Never in my life have I looked forward to Thanksgiving more. I have been so busy this year that I just feel bewildered, numb, vague, and disembodied. I look on the holiday as an enforced and very welcome day of rest. My daughter is spending the break with her mama in northwest Kansas, so there will be no more than three for the Thanksgiving feast at my house, and perhaps a few ringers for pie and brandy. I do most of the cooking and my mother, who drives in from Dickinson, does the … er supervising. She raises her eyebrows with some frequency, tells me she can never find the spices in my cupboards, says, "Don't you think it is a little early to peel the potatoes?," asks me such questions as, "Are you going to use a measuring cup on that?," and eventually offers, with cheerful exasperation, "Do you want me just to organize your kitchen and at least throw the time-sensitive perishables away?"
The answer to these questions is no.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, by magnitudes. It is one of America's greatest inventions. And it almost alone props up the sweet potato industry. It has, until recently, resisted the commercialization that has buried Christmas in materialism, merchandize, secularity, and economic stress—all things that Jesus would have deplored. Thanksgiving is one of two moments in the year when the vast majority of Americans are doing the same thing at the same time, and like its distant cousin the Fourth of July, on that day we all tend to eat the same things at the same time. It's when we as a national family break bread together. Earlier in my life I knew some perverse iconoclasts who, for no good reason, refused to make turkey, dressing, cranberries, gravy, green beans, mashed potatoes, gooey marshmallow sweet potato thingy, and pumpkin pies. They'd do a crab-stuffed pork loin instead, or shish kabobs on the grill, and they'd substitute a syllabub with a mango reduction for good old pumpkin pie.
My answer to that is "why?" spoken in the loudest permissible indoor volume. Twice a year I bake a turkey. Twice a year I make cranberry sauce. That's about the right frequency, and I see no rational reason to mess with so delicious, so blessed, and so traditional a holiday meal.
My mother and I are having our annual squabble about the size of the turkey. She advocates about a 15-pound game hen, and I want a solid 24-28 pounder. "What are you going to do with all those leftovers?" she asked the other day, right on schedule, in precisely the tone and words she has used for the last ten years. "What difference does it make?" I snapped back in a case closed sort of way. "It's Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is about abundance." This debate is one of our Thanksgiving traditions. She knew how this was going to come out before she opened her mouth, and I knew she was going to make her annual lame suggestion. Then, just to be insulting, she said, as she has for the past six years, "You're not thinking of trying a deep fried turkey again, are you?"
Had to bring it up! Ha'ad to bring it up.
Once a few years ago with my friend Tom I deep-fried a turkey in my front yard. It was one of those raw Thanksgiving days with leaden skies, a whipping intermittent wind, a windchill of about five below, and some ground drifting. In short, a perfect North Dakota Thanksgiving Day. After pouring about forty gallons of oil into the new fryer and igniting a propane flame under the aluminum tub that had the sound and fury of a fracking flare, we spent a full hour heating that oil to the boiling point. We stood around the contraption beating our hands on our thighs to stay warm, exchanging views on whether we would be able to put out the fire before we burned the house down, and chanting from Macbeth: "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble," (emphasis on trouble), "fire burn and cauldron bubble." My mother had protested this whole operation as dumb and "iffy" from a Thanksgiving point of view. When the $20 of oil finally came to a boil (for the first half hour, it was a dead heat between my modest propane burner and North Dakota winter), Tom and I lifted the cover with a tree branch and with my usual optimism I lowered a beautiful, plump, Dickensian turkey into that seething vat.
Instantaneously there was one profound four-second hissing sound, like a single burst of a train whistle. Then a little mushroom cloud rose up over the fryer to about 35,000 feet. The pot began shaking like the first stage of a Saturn V rocket at takeoff. We looked at each other in an uneasy, queasy sort of way and glanced through the big window at my mother, who was frowning at us from inside. It would not have surprised me if she had been shaking her fist. Numbskulls!
"We're toast," I said. And Tom said, "Actually, the turkey appears to be melba toast."
When we lifted that once-glorious bird out, fifteen minutes later, it had shrunk to the size of a stunted grocery store kiosk chicken. It had a dark brown leathery look (and smell) like a football that had been lowered into a deep fat fryer. The skin was mottled and there appeared to be caverns in several places along the sides of the breast, as if part of the white meat had literally been vaporized. "These turkeys are said to be succulent inside," I said without much conviction. "The idea is that the sudden immersion in hot oil seals the moisture inside the carcass. There may have been some shrinkage, I'll grant you that, but I'm betting it is dee-licious." Tom said, "Sounds good to me. Think your mother will buy it?"
So that one did not become a family tradition, but mother brings it up every year at this time. It's not clear whether she is just trying to shame me for the fun of it, or whether she actually thinks that without her pro-active rebuke I'd be tempted to transform another fabulous turkey into a fist-sized slab of dry jerky again, just to confirm the results of the first experiment.
This year we will light table candles and toast my daughter, her granddaughter, with a glass of white wine, listen to Nora Jones at a low volume, and say a few of the many, many things we are thankful for: "Well, at least you didn't try to fry the turkey!"
The glory this Thanksgiving will be eating our favorite meal of the year on my new dishes, made by the exquisite North Dakota potter and ceramicist Tama Smith of Beach. I helped a little with the design, though the artistry is all Tama. The plates and serving bowls are brown and buff and rust and charcoal—to look like the badlands and the butte country south of Medora—and through the middle of each dish runs a heartbreaking blue trace of the sacred Little Missouri River. When mother and I picked them up the other day in Beach, Tama and I both burst into tears as we gazed at their magnificence. They are far too beautiful to eat on, but we will.
They represent what North Dakota means, and may still mean, if we manage this thing right.
That would be worth thanksgiving.
"Thanksgiving Dinner, Quincy House, Boston, MA." 1899. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.