Ah, Thanksgiving. That wonderful start to the holiday season that brings friends and family together in gratitude and affection. And as with most family gatherings, everyone sitting around your bountiful table brings with them a matched set of emotional luggage that, when added to the stresses of the season, amplifies the crazy of your dear ones. It happens to everyone, no matter how “well adjusted” you are. It’s not that you don’t love each other (mostly). It’s just that you know these people way too well and for way too long, so no matter how much you plan to be on your best behavior, crazy comes to the table and pulls up a chair. Someone always says that thing that sets it off, like tossing a match on dry kindling. My family was no different. I’m not saying that we didn’t have fun. We had tons. Yet there were always the things that got under the skin and suddenly happy turned to harpy Thanksgiving.
Enter the Thanksgiving list. Invented by my mom for my aunt, it brought laughter to a stressful situation. The list was somewhat of an inside joke between hostesses (with a few of the “kitchen help” also in the know), because they were the ones who really needed it. Its purpose? To help them giggle through what happened every year at Thanksgiving, giving the barbs, comments, and craziness less sting. It worked beautifully. The list was composed of those annual family foibles that really got under their skin, setting off tears or tantrums like striking a match. Checking items off as they happened and giggling along the way took away their power. For example, one family member hated chestnuts, going on at great length annually about her loathing of the offending little jewels. Unfortunately for her, my grandmother always made her stuffing with chestnuts (and it was always delicious). As soon as the blessing was out of our mouths, the question was out of hers: “Are there chestnuts in the stuffing?” And my grandmother would respond exactly the same every year. She’d lie and say no. The asker would then take a bite, usually right into a chestnut, and exclaim “but you said there are NO chestnuts in the stuffing!” Ah, tradition… Another item involved my grandmother asking my aunt for the one kitchen tool she didn’t have. Auntie would try to anticipate her every time, and almost certainly had the BEST equipped kitchen as a result. But there was always that one thing that was missing. It was uncanny, as though my grandmother had a sixth sense for absent utensils. Many other family quirks made the list, and we giggled our way though each checkmark, all of which were hit by the end of the day. I’m sure we would have survived otherwise, but that list made the day a little easier to handle and a lot more enjoyable to boot.
Thanksgiving has changed a lot since then. And while the crowd around my table is much smaller, I still laugh whenever I remember our list. Because the crazy is what makes a family, a family. And ours was a hell of a lot of fun.
We always had two cranberry sauces on our Thanksgiving table. The first was that wonderful “log” of jellied cranberry sauce with the ribs from the can firmly in place. I can still hear the “THWOCK” as the log slid from the can and hit the plate. The second was my grandmother’s homemade version with pears. I loved them both. Here is my updated version of Oma’s pear cranberry sauce, with a little touch of cloves, port and lime to give it a new twist.
Spiced Cranberry and Pear Sauce
Makes 2 cups
2 cups whole cranberries
2 medium pears, pealed and cut into ½” cubes
6 TBSP sugar
2 TBSP port
1 tsp grated lime zest
1/8 tsp ground cloves
¼ cup water
pinch of salt
Put all of the ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Let cool and keep in the refrigerator. The sauce will keep for a couple of weeks so you can easily make ahead. It also makes a very nice gift. Calories: 22 per tablespoon.