There are family traditions, then there are family traditions. Ours was the Thanksgiving sage stuffing. My immediate family now deceased, I’m not embarrassed to say this single tradition stood alone among our more common conventions of secrets, indiscretions and the occasional malfeasance. These things were our family traditions to the younger me, growing up in two households in Hawaii in the sixties. One house was the silent, tip-toe can-do-no-right house of my grandmother. The other so-called home began as a sailboat, then evolved into a three-two ranch with Mom, Stepdad, younger half-brother, countless cats and a few dogs with their urine smells and accompanying mountains of fur, dander, fleas and ticks.
But that’s another story. When Thanksgiving arrived each year, Grandmother and Mom would toss away their otherwise strained airs and, with the help of vodka tonics for Mom and gin and tonics for Grandmother, would converge in Grandmother’s kitchen, with cranky Siamese cats underfoot, and hold up the yellowing paper that had typed on it: Sage Stuffing.
At five years old, it seemed on Thanksgiving that I was, for a change, actually a “good girl” as long as I did my vegetable grinding duties on my red stool and didn’t get caught sneaking extra chunks of the sage sausage that were cooling in the colander. The smells wafting from the stove as the vegetables, butter and herbs were simmering were delectable and enough to hypnotize my little senses into some sort of culinary submission. No longer would I be on Grandmother’s scolding radar.
The piéce de resistance each year came when Mom and Grandmother reached the end of their recipe (and probably several drinks) and began to argue whether or not this was an “egg year.” Grandmother always claimed, although the recipe didn’t call for it, that an egg was required for the stuffing to be light and fluffy. Mom would say that if the stuffing needed an egg, then it would be on the recipe. As if “the recipe” had been some ancient tablet, accompanied by a burning bush, on which all things written were biblical— even though it was Grandmother (a strict former schoolteacher) who attended her Christian Science Church, not Mom, who had a give-a-shit attitude about religion. In a compromise, they agreed to alternate egg years, which would then spark the spat concerning if last year had been an egg year or not. During this entire silly argument, Grandmother would grip a perfect white egg, poised to crack it while Mom would body-block her from the roasting pan of cooling stuffing. This moment that came each year was the only time I can remember when the near visible thing that hovered between them, the thing that I believed had made that permanent frown on Grandmother’s face and that air of insecurity around my mother, vanished. It vanished into that egg while it hung poised over the stuffing but, whether that egg was cracked into the stuffing or placed back into the fridge, it unfortunately did not hold into its shell forever that which strained their relationship and made me frightened. Grandmother’s frown came back; Mom’s tiptoeing resumed. More drinks were mixed.
But it was there that, among the kitchen scents and adult camaraderie, a chef was born. I went on to cook said stuffing, among other delicacies, at hotels, clubs and restaurants in three states and three countries during my young adulthood. After which time, I threw in that career towel and returned to the small batch of sausage sage stuffing each year for my family and friends.
One of my biggest fans: my daughter. “Mom makes the best stuffing,” she bragged each year to her friends. Then, “Mom, you have to teach me the stuffing before I leave.” As in leave home. Yes, that does happen. Daughter never hung around the kitchen like I had; her only interest in food was eating, not preparing. So when she moved to New York last fall, without the stuffing routine ingrained in her brain like it had been in mine, I emailed her the recipe with some simple instructions for shopping and preparing. I even sent her most of the herbs and spices from our local bulk food shop so she wouldn’t have to spend a fortune on those things in New York.
Expecting her to hunker down and rehearse the recipe, I waited for her questions during the month before the Big Day. There were none. Until Thanksgiving morning.
While browning the sausage, grinding up the onion, celery and green pepper in the food processor, I remembered the metal crank grinder bolted onto the table of my youth, and wondered if Daughter had bought herself a cheap food processor. There had been a flea market of sorts down the street from her in Lower Harlem where, on my visit, I’d seen good ones for five bucks and suggested she buy one for the Thanksgiving veggies.
Squeezing a large clove of garlic into melted butter in the pot with the same garlic press that had been Grandmother’s, then Mom’s, that would someday belong to Daughter, I inhaled deeply the sweet pungency. The vegetables were sweating with the appropriate herbs, sherry and consommé when the phone rang.
“Consume? Hm? Oh! Con-som-me. I spelled it wrong on the email. Well, you need that. Why didn’t you ask me that while you were shopping?” I wondered how anyone could have a dinner party and not plan ahead, especially a branch off my family tree.
“What is it?” she demanded, ignoring my dig at her disorganization.
“Beef stock. Do you have any bouillon?”
“I’ll figure something out. Um. . . ”
“Well, when do I make the pie? I mean, if the turkey’s in the oven, then the pie won’t fit—”
Where had she been all those years? When I whipped up the pies and cooled them on the counter every Thanksgiving morning? When I let her snatch chunks of warm sausage and didn’t make her do chores on the holiday? When she felt comfortable in her own house? When she never had a black-and-blue fanny? I covered the phone so my exhale of exasperation wouldn’t broadcast into her ear. “You make the pie first. Bake it while you’re making the stuffing.”
I checked the seasoning of the vegetable mixture and while it cooled, I wrestled the turkey into the sink, removed the giblets, rinsed it and propped it up to drip dry. When the phone rang.
“Oh, hi dear, how’s it going?”
“Question: I bake the stuffing inside the turkey, right?”
All those years, she running into the kitchen and seeing my stuffing-filled hand up the turkey’s you-know-what, then spooning it out into the serving dish while she watched. “Of course,” swallowing my sarcasm.
“I thought so, it’s just that Erica wasn’t sure.”
I gave her a quick verbal lesson on cooling and food safety; don’t pack the stuffing too tight, and call me if you need anything. Then I began boiling the giblets and melting butter and herbs to drizzle onto the turkey. When the phone rang.
“Um. How do you open the turkey? I mean—”
“You mean like with a can opener? Ha, ha, ha—”
“No! Where’s the giblets I take out?”
“There are two bags. One in the main cavity and one in the neck.”
“Gross! But I can’t open it!”
“Is your bird still frozen?”
“I don’t think so.”
“It might still be in the middle. Run some water into it and reach inside it, flip it over and get the other bag from the neck end. Do you have little skewers to close it up?”
“No, we’ll figure something out.”
“What time is your party?”
“It’s just Erika and Anna, so we’ll eat whenever
My first solo turkey cooking expedition was in New Orleans when I was 21. After leaving home at seventeen, all my Thanksgivings had been spent either back home on Maui or working in restaurants. It was my first chance to cook the family bird with and for friends. Grandmother had died four years earlier and Mom’s home turkey, although prepared with the same sage stuffing, hadn’t had the same fanfare as before. I was usually working during the day and Mom was left to prepare the meal by herself, vodka-tonic in hand. (I don’t believe she ever put an egg in the stuffing, but I can’t be certain.)
Every year, while shopping for the annual production, Mom would say proudly, “I’ve got those little French cut green beans for the vegetable.” And with the vision of the square frozen box thawing in the sink, the already limp green strings to be boiled beyond recognition then further cooked with butter and stale almond slices, I would think: Yech! Not again! When the dinner was complete, Stepdad would grudgingly snap off the TV, my half brother, an over-sized teen, would be located, and we would sit on the couch with plates on laps until we were done and the TV people would crowd the room again.
So, when my first opportunity to prepare my own turkey arose, I grabbed onto it. It was in an apartment on Decatur Street, a former New Orleans slaves’ quarters across from the French Market. The A&P was right down on Royal Street, so as my roommate, Donna, and I needed celery, grapefruit juice for the bottle of Stoli in the freezer, metal skewers to sew the bird tight and beer, we took turns dashing down the French Quarter’s blocks to refill our coffers. It was 1981 and we played Elvis Costello and The Pretenders on the record player. Donna’s orange-winged Amazon, Manu, sat on a perch in the corner of the small living room. I don’t remember calling Mom for help, nor do I remember what vegetables accompanied our bird (certainly something fresh; not frozen green beans amandine). I don’t actually remember the stuffing because we drank so much. I don’t think the stuffing contained an egg. I do remember savoring the freedom, however. And that whomever was partying at our place that day loved the meal.
Surely, Daughter had music serenading from her laptop right now: Missy Higgins or the generation-immune Joni Mitchell. She’d have picked out some bottles of red wine for her feast. No boys would be there. I replenished my own folk music CDs in the player. Then the phone rang.
“Hi dear, did you get the turkey open?”
“Yeah. So. . . your recipe says to cook fifteen minutes a pound but there’s this red poky thing that’s supposed to pop out?”
“Yeah, ignore that, they never work. Stupid red pokey things. How big’s your bird?”
“Oh, a small one.”
“Yeah, well, it’s just the three of us.”
“Well, make sure you freeze what you don’t eat this week. And make soup out of the carcass.”
“I’ll let Ann do that.”
She had better things to do than be stuck in the kitchen, of course. Like go to Starbucks, write a song, read a book. “Dear?”
“Did you put an egg in the stuffing?”
“No, I’ll do that next year.”
“I don’t know,” smiling through the phone.
“What vegetables are you making?”
“Acorn squash and broccoli.”
Good daughter of mine. “Red wine for later?”
“You listening to music?”
“Of course. Joni Mitchell.”
“Bon apetìt. I love you honey.”
“I love you too Mom.”