Giving thanks for family traditions

November 24, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- We are on countdown to T-Day. The paper and pen, those basic kitchen utensils with which we map out this feast, are set upon the table. Lists must be made, post-its must be posted, attention must be paid.

I reach up to the kitchen shelf for the duly designated Thanksgiving book, in search of guidance to family feasts past. A small, navy notebook, with gravy stains and mysterious cranberry-colored splotches has been stashed away since last November.

I brush the cover and open the pages in search of tips: which pies were eaten last year, how many pans of stuffing and pounds of turkey were devoured, did we run out of white wine or red?

This small book has become my family's archeological record of Thanksgiving. Along with entries about potatoes, sweet and not, there are seating lists, culinary hits and flops, portion control and portions out of control. It's as close as we come to a family bible.

On Thursday, it will be exactly 10 years since this book and this holiday moved one door and one generation down the street and into our home. The tradition was delivered into our ambivalent hands, an unmistakable rite of passage, incontrovertible proof that we had come of age.

My aunt handed it over with pleasure and reservations. Could we be trusted with the stuff and stuffing of this inheritance?

Doctoring the recipes

In fact, over a decade, our original vow to be culinary conservatives has been stretched if not broken. Chestnuts have crept into the stuffing. Sauteed apples and onions now sit beside the dreaded green bean casserole. Pecan pie has appeared, along with a son-in-law, next to the lemon chiffon.

Even the book has changed. My aunt's fine hand managed to fit a whole year's worth of information on a single page. She saved paper and empty pages for posterity as if we would all live to celebrate a hundred holidays between these covers.

Her profligate heirs scrawl across the white space, passing the book around for comments and updates. We demand after-dinner notes as payment for dessert.

But for all our modern, postmodern, ways, we have taken our inheritance seriously. Around our dining room with its mongrel collection of chairs, dishes, generations and eating prejudices, we assemble the people we collectively call family. We have become the home that our family goes to when they go "home for the holidays."

Our house was 8 years old in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed this "day of Thanksgiving and Praise." The force behind that Civil War declaration was Josepha Hale, editor of the powerful Godey's Lady's Book. She crusaded for the union, for "the renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution of the United States. The Pilgrims had given thanks for bountiful harvest; Lincoln declared thanks for the union.

But today's feast is less about national union than family reunion. Americans don't worry about a fractured nation; we worry about splintered families. We take the United States for granted and give thanks for each other.

In the years since I became the keeper of the Thanksgiving book I have learned just how fragile family connection can be. How easily it can break off. Most of our grown children have left home; they are exports from their native Pilgrim state.

Sandwich generation

Now, my generation provides their roots. We are not just a sandwich generation, stuffed between growing kids and aging parents. We are also the link.

Today, I am much more conscious of how much work my elders did to keep family together. This is the message given to us between the binders of a small blue book: It's our turn. So, on Thursday we'll be chopping onions and stuffing turkey before breakfast. Sometime between the potatoes and the pie, I will insist that everyone write in the Thanksgiving "bible."

There are only a few pages left for this millennium. Next year, we will begin a new book. We promise. It is, after all, our turn.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.