It’s my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving is.
Amy is lying down and not feeling good when I walk into the bedroom to ask if she wants to have Thanksgiving dinner at our house this year. She hesitates, not saying what we both already know, about how we are planning to put the house up for sale, but by the look in her eyes I know she wants too so I jump in and tell her I think we should and she agrees.
1. At the cutting board I raise my arm up to shoulder level, cleaver in hand, and with force I give a serious chop to the tail of the frozen turkey carcass. It’s too tall to fit into my pot so I have to make it smaller. The tail doesn’t break free so I whack it again and this time it flies off the cutting board onto the counter sliding like a curling stone on the black granite. I collect up the parts and put them into an 8 quart pressure cooker. Sometimes if I don’t have a carcass I use turkey legs, or chicken legs, which is a great way to do it. I make stock in different ways but over the years I find using a pressure cooker is easiest for me although occasionally I make it on the stove top in the traditional way or sometimes in a crock pot. It really doesn’t matter what I use but I like the pressure cooker. The only difference between the pots is it takes less time to make stock with a pressure cooker, one hour as opposed to four or more by the other methods. I add 4 quarts of water to the cooker unless I reach the ⅔ full mark because with a pressure cooker I never want to have it more than ⅔ full. I always make sure I get at least 2 to 3 quarts of water into the pot though. Less water only means a stronger stock. I carry the cooker to the stove to get it out of the way.
I am not sure we have admitted it to ourselves so I simply think to myself, “this may be the last year we have Thanksgiving in this house”. It even feels odd to think and worse to say it out loud and I know that is why Amy hesitated. Of course Thanksgiving is not about the house but the people with whom we sit down and share dinner and I really believe this sentiment. Even so it’s still difficult.
2. As always, while in the kitchen I think about other things, like the 48 people with whom we sat down to dinner at our first Thanksgiving in this house. It was wonderful, fancy, and lots of fun. I step to the refrigerator and reach into the crisper drawer. I grab two carrots out of the bag that says organic and carrots in big letters and I make a mental note that I need to buy carrots because there are only two left. I pick up the celery which looks almost rotten and peel back the bad stuff and snap off a piece of the good stuff hidden inside. Celery really isn’t any good until the outer stalks look rotten. At the sink I scrub the carrots and stalk of celery well, break them into threes, and toss them into the pot with the carcass. No need to peel anything. At the cutting board I slice off the roots on the yellow onion I brought out of the pantry earlier knowing I would need it. My knife glides through the layers slicing the onion in half long ways so what’s left of the root holds each half together. The paper skin is perfect and golden in color so I don’t remove it because the golden skin adds great color to the stock. If the onion is moldy with that powdery black stuff I peel them. I add the onion to the pot.
“I have learned many things over the 10 years we’ve lived here,” I say in a mumble to myself. I also think about all the ways our Thanksgiving meal changes over time. The first few years I get all difficult and try to do to much and it stresses me out to see people standing around waiting for dinner to be served, pacing when things begin to run late. Plus we are Midwesterners and we like things to be the same, change comes slow here. Years ago I evaluate what I am doing and decide whatever I do from this point on it needs to be enjoyable and stress free for me and food that everyone likes. I don’t need to impress my family as much as I need to relish in their company. So I begin to cook the same meal each year. It took some time to put together the right recipes from cooks I admire. A surprising thing happens, each year the food gets better because I know more about each dish, what problems may occur, and how to fix them. In reality dinner becomes more delicious as my knowledge about each dish increases. It also gets a lot easier.
3. At the cabinet I shuffle spice containers around knowing my whole cloves are at the back. I don’t always use cloves in my stock but at Thanksgiving I most certainly do but I don’t have an explanation for why I do, I just do. I use 3 whole cloves. I put all the spices back I don’t need but keep the peppercorns out along with the bay leaves. At the pot I measure 1 teaspoon of black peppercorns out, dump it into the pot, and then measure out another teaspoon and dump it in too. You could eyeball it if you want. I usually do but I know there are cooks who like measurements. In go 2 bay leaves and the cloves. I also have some parsley from the garden and throw in a few sprigs. Parsley really adds lots of flavor so when it is winter I buy a bunch and keep it around but fortunately parsley is hardy and I still have some growing. It is a vibrant green, parsley at its best. I turn the heat to high and go sit down to drink the coffee I made earlier, it’s cold, so I warm it in the microwave. I wait for the water in the cooker to come to a boil which, as we all know, always seems like forever. When it does I put the pressure cooker lid on and move the pressure dial to high. When the gauge pops up I lower the heat to low, or whatever flame keeps the gauge popped up without the pot whistling, I want to find the sweet spot. I set the timer for 1 hour and go about my business.
When the timer sounds I head downstairs and turn off the flame and then head back upstairs to finish folding the girls clothes. I let the cooker naturally cool right on the stove and when I am ready to get to it, I will.
It is the little things I begin to notice. Like how we, as a family, use to sit down to dinner every night but we never seem too. On the one night recently when I do make a family dinner, Lynnie falls asleep early and I didn’t wake her. Amy is asleep too, her pain comes at night now and screws up her sleep pattern. I set the table. I put down two brown rattan placemats across from each other, the bistro style flatware goes where it supposed to, and I put out glasses and cloth napkins. It is only Vivian and I at the table. I ask if she wants to watch a movie after dinner, Vivian and I trade some puns, she loves puns, and I ask Vivian if she remembers her mom before she was sick. She says she doesn’t remember. My heart breaks. I manage somehow to keep a smile on my face, neither of us hesitate, we don’t skip a beat because I don’t think either of us want face that topic, so we continue with the conversation.
4. The stock is cool but I don’t mess with it until after dinner. If I let it sit all the particles of gunk settle to the bottom and, using a ladle, I begin to ladle out crystal clear stock. I have a choice, I can clean out the pressure cooker and can the stock or I can freeze it. I like to can it because it is always at the ready. Simply pop the top and pour with no prior thawing. Even so, this year I freeze it in 1 quart plastic freezer bags because it seems easiest. I lay the bags flat in the freezer so I get thin bags of stock. For Thanksgiving I will pull 2 of the quart bags the day before and let them begin to thaw.
It’s not simply that we don’t have family dinner often anymore but other things too. The house is always a little messier, it feels odd when we do things with only three of us instead of four, and I hate how at school the girls have become the girls whose mom is sick. It’s bittersweet, we are thankful Amy is still alive but there were months this year when she and I thought soon she might not be.
The girls are playing quietly and I start in on cleaning the dishes. There is always the dishes.