The Nexus of All Despair
by Jane Stern
Our Winter 2015 issue features an interview with Jane and Michael Stern, who have written more than forty books; their Roadfood, first published in 1978 and now in its eighth edition, brought a new fervor and attention to regional American cuisine. To celebrate the new issue and the holiday, Jane Stern reflects here on Thanksgivings past. Happiness abounds. —D. P.I’ve always thought that Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday, based solely on the fact that I adore turkey. But if I were to remove turkey from the equation, I would probably realize that this holiday, for me, has been nothing but one hideous thing after another.
Why Thanksgiving is the nexus of all despair is a mystery. But to prove that it is, here’s a short list of some of the things I remember.
1956, New Haven, Connecticut
The table is beautifully set in the dining room of the gracious colonial house on Trumbull Street, where my aunt and uncle live. I am ten years old, and my older cousins—Eric, seventeen, and his sister, Willa, thirteen—are my teen idols. After the family takes a few snapshots of all of us smiling, the food is spread out on the table and the shit hits the fan. Uncle Henry makes a snide remark about Elvis Presley, who has just been on The Ed Sullivan Show, and cousin Willa flings herself from the table in a histrionic fit. The whole table erupts into a pro- and anti-Elvis fight. The dinner is ruined, no one is hungry, and the gravy curdles as “All Shook Up” blasts from the phonograph in Willa’s room behind the slammed door.
1971, New Haven, Connecticut
A newlywed, I forgo seeing my family for Thanksgiving, and for a change of pace Michael and I invite two friends over. The only flaw in this plan is that I do not know how to cook. Undeterred, I take cookbooks out of the library, buy bags and bags of food, and at some point realize the twenty-eight-pound turkey (for four) will not fit in our apartment’s modest oven. I hack it into pieces.
By the time the two guests arrive, I’ve been cooking for four days, making unspeakably horrible and complicated dishes. I’ve also arranged flowers, cleaned the apartment, repainted the bathroom, and stocked up on Mateus and Boone’s Farm apple wine. I vaguely remember the guests arriving. I’m told that twenty minutes after they did, I excused myself and went to bed. I wake up the next day to a sink full of dirty dishes.
1977, Evanston, Illinois
My in-laws live in the Midwest, and every other Thanksgiving Michael and I travel to see them. This year we’re going to a close relative’s house a few miles away from where his parents live. These relatives are very pretentious. The house is Japanesque. We are instructed to remove our shoes when we enter. The floors are highly polished wood; the furniture is low, uncomfortable, and expensive. The host, a doctor, collects small, tortured bonsai trees.
Seventy-seven is the year the Cuisinart hit the American food scene, and these relatives are nothing if not on trend. Their Thanksgiving menu: pureed capon, pureed creamed spinach, pureed potatoes, pureed carrots, and, for dessert, a pureed pumpkin puree with pureed chestnuts on top. When I am very old and in a nursing home, I will look back on this meal fondly. But now, not so much.
1981, New Haven, Connecticut
Much of my family has died, unexpectedly, from awful diseases and fateful occurrences: my mother from a brain tumor, my cousin Willa from breast cancer, another cousin from a car accident, my grandmother from a broken hip, my father from smoking five packs a day. Those of us who are still living are at my Uncle Henry’s house for the traditional Thanksgiving meal. My Aunt Liz is cooking from rote, undeterred by her galloping Alzheimer’s. We all sit around glumly forking at the stuffing and Uncle Henry begins reading the most ghastly poetry, stuff he’s written for the event. It is not so much poetry as a morbid recitation of terminal cancer symptoms in iambic pentameter. I want to go screaming into that good night.
1995 and 1996, Redding, Connecticut...MORE
Michael is now devoted to AA....
And speaking of J.M.W. Turner (for folks who don't obsessively remember every word that appears herein, it was Monday)...
Again from the Paris Review, this time November 24, 2014:
Sleep of the Just
by Sadie Stein
You know how J. M. W. Turner tried to exhibit his work at the Royal Academy and the Royal Academy was all, Wow, your work is way too innovative and interesting and we can’t show it because it would threaten all our hidebound, bourgeois ideas and force us to reevaluate everything and make important societal changes? Yeah, well, I totally see their point. Once a year, anyway.
Because every November, all the food magazines and blogs start trying to bully us into to reinventing the wheel. Don’t be a fogey! they scream. What, you’re still eating turkey? HAHAHA. Well, if you insist on being a “traditionalist,” stuff that turkey with linguica and kale! Baste it with ramen! Douse it in pomegranate molasses! (All this is said in a vaguely threatening, SportsCenter-style cadence.) This isn’t your mom’s green bean casserole! You’re not even seeing those losers, are you, with their stupid political views and opinions about your love life? Surely you’re having some awesome no-strings Friendsgiving celebrating the new family you’ve chosen! Right? RIGHT?! SRIRACHA. SRIRACHA. SRIRACHA.
Look. I get the market demands of the newsstand. You can’t just recycle the same stuff year after year. Nor do I mean to advocate a slavish adherence to tradition. In my family’s case, that would mean cleaning the dining room table off in a panic at the last minute, barring entrance to the rooms where we’ve stuck all the mess, then watching my mother stand in front of the digital meat thermometer with tears rolling down her cheeks....MORE
"...and the Royal Academy was all, Wow, your work is way too innovative and interesting and we can’t show it...."
The pic is from Christie's "Mr Turner: Recreating the Royal Academy Show of 1832"
Gone for the Holiday, back for the short day Friday, maybe some more Thanksgiving stories or a recipe or two.