Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays, which is odd when you consider that it’s often been a disaster at my house.
Who doesn’t love Thanksgiving? The seductive aroma of turkey roasting, the annual gathering of friends and relatives from near and far, the uniquely American-ness of it all?
True, Thanksgiving is celebrated in other countries, but nowhere is it enjoyed more universally, or ravenously, than here in the U.S. It’s a documented fact that Americans eat more food on Thanksgiving than any other day of the year, as anyone who has downed an after-dinner Alka Seltzer and groaned through a quarter or two of football can attest.
Last year, after cooking and hosting Thanksgiving dinner forever, my wife ceded the job to one of our daughters, who has a bigger kitchen and is a wonderful cook. It’s less work for us, but it wasn’t without mixed feelings. We missed hosting the dinner – the anticipation, the crowded kitchen, the joyful chaos of it all.
That said, no other holiday has been so apt to run off the rails for us.
It’s been that way forever.
I was four the year my mother hosted Thanksgiving dinner in the dilapidated, two-story house where we lived at the time. She’d invited, among others, my great grandmother and her last husband, who lived in Notus. (She outlived three husbands, but that’s another story.)
We were having dinner when Grampa Chandler slumped over. My last memory of him is of the medics carrying him out on a stretcher.
It was sad, but he’d lived a long life, it was his time and Grandma Susie seemed to take it in stride. They hadn’t been married long and she was nothing if not resilient. She remained the upbeat, jovial woman she’d always been, and the story of her last husband’s last Thanksgiving went on to occupy a unique place in the family lore. Little did we know that it was the beginning of a long run of Thanksgiving misadventures.
When it came to hosting Thanksgiving dinner, my mother was a perfectionist. Everything had to be just so. The dining table had to be carried to the living room, which was larger than the dining room, to accommodate the guests more comfortably. Out came the best tablecloth, used only on Thanksgiving, the crystal, the best dishes. And woe to anyone who interrupted the cook while she was preparing dinner. The meal, especially the turkey, had to be absolutely perfect.
It’s a myth that domesticated turkeys can’t fly. No one who was there when it happened will forget the time my mother’s perfect turkey decided it was a swan. She was taking it out of the oven when the roasting pan slipped and the turkey took flight as if jet propelled. It flew, dove and skidded halfway across the kitchen, leaving a grease slick and a trail of dressing. My mother locked herself in her bedroom and cried.
We cleaned up the mess, carried the ruptured turkey to the table and talked her out of the bedroom to join us for an imperfect but delectable feast enjoyed by all. Even Mom was quick to see the humor of it. It was a Thanksgiving remembered and laughed about for years to come.
The flight of the Flightless Turkey was a predecessor to the belly flop of the Flaming Turkey. No one was sure quite what what wrong, but when my wife opened the oven door the turkey ignited.
Instant panic. Everyone shouting at once.
What do you do with a turkey doing a highly successful imitation of a bonfire? Luckily, it was one of those rare Thanksgivings with snow on the ground. It’s safe to say that we were the only family in Idaho that year whose Thanksgiving centerpiece ended up smoldering in a snowbank.
Fire was also the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving disaster narrowly averted. My mother was getting up in years by then, and her eyesight wasn’t what it had been. The dinner table was decorated with little bowls filled with oil and floating wicks. The burning wicks lent a festive touch to the proceedings – until my mother tried to drink one of them. The flame was almost to her lips when a collective shriek arose, preventing a trip to the emergency room.
That came the following day, when I choked on a turkey sandwich. The doctor recommended a procedure that involved swallowing a scope with a light and a camera. The drugs he used made it such a pleasant experience that I asked him if there were any leftovers. He glared, muttered something under his breath and told me to stick with pumpkin pie.
Thanksgiving doesn’t even have to be at our house to backfire. We were visiting relatives in neighboring Washington one year when a storm hit and the power went out. If it had happened after dinner, it might have been fun. We could have built a fire in the fireplace and remembered it as a cozy, candle-lit Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the power went out at about noon, with the turkey barely warm in the oven.
Power outages in western Washington can last hours, even days. After waiting an hour or so for the lights to go back on, the hosts decided that waiting was futile and opted for an alternative method to cook the bird.
It was all they had.
It was a sorry sight, all those ravenous people standing around a hibachi with a pitifully small bed of glowing coals struggling to cook a lily-white turkey. We drove away in a howling storm that night, still hungry and hoping to find an open convenience store with Jojos or overcooked hot dogs.
This year it will be another Thanksgiving at our daughter’s house, where everything will be perfect.
But in a way I miss the old days, when turkeys flew, crash-landed in snowbanks, and each Thanksgiving held the promise of delicious disaster.
Tim Woodward’s column appears in The Idaho Press one Sunday a month, often more frequently, and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org