From Dito Sevilla. Email him at dito[AT]borderstan.com, follow him on Twitter @DitoDC.
The Holidays have arrived. Here we are once again finding ourselves smack in the middle of the “season.” Somewhere between door-to-door costumed candy raids and the glowing lights of yuletide splendor, beneath the canopy of autumn’s confetti of falling foliage rests Thanksgiving. Created by Lincoln, amended by Roosevelt, this eleventh month smorgasbord of seldom seen culinary treats may be as American as apple pie (or pumpkin in this case), but unlike white sneakers, Nascar, and the 40-hour work week, my family took an instant liking to this little slice of Americana.
Growing up, Thanksgiving meant much more to me than it did to all the other kids at school. These kids -amateurs as I saw them- were generally excited about a five day weekend or about the prospect of traveling to relative’s homes for some turkey. They seemed satisfied with Our Lady of Mercy’s incredibly confusing system of dealing with the concept of a “half-day.” Holding all seven class periods , plus recess and lunch in approximately half the time by cutting everything by 45% leaving hundreds of uniform clad Catholics running around in their own time elapsed version of a real school day.
Recess was 6 minutes, lunch 22. Mrs. Foley had barely enough time to wheel in her craft cart, fold up some paper, hand out scissors when “DING”, the bell rang leaving my brown and orange Pilgrim-shaking-hands-with-Indian (back then we called them Indians) garland looking rather ungrateful. Other schools as I would come to know, and at the happy-to-contribute-my-opinion age of 9 suggest, simply lopped off the last two periods, skipping lunch altogether and voila, there’s your half-day. But no, this was Catholic school- and they did things by their own rules, and rulers… so you didn’t question things too much, less it upset the Baby-Jesus and land you in the principals office, a room apparently decorated by Helen Keller’s lesbian Scottish cousin.
Anyway, I would sit at my desk, which I had set up nicely in the executive manner, with two chairs facing me so that I could interview my secretaries (female friends) and ascertain exactly what they would be served at their respective homes. The search for evidence being the driving force that it was, I kept copious notes, hoping to bolster my case at home and my need for a product I had seen on television. I had heard of this Stove Top Stuffing® a lot. Commercials were legion, advertising the fluffy seasoned crouton mush Americans literally stuffed into the caverns of the turkey emerging as a delicious accompaniment to the holiday feast.
I saw little Johnny rushing from house to house, conning mothers all over his fictitious TV town for second, and third helpings. The girls made it clear that they were always served stuffing, but they were not sure where it came from, how it was made, or whether or not it was StoveTop® brand. They assured me, where I to show up at their door unannounced, their mother’s would happily serve me anything I liked. I was satisfied. It was good to have a back-up plan.
Just hours later preparations for the next days gorging were in full swing. My family, didn’t eat “American Food” often, much less serve it to 40 people more than a couple times a year, so obviously it required a total overhaul of the kitchen. There were only two days a year that did not require the laborious and ongoing preparation of black beans — Thanksgiving and Easter. On every other day of the year, on three-hundred-and-sixty-three other days of the year, black beans for the next day’s meal would be cleaned, sorted, and soaked overnight. Latino meals it seems have no better friend than the nutritious, delicious, black bean.
More than 20 years, I ate them nightly served alongside everything from roasted chicken thighs to a mysterious orange noodle dish. The black bean made its appearance with rice, between slices of bread, blended with heavy cream it made a spectacular soup- even better with an egg poached in it. It was everywhere. Some days, I think I’m part black bean. But this was thanksgiving, and on this day, our beans were green, “French Style.” Oh, Fancy! However, as an aside I must be honest- there were always leftover black beans and they could be warmed at a moment’s notice should a bean emergency erupt. Meanwhile, while the Thanksgiving eve retrofitting continued family scrambled about, flatware was sorted, counted, polished, and counted again.
No silver spoon would wind up in the trash this time! Of course one always did, and sure enough there was good old Miguel dutifully rummaging through the bags of Turkey parts and dry pumpkin pie pieces on the hunt for the missing spoon. It was always found, no reward proffered. Tables of various sizes would be set up in different rooms, over the years we experimented with a multitude of creative layouts, biannually settling on whatever arrangement kept the children as far from the adults as possible. It was an opportunity to use cloth napkins, an experience I saw as my birthright, one which my grandmother did not. We laughed, we discussed. I wanted to use the finest porcelain, “it’s from France,” I insisted.
She laughed at me. I said, “look at this border, this is beautiful.” She said, “Yes, I served Nixon on those, you are not Nixon.” I sighed. She reminded me that I had once re-heated my uncle’s dinner plate in the microwave. After a rather excessive 2 minutes on high the baroque gold inlay exploded leaving her without a microwave, and unable to serve 36 in high style. We settled on a comparatively unceremonious Noritake pattern, I called it buffet ware, she agreed but said it was pre-war. Once she said war, the discussion was over.
I launched into my prepared remarks about stuffing, our need for StoveTop®, How everyone else was serving it. I was rebuffed. “Where does he get these ideas?” They asked? I ignored the rhetorical trap. I pointed out that Mimi had prepared Manwhich® when I begged. She said she only did it so I’d try it and dislike it, and did not think I’d love it so much. She was good, I was losing. But I was charming, so I played my last hand, the hand any first generation immigrant can use on their parents. I said, “But, it’s tradition!”
They all paused. Air slipped from their lips, eyes rolled. I got them. They couldn’t screw with this Rockwellian scene. We were making a meal totally unfamiliar with out culture, what did they know? After much feigned discussion, and the obvious realization I would not shut-up, and because I was so loved, my father came to my rescue, offering “alright, enough, shut-up, we’ll make it, we’ll make it, shut-up.” I was never so happy. I loved him more than I loved stuffing. My grandmother smiled that knowing smile. She admired my spunk, my love of food, family and tradition. To bed I went, dreaming of stuffing.
The next day, up I was dark and early, it was 4 am, time to put the turkey in the oven. Mimi, adjusting her morning pinafore apron looked the bird square the butt, the focus of a surgeon, 40 years of turkey cooking behind her steeled expression. There on the counter it sat, a 29-pound chicken-looking thing. So gross, so pale, so cold in it’s naked innocence. Soon it would be defiled by prodding and jamming, cracking, trussing and stuffing, and then roasted to perfection. I loved the transformative aspect of it, the druids I imagined did this, and perhaps even the masons had a procedure for turkey preparation.
It was magic to me, after all, it was the last time one could get a peek of the bird because after breakfast the cloak of secrecy would be pulled tight, the kitchens declared off limits. My grandmother’s cook and bean maker Emeleina would transform into a basting machine, cracking the oven door and squirting the bird every 15 minutes between her naps. Hours would pass, and then with what appeared to be the grace of a magician’s wand, we had food for 40, with leftovers for all.
Watching television, I became acquainted with the idea of a father figure presenting the turkey to an adoring family and subsequently carving it up for all and sundry to witness. That was simply no the way we did things. Out of the oven the beast would come, drained of all excess juices my father and grandmother would quickly begin the last stages of their work. The gallon or two of gravy would need to be prepared. The roasting pan spread over 4 burners to deglaze. Wine was added, though a blast of steam, a drop of flour sifted in- but not too much, careful and whisk, don’t stop whisking!
All the while the bird was brushed and drizzled with some cardiac arresting mix of clarified butter and bacon drippings. It looked more like it had spent a lifetime on the French Riviera than the last 12 hours in the oven. Out it went for all to see, there was applause, there was fanfare. Aunts, uncles, cousins salivated. After a quick tour of the first floor, the beast was returned to the kitchen, as chafing dish after chafing dish of the “French Beans” were set out, followed by an endless parade of rice, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, the obligatory salad as over-dressed as the woman of the family and of course my stuffing were brought out and laid to rest on the buffet line.
Eager was I to confirm that there was more held in reserve, I returned to the kitchen to see my father brandishing his electric knife, taking it to task on a steaming slab of turkey breast. My grandmother, a confirmed micro manager guided the serrated blades gently with her index finger ensuring uniformity in slice size. Out they went, 4 sliced turkey breasts. The beautiful white meat perfectly moist, expertly prepared fanned across a silver tray- wait, what? “4 breasts Mimi,?” She made no expression, just kept slicing. Across the room, with the noted exception it was missing a drumstick for my grandfather to enjoy, the turkey I saw, the turkey everybody clapped at was intact.
Mimi smiled and handed me some breast meat. It was juicy & delicious.
I said mischievously puzzled, staring at the 29-pounder soon to meet its electric end, “They don’t know that’s not all from one turkey, we’re fooling them?” With a quick glance towards the doors, she winked and said, “It’s tradition”