Like Martha, minus the mean
If in the future, global warming keeps snow in the Rocky Mountains at bay until December, there’s a chance I’ll be around for opening day on the slopes in Aspen. But as long as the first day of the season coincides with Thanksgiving, bragging rights about making fresh tracks on the fourth Thursday in November will always take a back burner to spending the holiday with my family back East. My family is living proof that a billion-dollar empire – á la Martha Stewart – isn’t necessary for the ultimate in domestic success. Despite her array of self-titled magazines, books, TV and radio shows, linens, furniture, crafts and dishes, Martha Stewart has nothing on my mom. The luscious smell of the turkey roasting in the oven and the sound of the sidewalk cheers from the Macy’s parade coming from the TV in the kitchen are my alarm clock on Thanksgiving morning. Like Michelangelo when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, my mom doesn’t like to be disturbed when she’s just seven or eight hours away from serving a significant meal to 16 people. However, I’ve found that if I stay out of her way and keep annoying questions to a minimum (i.e. “Did the turkey come with a butt this year?”), I’m usually welcome to take a seat in the kitchen to watch her work her magic.Naturally, the Thanksgiving preparations begin weeks before that morning. It all starts with The List. The List is not an elementary itemization of grocery requirements; rather, it’s derived from a carefully preserved file of menus and guest names from Thanksgivings past. Former meals are scrutinized. Various recipes, hors d’oeuvres, first and main courses, desserts, wine, liquor and soda selections, seating arrangements, cooking schedules and timelines are considered and analyzed. Every possible permutation and combination is calculated with NASA-like precision until The List is finalized. One thing that distinguishes my mom from mere mortals is her astonishing feat of having never, ever stepped foot inside a supermarket. That’s where my dad, the unsung hero of the refrigerator and pantry, comes in. Besides his normal year-round duties of making sure the milk is fresh, the vegetables crisp, the cabinets stocked with low-sodium chicken broth and Bumble Bee tuna and the bathrooms supplied with ample toilet paper, when The List is released for Thanksgiving, my dad journeys hither and yonder to the nether regions of the surrounding states to scour supermarkets, butcher shops, farm stands and gourmet specialty marts in a Holy Grail-type quest to fill The List exactly as it has been written. To ensure there are enough boxes of Pepperidge Farm Unseasoned Bread Crumbs for the stuffing, my dad calls the company’s corporate headquarters in Norwalk, Conn., to map out which stores have most recently received deliveries. He’ll drive more than an hour to an organic produce shop to ensure the persimmons needed for the chutney have been picked no more than three days earlier. His growls are practically imperceptible when he’s sent back to the same supermarket for the fourth time in two hours because my mom failed to clarify that she wanted orange juice with pulp to baste the turkey. When my dad fights the rush-hour crowds to pick up the turkey the day before Thanksgiving only to have to return it until my mom can make space for it in the refrigerator, he and the 22-pound fowl ride tacitly back to the butcher to obligingly make the necessary poult-sitting arrangements. And he always makes sure that the fresh cranberries he buys come from a farm in the Manitowish Waters area of Wisconsin, which, as everyone knows, is the cranberry capital of the world.My mom’s cranberry sauce is a painstakingly prepared creation of whole berries, lemon and orange zest and freshly grated ginger. But she goes to even greater lengths not to make a face at the canned cranberry sauce she dutifully serves to my sister and me since we both prefer the slimy, gelatinous variety to the gourmet rendering.Besides the Herculean efforts of my parents, though, the rest of the family also does their part to make the holiday complete. My cousin and her husband bring homemade pumpkin cheese cake and pecan caramel custard pie. My aunt makes a broccoli and cheese soufflé. My brother-in-law’s parents bring fruit. My sister and her husband bring my nephew and niece. I carve the turkey. And the year that my mom dropped the turkey while taking it out of the oven when she slipped on some of the juices that had sloshed out of the pan, everyone certainly did their part by eating it anyway and pretending they didn’t know that just minutes earlier it had been face down on the kitchen tile. Besides, the alternative would have been Chinese food, which would have stolen the thunder from our traditional Jewish Christmas Day meal.In that we eat turkey and stuffing, our meal is traditional. But we don’t eat mashed potatoes and we do eat meatballs and mock liver (the special Cohen family variation of chopped liver). However, the truth is that even if our gourmet, eclectic meal was replaced with frozen Swanson TV dinners, no guest would cancel at the last minute and make alternate arrangements. While the effort that goes into the meal is recognized and abundantly appreciated, the only thing that ultimately matters at Thanksgiving is that we’re all together. The fireplace in the den wishes it could emit as much warmth as the table at dinner time.So while the napkin rings on our table aren’t made from the oak tree in the back yard and the floral centerpiece won’t be arrayed in a pumpkin vase, Martha Stewart could still learn a thing or two from my mom and our family. In fact, we’ll save Martha a seat at the table just in case she happens to be in the neighborhood, as I’m sure she’d find the warmhearted Thanksgiving experience at our home to be a very good thing.Tune in next week for the full turkey report direct from Mamaroneck, N.Y. Questions or comments may be e-mailed to email@example.com
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Vignettes of life in the valley. Some you may have heard; hopefully, others will be new.