Thanksgiving Musings by Florence Niven

My neighbour was spending Thanksgiving in another city, visiting her family. I had entered her house using the spare key she’d left in case of an emergency. This was an emergency. Once again I’d battled a turkey. Once again the turkey fought back. I threw the roasting pan in her oven. Then sat in her living room. Stewing.

I have to confess – even at the best of times, the kitchen is not a place where I like to spend my time. Oh sure, I try to prepare meals rich in colour and texture that follow the nutritional guidelines, but there are so many other things I’d rather be doing than standing in the kitchen, slicing and dicing.

Over the years, my husband has offered to help, but he and I work at different speeds. My kitchen style is decisive and efficient. My goal: a quick exit. His is measured and exacting. By the time he has the mushrooms perfectly cut and evenly spaced on a homemade pizza, my interest has waned.

You’re probably thinking the obvious solution would be for me to resign from kitchen duty and let him take over. I’ve suggested this over the years, but it’s an idea that’s met with marked resistance. Seems my husband, despite his fastidious placement of mushroom and red pepper pieces, enjoys being in the kitchen about as much as I do. So I cook, and he does the post-meal clean up. Our meals will never be gourmet, but neither will we starve. It’s a system that works, for the most part. At least until a turkey is thrown in the mix.

Preparing the full Thanksgiving dinner pushes me well beyond my culinary comfort zone. And although I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things to better manage this meal, I still face some challenges.

For years the very real fear of my guests developing food poisoning prevented me from allowing the turkey to thaw for more than two days in the refrigerator. Consequently I’ve spent many early mornings wrestling a partially frozen bird that was clearly unwilling to relinquish its giblets. I’ve since realized that allowing an extra day for thawing, facilitates a much calmer transition from fridge to roasting pan. And I no longer have the urge to hurl a semi-thawed carcass out the kitchen window. I see this as personal growth.

I’ve discovered the best time to tackle a turkey is first thing in the morning. Before I’m fully awake. Sneak up on the gobbler before it knows what’s happening. Once it’s nestled in the roasting pan, ‘to stuff’ or ‘not to stuff’’, becomes the question. The answer depends on how the morning is unfolding.  

A few years ago a friend suggested I cook the turkey early – a day, or even week before the main event. Brilliant! Cooking a turkey early means it can be sliced and the mess cleaned up, well before any guests arrive, which leaves the impression that I know what I’m doing. At dinnertime, it’s a simple matter of steaming the turkey slices, once a stove element becomes available.

About that…

For some reason, choosing the side dishes remains for me, an enigma. Most are a collection of family favourites – tried and true. Quite often however, I add something new to the menu. There’s no explanation for this. It’s a detail that trips me up every time. It doesn’t occur to me there’s a problem until I’ve lined up five items that require a stove element, next to our four-element stove. Although I’ve become quite adept at shuffling the various pots around the stovetop in a chaotic game of Musical Burners, it’s less than ideal.

For the past ten years, a good friend, someone who loves working in the kitchen (one of those…), has dropped off a jar of her delicious homemade Cranberry Chutney for our special meal. It’s become a much-anticipated part of our holiday tradition. Of course if she’s travelling, I resort to the store-bought gelatinous blob that plops out of the can. I’ve discovered that if I jab the blob vigorously with a fork I can eliminate the tell-tale indentations that belie its origins. Although there’s no comparison to the homemade variety, taming the wobble makes it slightly more palatable.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned over the years is that a beautiful tablescape is a wonder to behold, and will divert attention away from the food.

All modesty aside, I set a beautiful table. The navy table cloth and matching napkins secured with bows of jute and sprigs of berries pulled from my garden; the centrepiece of magenta and amber vine submerged beneath water in cylindrical glass vases – each with a floating candle; the delicate vintage Depression Glass serving dishes containing various condiments – I have this part down. If only I could find someone to do the rest…

But I digress. I was telling you about the Thanksgiving I spent at our neighbour’s.

I had approached that morning with determined resolve. The turkey was fully thawed, and in the oven in record time. The table was set and the side dishes prepped, long before the rest of the household arose. I was, I must say, rather impressed with myself. However, when I went to baste the turkey for the first time, it’s naked body looked shockingly pallid. I asked my husband for his opinion. He assured me it was fine. He also reminded me that I panic about cooking the turkey every year. This last comment was not helpful.

An hour later, when I opened the oven again, I was temporarily blinded by the glare of the slick white torso. Once more I consulted my husband. “Well, the oven’s warm,” he said. “I’m sure it will be fine.”

A half an hour later I yanked the anaemic bird out of the oven and told my husband to get the car – he was driving me, and the bird, to our neighbour’s.  

Seems one of the elements in our oven had burned out. Seems you need both to cook a turkey. Our guests ate much later than planned that night.

Our dinner table, like that of so many other families, looked very different during the Covid years. When we first learned about social distancing and family bubbles, we adjusted our plans and purchased the World’s Smallest Turkey. Consequently, it thawed much earlier than anticipated. We had Thanksgiving Dinner for lunch on Thursday that year. The table was unadorned. There was very little fanfare. The actual Thanksgiving Day was the most relaxing ever, spent visiting with family and friends from coast to coast via Zoom. The refrigerator filled with leftovers, ready and waiting.

Which got me to thinking. Perhaps it’s not about the turkey and side dishes, after all. Forced to isolate, we still found ways to connect with family and friends.

This year, for the first time in a long time, our family plans to gather in person. I’d like it to be a Thanksgiving like no other. With the emphasis on what’s really important about the holiday – time spent together. Feeling blessed by the people around the table, and filled with gratitude. A time of easy conversation, warm hugs and lots of laughter.

And I’m thinking I might serve salmon. No fuss, no muss. No gravy. No stuffing. No Cranberry Chutney. Ok, maybe some Cranberry Chutney. Because it’s really good, and – let’s face it – goes with any meal.

But overall, I’d like it to be a celebration of all those things for which we are truly thankful, yet too often take for granted. Those things that we missed so dearly when we were told to isolate. Those things above and beyond what we place on the table.

by Florence Niven