LEFTOVERS

LEFTOVERS

How many frogs does it take to cook a turkey?

Only one; it’s genetic and she’s damn good at it!

Our kitchen was always fragrant with onions, celery, garlic, parsley, thyme… one of the neighbors from around the block would walk up the driveway and comment,

Whatever you are cooking smells wonderful! Even the flies are gathered at your kitchen window screen…

Mom took this remark as it was meant to be; a compliment. She was normally preparing a holiday or family dinner.  Often, the flies had gathered on the days she was preparing the farce, a traditional meat stuffing combination of beef and pork, cooked with the seasonings, then ground very fine with her hand grinder clamped to the side of the chopping board.  Stale French bread soaked in milk and squeezed almost dry, an egg, and some salt and pepper – Voila! Farce; smelled absolutely divine and scented the entire driveway and two doors down in both directions.

On Thanksgiving and Christmas, turkey would be one of two main entrees.  Ham was normally the second, unless Daddy decided to barbeque a leg of lamb. All Daddy had to do was normally clean and ready the old round charcoal barbeque; then wait for Mom to tell him the lamb was prepped.  Daddy’s station was the backyard.  The rest of the meal was in Mom’s kitchen.

Preparing a dinner was always an exhausting effort; no matter the year, the turkey dinner had to be perfect and complete. Thanksgiving might be an American Holiday, but the cuisine had definite French overtones. Nearly every dish took two to three days to complete.  There were no shortcuts in Mom’s kitchen.

At one time, a first course soup with a small amount of pasta was served. Mom made the bouillon from scratch.  End of the first day, she’d place the pot on the dryer to cool down overnight.  Next morning, she’d skim any beef fat that might have congealed so to clarify the broth for serving.  On the holiday, she’d boil the entire pot once again, season with a bit of salt and pepper, and then add the very tiny pieces of vermicelli.  The plates of soup began the meal.

Somewhere between the bouillon and crab salad a bread basket arrived, a bottle each of red and white wines, and the antipasto plates; one plate included salami with prosciutto, and the other was a sectioned glass dish of pickles, black olives, and pepperoncini.

Time to prepare the individual, molded crab salads.  The crab mixture had been made the day before. It included canned crab, finely chopped hardboiled egg, minced celery and parsley, held together with Best Foods Mayonnaise, a bit of lemon and dash of salt and pepper.  Mixture was moist and stored covered the day before. Plates were readied with endive and escarole, and then light vinaigrette was spooned over each.  We watched our aunt don her cobbler apron and team up with Mom; they each knew the others’ actions because they had assisted my grandfather in his kitchen “down the house”.  Our aunt and Mom always enjoyed working together; it was just like old times for them. One was as much a perfectionist as the other, so they got along just fine.

As we grew older, Mom would let us mold the crab mixture in a small demitasse cup, just the right size for a dinner menu this grand.  PLOP! The small little hill would sit in the middle (if all went well) and then one would sprinkle a bit of paprika on the mound for color.  A black olive on top, a lemon wedge on the side. Perfect! The salads were stacked inside the fridge, on tops of jars and other glass containers to remain chilled for serving.

Years later, we convinced Mom to skip the soup; none of us younger generation missed the clarified broth very much; personally, I thought the final dish was not worth the effort. The individual crab salads were so colorful that Mom finally omitted the first course soup and we placed the salads directly on the dinner plates.  They looked so pretty and became one of the last finishing touches before calling everyone to sit down.

Petit Pois (peas) seasoned with green onion, garlic and bacon were prepared; as were Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, yams simply glazed with some brown sugar, and cranberry sauce – both whole berry and jelly (these were the most American recipes on our table; American was defined as anything non-French looking, possibly from a can, sweetened, easily served and didn’t take much fuss.

Cheese, bread, coffee with brandy and a store-bought dessert ended the meal; homemade pies came much later once Bro married a gal who could really bake!

No course or detail was omitted when the aunts and uncles came over.  The entire dinner was served on a linen table cloth, with matching linen napkins that Mom had “done up” herself, another expectation that she fulfilled having inherited the French Curtain Laundry gene too.

What is the ONLY reason to cook a turkey?

Leftovers… of course!

I remember the one Thanksgiving that Mom was rather relaxed in the kitchen.  I wasn’t the only one who noticed this.  She even decided that we girls could help with the hors d’oeuvre plate and whatever we did to make the items look pretty would be okay.

Okay? This from the same mother who told me that the way I chopped carrots made her laugh?

I was starting to be concerned… Mom was smiling,  laughing with us in HER kitchen,  and whatever we did was OKAY???

Then it hit; no aunts or uncles were coming; we’d be just the immediate family this year.

Brat and I told Mom we liked her much better when the relatives weren’t going to have dinner with us; that she was much easier to be around.  She took this all in, and didn’t even get angry.  I think she realized just how much she had worked all those years and wasn’t even sure herself if she needed all the fuss to enjoy the day…that was a nice moment of awakening in Mom’s kitchen for us all.

Must be genetic; in true Rubberneck Avenue fashion, I have exhausted myself cooking a Thanksgiving Dinner.  Mine is updated; no soup,  a crab salad appetizer, some tweaks here and there.  Oh yes; bread dressing a la Americaine.

So, I must console myself this Friday After with only leftovers … it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to keep up the family traditions…

Postponing the Inevitable

Mom, do you want me to call them?

No, that’s okay.  Let them enjoy their Thanksgiving.  Call them tomorrow if you want to.

That was how my mother and I decided to handle the news that Thursday morning.  I waited until the day after Thanksgiving, and then called my godparents to let them know that my brother had died.  I write this some thirty years later, and it is still difficult to piece together the emotions and the timeline.  There is no right or wrong way to share the news of a loved one’s passing; under any circumstances it is difficult; but when it is from suicide, one is dumbfounded and finds little comfort in what appears to forever remain unexplainable.

I grew up around first generation born Americans; the old country’s manner was still very much the watermark for who, what, when, where and why they thought and lived as they did.   Having little more than traditions to fall back on, some made the changes more easily; others never adapted.  Still others didn’t care or subconsciously decided nothing was that important to stop them from their immediate week’s business schedule.  Sometimes one was lucky and received an explanation or, at the very least, a mantra of sorts to help understand the world around us:

Life is for the living, Annette.

This expression was often recited to me from our silver-haired, next door neighbor, who was like a father to all of us.  He had watched our family go through an emotional roller coaster from the time my brother first became ill.  Many years before, I had run next door crying,  telling him Daddy needed help; Only Bro didn’t want to go back to the hospital and was running away!  Our fatherly neighbor chased my brother down the street, managing to catch him fairly quickly, though it seemed a much longer drama at the time.  Our neighbor talked him into walking back to the house, and then rode with him and Daddy on the return trip to the state hospital.

Daddy was also more aware than Mom just how great a toll the past seventeen years had taken on their only son.  Near or far, we had all felt my brother’s ups and downs this past year.  Even a trip to Disneyland earlier that summer had given the folks only a very brief respite from their son’s recurring illness. Daddy remained passionate; for the most part, he trusted his own instincts, but didn’t hesitate to listen for guidance from the professionals.  Neither of the folks was prepared for anything like their son’s mental breakdown or its long-term ramifications.  Much of what Dad heard and observed over the initial months and early years he kept from Mom;  he managed to hide certain details for long periods of time.  Ultimately, he couldn’t protect her or any of us siblings.  Nor could we as a family ease my brother’s anguish, no matter how much we remained involved over the ensuing years.

I was one hundred and eighty miles away from the home base; I might as well have been on another planet.  I had just finished setting up the buffet table for my in-laws and our cousins.  We would be about sixteen tomorrow, give or take a few little critters. I had picked up the paper and just read about a plane crash that had killed over one hundred people.  I remember thinking what a sad Thanksgiving holiday it would be for all the families affected by that crash; then the phone rang.

Once Big Sis and I finished talking, there was nothing for me to do but to maintain my end of the family unit. The youngest sister was on her way down for the holiday.  She had yet to hear, so would walk in Wednesday evening and learn then that our brother was gone.  Big Sis would stay until the youngest arrived; then leave to return home to her own family and her own kitchen.

Mom was cooking Thanksgiving dinner; my brother’s widow and their two beautiful daughters would still be there, just as they always were each Thanksgiving with Mom and Daddy.  This would be as nice a family dinner as anyone could hope for under the circumstances.

As my mother had chosen to do that Thanksgiving Day, I too chose the familiar; I cooked my planned meal, made sure everyone at my home had enough to eat, and continued any familiar rituals available to me for Thanksgiving’s sake…there would be plenty of time to grieve later.  Neither Mom nor I could afford to fall apart; we had loved ones to serve and leftovers to put away.

Melding Traditions at Thanksgiving

Our parents had a common heritage and instilled in us the importance of family and tradition. Among her staunch convictions was that Mom sincerely believed that older people were interesting to listen to, and that without them, the world would be very boring. In Daddy’s mind, family was his siblings; we kids were a close second, and accepted our place in the pecking order, especially on holidays.

Some of the more wonderful memories I have as a small child on Thanksgiving were making the rounds with Daddy.  We visited his older sister first thing; might not yet have been 10:30 in the morning, but they were up and ready for us, our aunt greeting us like long lost prodigals, and our uncle hugging us in a vice-like grip that, once over, convinced us we could still breathe on our own; our ribs hadn’t cracked.

Daddy would join the adults in a holiday drink and we girls had Shirley Temples.  It was okay on Thanksgiving to eat dessert in the morning.   Cookies on the side table were waiting.  One type in particular was an old family favorite that only my oldest aunt baked – a ravioli-looking cookie with apricot or prune filling, dusted with confectioners’ sugar.  The “Tourtons” brought back memories of “down the house” and was one of Daddy’s favorites; they soon were mine, too!

Back at home, our Thanksgiving table was set to include the aunts and uncles who had no children.  They were brave enough to join us two of the three main holidays each year.  Only Bro and his family always joined us as well.  This was a fun time for us younger aunties to spend with our two little nieces.

Mom’s concerted efforts to replicate the familiar repast, again from “down the house”, kept everyone happy; our table was always bountiful. Sadly, the meals caused our mother considerable stress and strain to maintain the expected standards each year.  She was a nervous wreck on every holiday.  Once she had served the dinner, however, she could finally relax in the knowledge that it had met with everyone’s expectations and approval.  Talk about peer pressure!

Sometimes I honestly wish that I could relive just one of those Thanksgivings. I loved hearing the stories around the table, especially from my uncle who had served in WW I.  My aunt’s harmony and the siblings’ ability to break into song during dessert can never be replicated.  This was a once in a lifetime experience; even our nieces barely recall some of the original players.

The older ones are all gone now.  We second generation are left to communicate and continue the traditional family fare. Our challenge is to communicate the caring and the sharing, not the stress and strain! I long ago made choices; neither time nor finances would ever afford me the opportunity to completely recreate our childhood dinner table. Since then, I have chosen to include some things and delete others; often, I alternate certain specialties from time to time.

Fast forward; I managed to pass along some of our family standards to My Only.  New traditions had to be melded to accommodate the latter day necessity of job commitments and the longer distances traveled between family branches.    My Only doesn’t remember the uncle who squeezed me to death until I thought my ribs would crack!  Traditions had changed as had the personalities involved.

When her turn came, My Only learned all the nuances for her uncles. For example, she learned how to properly greet her Uncle J.  We fashioned a particular protocol, specially honed for the one uncle who didn’t like little kids hugging or hanging on him with sticky hands and runny noses…

I kept the instructions simple:

Honey, just walk in, say “Hello, Uncle J” and keep on walking toward Auntie Dee…

Talk about passing with flying colors; my daughter became a master at this routine.  She’d be through the front door and nearly midway toward the kitchen by the time he could respond, “Hi, Kid”.

It worked. We always had a great visit, and Uncle J thought she was rather well behaved; for a kid.

(My Only with her two big cousins; circa 1980)

THANKSGIVING DAY

May blessings big and small, large,

Little, thin and fat exceed

Your smallest expectations and help

See you through this season’s needs!

With brothers and sisters take

Comfort under His arms and wings

Until you hold in your own hands

A cornucopia of favored things!

Honest toil, good health, a smile,

Some crusty bread, a wedge of cheese

With heirs and friends, join

Loving hearts in gratitude for all of these!

Have a Safe, Blessed and Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

We Were Americans

Mom and Dad brought a common heritage to their first and only new home on Rubberneck Avenue.  Our table had the same four food groups from “down the house” like our grandparents‘ home: wine, French bread, salami, and cheese.  The traditional hospitality of offering a casa croute (sharing of the house bread) continued on Rubberneck as well.

While our table often identified us as French descent, herein lay the distinction:  we were Americans first.  We joined the melting pot of other first and second generation families whereby respect and love for country were inherently as important as the November celebrated reason for gathering.   Like the Pilgrims at Plymouth, we ate turkey on Thanksgiving; the main course, however, was followed by the required bit of French bread and blue cheese to enjoy with the last sips of wine, while we listened to the stories that our uncles with accents had to tell.

 

Author’s Note: plate pictured was always used for salami on holidays!

Talking Turkey

Our most American tradition – celebrating the year’s harvest and blessings – is once again upon us.  Thanksgiving is a holiday that Americans can historically claim as our very own. Does that mean that other peoples before us were ungrateful?  Not by any means.  But IT IS OURS, the one day on the calendar that evokes a melting pot of commonality, culture,  and deep emotions; encouraging a nation of immigrants to give official thanks for the many blessings and bounty we share in our land.

I submit that while holidays can be difficult at times, maintaining some or all of the family traditions can be especially comforting; let these rituals provide the familiar landscape wherein each of you can still participate, even if the role is slightly amended from years before.  If need be, add a new tradition. I suggest:

The “Talk Turkey” Challenge:

  • Give yourself permission to share a story that you’ve never told before; grandparents, this means YOU.
  • Encourage all ages to join in the conversation.  Keep the technology at a minimum (football games excluded)
  • Don’t pull rank; parents often do, then wonder why the kids never talk.  Embrace the ones around you; life is too short to let a minor grievance ruin the holiday camaraderie.
  • Allow a bit of silliness!  (Not necessarily at the expense of table manners, but you be the judge; lots of family stories evolved from dinner tables in past years; try not to shudder.)
  • Fight over the last drumstick; cajoling a sibling into a little childhood skirmish can be fun, especially if one or both parents or an aunt or uncle are still around to watch and laughingly reminisce…
  • Consider each new happenstance a future memory; find the humor in it and laugh together.
  • Look into each face around the table. Observe the personality nuances and mannerisms.  In as brief a span as five years, table personalities will change; children will grow, friends will leave the area; family branches will sprout afar.
  • Can’t travel to be together this Thursday?  Just wait until the next time you can all regroup!  The possibilities are endless!

Growing up, it was easy to take the Thanksgiving holiday for granted; November was a happy month, the start of the Holidays!  Some of us matured rather abruptly once we saw our president assassinated; we all remember where we were, who informed us, and the immediate days after when, as a grieving nation, we gathered that next week to celebrate Thanksgiving.  Many of us remembered only a little boy saluting goodbye to his daddy.

The old adage, Death has no age, was suddenly meaningful; it is this year for some whose  loved one will be missing for the first time this Thanksgiving.  The holiday season can be a particularly painful period.

The coming months present some economic challenges for many; some earners last year are currently unemployed and find themselves in a completely different scenario than the last time they hit the pavement.  Hitting a keyboard can be just as frustrating.

Thanksgiving will arrive just the same. This season, keep our fellow countrymen in prayer.  Choose how to make Thursday one of the sweeter Thanksgiving Days in recent memory.  May we forever feel a depth of gratitude for the lives and goodness He has bestowed upon each of us.

Rejoice! Celebrate! Praise God! Lastly, may God Bless America.

That Blackest of Fridays

Seems like the American media never miss an opportunity to take a tragedy and embellish upon it for later publication. Obligatory markers are a priority, and sadly, JFK’s Assassination is no exception. 

This is the fiftieth anniversary; the media’s obsession and fascination with unanswered questions, conspiracy theories and the renewed cold war climate has again spun its web around our hearts, luring us into a personal time capsule to endure another painful return voyage. 

My journey always begins on the entrance steps of one junior high school in the Bay Area; we were seventh grade “scrubs”, so enjoying the sunny, mid-day lunchtime break was just another Friday with my friends at our usual spot. I remember no faces, just a mass of chatter spilling out of the cafeteria, spreading the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

The president would want us to go on…

How did my gym teacher know what JFK would want?  None of us sitting there in our gym clothes were able to fully comprehend, let alone focus, on the class requirements before us. The few minutes between the principal’s announcement in the cafeteria and the beginning of fourth period was certainly not long enough for any of this horror to sink in; we were still in disbelief and few details were known. Our president assassinated? In our own country? In Vice President Johnson’s Texas? How were we supposed to run laps and play a game as though nothing had happened?

Until that noon hour, we students were an innocent but idealistic bunch, having been inoculated two years before with the Ask Not serum: 

Ask not what your country can do for you;

Ask what you can do for your country.

 

JFK’s quote hung in our school’s front showcase. Many of us were planning to join the Peace Corps when we were eligible; or, at the very least, become teachers and serve the needs of children on our own soil.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was 43, the youngest man and the first Catholic to take the oath of office; handsome and somewhat boyish charm aside, he was also a WWII Navy Veteran.  Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade?  It was within our grasp because this was America, where anything was possible if one believed and envisioned it so.  JFK’s youthful exuberance represented all that was historic and bold and fresh about the American Dream. 

Mom had the television on when I came home from school. The black and white screen repeated the same footage all evening:

There was the young President and First Lady walking along the airstrip fencing, shaking hands and greeting loving well wishers; the handsome couple smiling and waving in a motorcade; and then the distortion of confusion in a shaking, hand-held camera, capturing the indefinable moment. 

News reels would always follow with photos of people crying in the street, discarded roses lying on the floor of an abandoned limousine, and eventually, Walter Cronkite’s tearing up and wiping his glasses on camera as he completed the official pronouncement that President Kennedy had died.

In between the broadcasts, we reminisced: Mom remarked how JFK had “pardoned” the traditional White House Thanksgiving turkeys just a couple of days earlier; what had been a light-hearted presidential photo op now, in hindsight, seemed eerily foreboding; our president had received no such pardon.  

Grasping for some comfort, Mom and we girls took turns leafing through the magazines stacked on the fireplace wall shelves; midst the keepsake newsprint inserts from the weddings of Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, and Margaret Truman were some Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, and other periodicals with Jackie on the cover; color photos of a loving mother with her two darling little ones were rampant, as was the genteel coverage about her maternal fragility. Jackie had been plagued by difficult pregnancies; she had recently lost their third child.  Any woman’s magazine worth its salt had taken a turn extolling the virtues of this young, refined and well-educated thirty-something who had become our youngest First Lady.

Like many families, we had accepted all the hype and the story lines, including the media’s making of a pill box styled Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.  This was the era when Washington as well as Hollywood deleted any scandals from the story lines that might implicate repetitive or rampant undignified behavior by our government leaders; the Kennedy Administration was no different. 

I remember the initial telecast of asides from grief-stricken public figures.  Ladybird Johnson mistakenly remarked that the most terrible travesty was that the assassination had occurred in her beloved Texas.  She later apologized for this faux pas, clarifying that the most terrible travesty was the loss of our beloved president.

The swearing in of Lyndon Johnson by necessity took place on Air Force One.  The new widow insisted on attending, so the ceremony was delayed until Jackie’s arrival. The historic snapshot conveyed a grief-stricken assembly of figures; the viewers’ eyes eventually focused on the blood-stained skirt in the foreground. Some reports suggested that aides had encouraged Jackie to change her clothes for the historic ceremony, but Jackie had refused.  She reportedly responded, “I want them to see what they did to Jack”. 

I had much admired Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy as First Lady, but her words struck me to the core.   I absorbed them completely. I waited for some type of explanation or retraction, but I never heard the First Lady apologize for that which in my sensitivity was a deeply punitive remark.  

We prepared ourselves for the weekend’s continual coverage; maybe new reports would offer some of the missing details.  We were glued to the screen the entire morning when we witnessed in real time Jack Ruby walking up to Lee Harvey Oswald and shooting him at close range. 

Dear God! What must we endure next?

We were all in a daze; even the solemnity of a four day weekend of national mourning didn’t close the door on the restlessness or fear inspired by these two indescribable acts. 

Images…the boots facing backward in the stirrups, the black bunting across the White House windows, the little guy saluting his father’s caisson… I had expected historic precedence to console… now, one man’s visions had been diminished to an eternal flame, extinguishing a fountain of youthful promise.

There was little consolation from the Warren Report.  I quickly caught the cynical virus from the adults.  I couldn’t then and still can’t break away from my initial skepticism that the historical summation by the Warren Commission was a political assessment rather than conclusive of either guilt or trajectory findings. The report at best rubbed salt in our intellectual wounds; few Americans accepted its findings as convincing; and the government’s decision to seal the documents for fifty years fed our doubts and fueled every conspiracy theory that later arose.

Some years I managed to set the painful memories of November on the back burner. But American journalism’s insistence on commemorating a Camelot that never really existed made forgetting the story’s tragic ending impossible.  They stirred the pot enough so to keep us somber and close to a  seems like just yesterday awareness.

Not that we needed any reminders. Poignant images presented themselves with or without the help of the media; they were permanently embedded in our common psyche. Each November 22nd , we who were old enough to remember that day recalled where we were… and when we heard… and how we as a country mourned. 

I do not exaggerate when I state that a part of my own emotional maturity was frozen in place on that blackest of Fridays; but I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that JFK’s death was only partially to blame; my brother’s nervous breakdown in September had already altered some of the family dynamics.

Neither my brother’s vulnerability nor JFK’s death would fade away very quickly.  From my eleven year old eyes, I wasn’t sure of anything that autumn of ’63 except that my immediate future held more sorrowful weeks ahead.  I sought escape where I could, and burrowed even deeper into my school studies, managing to accomplish a fair amount of distance during waking hours before going to bed and shutting myself away from my family’s personal heartache.

Historic events come and go; unfortunately, the more dramatic ones languish much longer than we wish, lurking in the shadows like smears of glue that have yet to dry clear, leaving unwanted traces marring an otherwise precious entry in our life’s scrapbook…