namaste,” to the turkey, all the while, in her heart, glad she was not a vegetarian, feeling that in its brief time on earth the turkey had already brought more happiness to the human race than a certain former President of the United States had in his entire life.
And it wasn’t long later that we heard those wonderful words—really, the best words in the whole world: “Dinner is served,” and we gently trampled into the dining room where there was a candle-lit feast to end all such feasts, a vista of platters and casseroles mounded with food steaming and shining with butter in the flickering golden light. We slid into our seats, mouths watering, trying to be polite and orderly, but more like a pack of keening wolves, if the truth be known, for a fragrance filled the room, a fragrance of spices and butter and roasted turkey, and of the warm incense of brewing coffee that curled and eddied above our heads, tantalizing us. In order to accommodate the crowd, the usual rectangular table, by dint of adding card tables, had been expanded to a square, and so we beheld a landscape of food to be traveled and explored, and Fran could almost see little railroad crossings, and roads winding around mountains of cabbage, lava flows of mashed potatoes, forests of Brussels sprouts, and pastures of gently grazing baked artichokes. There was a pause, and David Kenealy said Grace:
For each new morning
with its light,
For rest and shelter
of the night,
For health and food,
For love and friends,
For everything Thy
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
There was another pause, for decency’s sake, but only the briefest moment, and then began the clatter of plates, knives, and elbows clashing. David made a reasonable and valiant attempt to propose an orderly process of plates around the table, with each diner being responsible for dishing out what food he or she happened to be near, but someone asked, “What if they didn’t want Brussels sprouts?” The system immediately broke down and then reassembled itself. Plates whizzed down, around, and across the table, and the need for an air traffic controller was apparent. “Plate incoming,” Fran called to young John Kenealy. “Plate received,” he answered. And in this way, everyone got something of everything. As the pile of food rose on each plate, Fran realized that she was seeing that rarity, not just double-decker plates of food, such that could be found in most ordinary homes on Thanksgiving, but triple-deckers and quadruples, and she watched the food rising in awe, like a gawker at a construction site.
And then, we began eating, and a sacred silence soft as snowfall descended over the table as we dug our forks into the waiting food. Then, a crisis: A voice cried, with a hint of panic, “Where is the gravy?” And though we knew that a big-as-life tureen of golden gravy lurked on the table somewhere, it could not be found, until it was spotted next to innocent young John Kenealy’s plate, John enjoying his turkey and claiming not to know about the proximity of the gravy to his fork. So the gravy was sent whizzing around. And we ate. We ate the mahogany-glistening turkey perfumed with sage, the moist stuffing studded with apples, shards of crisp bacon, and onions browned in bacon fat and sugar, the little sweet potato boats easily bearing their cloud-like freight of homemade marshmallows, homemade by Trader Joe, and the corn pudding, its buttery pegs of corn afloat in a pillow of custard, and the red cabbage glowering darkly, the rolls as light and small as marshmallows, floating and jostling in their basket, the baked artichokes asleep beneath a blanket of melted Parmesan, the enormous disk of a salad bowl, big as one of the smaller planetary systems in our universe, the dark greens shining with oil, and with mushrooms skulking in leafy shadows, and then, of course, the cranberry jelly, like a mound of quivering jelly rubies in a potentate’s cask, and then, another rarity, as this was a family that liked Brussels sprouts (though we have seen that there was at least one dissenter), there were Brussels sprouts with chestnuts and blue cheese and there were Brussels sprouts with creamed mushrooms and onions, a true prodigality of Brussels sprouts.
And Puck, a dog of surpassing friendliness, head crowned with the softest, floppiest ears imaginable, ears that said “Tickle me,” Puck, with a cruel pancreas that wouldn’t allow him turkey, not a morsel, but still, he lay beneath the laden table, happy for all the legs, the hands, the laps, around him, and hoping that an errant morsel of the bird might fall his way, or that a friendly hand might pat his belly. Fran heard Puck give a soft “Woof,” and she followed his eyes, and saw a roll, finally untethered from its basket, floating towards the kitchen and then through the door, never to be seen again, and she looked in surprise at Puck, but he was already asleep, paws crossed before him, dreaming of chasing a rabbit through the wet green grass on a sunny day last summer.
There was a lull in the eating, and Fran noticed with astonishment that niece Anne had eaten moderately, and was later to eat only one piece of pie. Not like in the old days when we ate like Vikings and laughed at fate, thought Fran.
It was suggested that we take a walk before dessert, and though the brutality of this sensible suggestion on such a dark cold night was protested, we donned coats, hand-knit scarves, and gloves, and trooped out, walking along the streets of Oak Park, Illinois, and earnestly viewing homes of historic interest, though Fran could only think of pie, a phantom piece of which floated before her eyes, blocking out the Cheney mansion, a titanic slab of apple slices such that could feed three hungry sailors and their admiral, or serve as their raft, if need be. Young John Kenealy told of going to fetch the fresh turkey from the market, and dragging it in its box through the snow, back home, of being chased by the famous wolves of Oak Park, wolves who normally contented themselves with playfully snatching maps from the hands of startled tourists, viewing the studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, the wolves not normally harming the tourists, only a few of whom disappeared every summer, but these very wolves especially enjoyed nipping chunks of turkey from the hands of fleeing boys, and though later a more plausible version of transporting the turkey in a car in broad daylight on a snowless afternoon came to light, Fran likes the wolves of Oak Park version, and is offering it here. And with the thought of wolves, we shivered, drew our collars about us, and hurried back for dessert.
A trio of pies awaited, like a trio of singers, singing siren songs of pumpkin, of apples, of pecans, pies succulent, oozing sugar and butter. On the pumpkin pie rested tender little pastry maple leaves as though fallen from a miraculous pastry tree, dark roasted pecans crowded the pecan pie, and the last, the raft of tender apple slices, covered with an ice field of icing, blue and Labradorean, waiting to be shattered with our silver forks. And there was a magnificent whorl of whipped cream, sitting as proudly as a polar bear alone on its ice floe. And lastly, chocolate truffles, one being just the size of the last space in our stomachs.
The evening came to an end, and we staggered out to our cars, for, in truth, there had been no room for that chocolate truffle, and some of us were in distress. Fran carried small parcels of roast turkey for the cats at home, who at that very moment were curled into balls dreaming small, warm, dark, mice-bedecked dreams, and she also carried a few dinner rolls for squirrels. As we walked we silently gave thanks again, thanks to those who had gone before and were no longer with us and are missed, fathers, mothers, uncles, and aunts, who had given us our life and our meaning, and as we headed into the cold, dark, leaf-scudding night, we said Amen, Amen to us all, Amen to God, Amen, the great Amen.