Saturday, November 25, 2017

Reinventing Thanksgiving

There used to be a little song based on a piece of sentimental verse that was believed to sum up Thanksgiving. "Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go," it began and went on to sing about horses and sleighs and white and drifted snow, ending with "Hoorah for the pumpkin pie." It was a fine accompaniment to the Norman Rockwell magazine covers that showed a plump little grandmother proudly bearing a turkey that was at least half her size to a table filled with her well-scrubbed, beaming family.

When my sisters and I were small, we sang that song with a strong feeling of kinship. Although our one surviving grandmother was a continent away, we had a horse and a harness that was occasionally attached to a kind of toboggan and whisked us through the white and drifted snow. There were always guests who managed to get to our house for dinner, over the river and through the woods. And there was always pumpkin pie.

It was a day that held no expectations, except for the food, and that was more time-consuming than it was difficult. It's perfectly true that anybody can come up with a decent Thanksgiving meal with enough practice and doggedness. I know because eventually even I was able to do that--and I enjoyed it. There was something very wonderful about making the same meal every year, as my mother had done and hers before her, all the way back to the Pilgrims.

But now we know better. Those Pilgrims and those Native Americans never came together in that collegial gustatory truce that we've been replicating since the good old days of Plymouth Rock. And that decent Thanksgiving meal, over the river and through the woods, Grandmother's house, those Norman Rockwell covers?

Assuming there are grandchildren, Grandmother is more likely to live in a tiny apartment with no on-street parking than she is in a snow-covered family home. For 364 days of the year, she probably cooks as little as possible and has lost her touch in the kitchen, while the daughters of the house have been at work the day before and probably will be on the day after. Getting up at dawn to make the stuffing and fist the turkey is about as attractive a proposition as a raging case of the bubonic plague.

Besides, that decent Thanksgiving meal just isn't the way many families care to eat anymore. Even if they manage to clear a plate of stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls, butter, and turkey, they now have days of leftovers to contend with. One feast becomes a week of reruns, ending in nobody's favorite--turkey soup.

There are people who manage to recreate a traditional Thanksgiving, I know there are. I've seen them on Facebook and I salute them with all of my heart. For the rest of us, to rest and be thankful is the untarnished core of that third Thursday in November, and that can take any form we choose to bring to it.

For me? It turns out the one food that means Thanksgiving to me is pie, and this is the one day of the year that I like to make it. They are ungainly objects that never show up on social media but they reflect my heritage--Pennsylvania Dutch shoo-fly pie and New England cranberry pie. To hell with that grandmother in the kitchen before daybreak, to hell with those apocryphal Pilgrims, to hell with Norman Rockwell. On Thanksgiving and the days after, I eat pie and never once groan about the monotony of leftovers.

There is pie, and I am grateful.

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