My mother was a very smart woman who found ways to impart her wisdom that both felt good—and tasted good. Stories about food and food memories permeate my recollections. In my next three blog posts, I’ll share Ten Turkey Teachings that I learned from my mother along with my plan to infuse these teachings into todays menu of events. These first three focus on BEFORE Thanksgiving.
- It’s not about the turkey.
- We don’t REALLY need it.
- Set the table early.
1. It’s Not About the Turkey
Even though we lived 500 miles apart, my mom and I used to spend hours planning for Thanksgiving dinner. The food itself was never the “main course.” It was more about the planning, the many “long-distance, advance-team” discussions we’d have over every facet of the color scheme, which was the same every year. We’d also labor over every single side dish.
“Corn pudding? Who likes corn?”
“It’s tradition. The Pilgrims ate corn. Why shouldn’t we?”
“Ma, the Pilgrims ate outside, too. Do I need to pack a tent?”
“I like to be ready. Now, I have time to make the corn pudding.”
We always ordered “a good turkey.” My grandfather used to run a chicken and egg store “back in the day” so the man knew a good bird when he saw one—fresh, never frozen and young, never old. Unfortunately, this gift of turkey selecting is not a talent I fully inherited. So, I’ve refined the tradition some; I go online and click a box on the Whole Foods website. Then I hope that the wrapped ready-to-heat bird is both big enough and the one that I ordered.
While the turkey was always the centerpiece of Thanksgiving, my mom firmly believed and instilled in me that “Thanksgiving wasn’t about the turkey.” For years, I attributed this mantra to a desire to focus on family and festivities instead. It wasn’t until I was grown and we were having one of our corn pudding chats that I discovered the other truth: my mother never liked turkey.
Lesson 1: Always dig for the real reason.
2. We Don’t REALLY Need It
As the holiday would draw closer, we’d talk and plan at least once a day, adding side dishes, slipping in one more dessert, and of course, considering each appetizer with great care.
“Maybe it is and she gave it to Cooking Light, then. She can cook fancy things and make it look easy. I can’t because your father, (he was always my father, never her husband, in these situations), gets upset if I even think of using garlic salt or oregano. Makes for boring cooking. Of course, he’ll eat what Lynne makes and think it is good, and that has these spices in it.”
In the next day’s call, we’d run through the menu yet again. I always knew Thanksgiving was almost upon us when our “run-through” conversation would suddenly shift. It typically began innocently enough as a simple question.
My mother would spend many weeks, gently and carefully adding menu items, only to equally strategically contemplate their last-minute removal. (I’m convinced that after all of those years, every side dish had to know on some level that it ran the risk of a last-minute cut from the final line-up.) In the case of this particular call, it was the green beans that came under her scrutiny, a fairly predictable candidate.
And so it went. We’d add, subtract, and ultimately settle on including every single thing that had been on the initial master list.
This volleying for placement on the Thanksgiving table was never so much about the food items themselves. It was all about sharing, albeit long-distance, the depth of consideration. We did all of this together.
To my mother, family really was the only thing that mattered to her. To spend so much time minutely and painstakingly preparing for a family occasion was always time well spent. And if we could go through that process together, it was all that much more delicious.
Lesson 2: Know what you REALLY need. Look carefully, choose carefully, and remember, most everything freezes—if you wrap it carefully.
3. Set the Table Early
My mother’s ritual of setting the table up to two weeks in advance used to baffle people who’d stop by. When it was just my parents at home, they “ate in the kitchen” of course, so there was no reason to wait until the last minute to set the table. Not be a newcomer to the pre-Thanksgiving festivities and rituals, I knew there was more to this early table-setting plan. There were three big reasons why my mother spent time setting the table so far in advance:
- First, she was extremely possessive of the limited time we’d have to be together over the holiday. She never wanted to “waste a minute doing something she could do ahead of time.” Her “I can sleep later when you leave” approach to life is a trait I definitely get from my mother.
- Second, my mother liked to savor—and control—the preparations. As long as she didn’t have to rush, she really didn’t want help. Monday, she’d shop. Tuesday, she’d cook. Late Tuesday night, with the house to herself as my dad slept in front of the TV, she’d slowly and delightedly get down “the good dishes” and begin to meticulously set the table. Keep in mind that on my mother’s calendar, the Tuesday before could be any Tuesday in November. Two weeks early was typical. You really couldn’t be too early to set the table. Dust? Not an issue; you simply covered the completely set table with a clean top sheet.
- Finally, setting the table early gave her a preview of the event’s headcount and dynamic. Never one to use placards unless there was a true rift among guests, my mother had what appeared to be a natural flair for deftly directing people to seats in various table positions. All of such maneuvers were designed to maximize success (and keep the stuffing away from my father’s end of the table). In reality, it was more than flair. It was well rehearsed, considered, and the level of care was on par with your average seating chart for a Waldorf wedding.
At my mother’s table, there was always room for one more person, a mysterious third cousin or an uncle we only saw at Thanksgiving. Just like the corn pudding and green beans, we discussed all of this, too.
We both knew Uncle Harold was never off the list. It was just part of the process. By setting the table early, my mother could gauge exactly how many more she could add to the headcount. And she always did.
Lesson 3: It’s only when you put in the work ahead of time that it is easy to make it look easy. Whatever it is.
What memories or lessons do these spark for you? We hope you’ll share a comment below.
Stay tuned for our next post on Tuesday. The next three lessons of the Ten Turkey Teachings from My First Favorite Teacher are all about the “days and nights” of Thanksgiving itself.
- Wait to DO the bread.
- Time travel—four days for 14 minutes.
- More than leftovers are left over.