Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Happy KV Thanksgiving

from Susanne Pelly Spitzer
My mother's cooking abilities were the stuff of family legends. She declared rice to be cooked when it turned to glue and boiled over the edge of the pot, and loved eating raw hamburger. She ate directly out of the ice cream container, forgot to replace the top off of the orange juice container, left food out on the stove overnight, and created a host of food-borne illnesses. My childhood was a miasma of "stomach flu" interlaced with respiratory infections. Since she worked at a job where women were not supposed to have children, it was up to me to stay home, get sick, and clean up after myself. It is no wonder that all three of her children became good cooks in self-defense.
It was not until I read Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone that I realized other people also had mothers who regularly had green food in the fridge and bragged in their 70's about "never throwing food out of the refrigerator." I could only conclude that my mother ate it regardless of its state of degradation, or it walked out under its own power. Maybe both.
At her funeral, my siblings and I spoke about her odd life. She was near-homeless during the Depression, moving before the landlord demanded the next month's rent from her widowed mother. Her children drove her crazy with their independent ways, staying out too late in high school, going to an Ethical Culture youth group, and camping illegally outside of state parks with a blanket and a pillow. She graduated from college when she was in her 60's.
But it was our description of her attempted prowess at mastering culinary arts that brought the most laughs from our relatives and gasps from the officiating rabbi when he realized the funeral was becoming a "roast". She had a huge drawer of rusting cooking gadgets, most of which she never mastered. She had stained cookbooks which she rarely used and were close to disintegration. Her spices appeared to date from World War II, but like most Depression survivors, she could not bare to throw them out since there was still some left in the ancient canisters.
However, the story we remembered best was that of the Thanksgiving that Bob T. came to dinner. He was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and my sister's boyfriend. I don't know what he expected, but it was probably not a turkey that had been cooked to death, and way, way beyond. My mother managed to saw off a piece of the bird. Bob dutifully began trying to chew his way through the skin. And chewing, and chewing. Finally, after several minutes of diligent but useless mastication, he admitted defeat and spit it out. He looked at her, and in his politest tone remarked, "Mrs. Pelly, I have eaten many turkeys in many places, but this is the finest turkey shoe-leather I have ever had the fortune to try to eat!"
Many years later, I was home alone at Thanksgiving. My parents were inveterate travelers in spite of not knowing how to drive a car. This may be the time when they left me alone at 16 for a month and went to Europe. In any event, I agreed to cook Thanksgiving dinner for my brother who was living at college, and then I panicked. In the era before Butterballs and other self-basting turkeys, I had no clue as to how to make one, let alone a whole dinner. I remember that he was annoyed that I didn't get the timing of the side-dishes right, and the dinner went on much longer than it should have. But I got the turkey right, and here was my secret: I stopped every single woman I met in the elevator in the F building that week, and asked them how to cook a turkey!
In graduate school in Minnesota, there were many of us in our department without families nearby. Given my dislike for shoe leather, it was just as well. Now a veteran turkey cooker, I teamed up with a guy named Sid who also had a tailor for a zaide, to make the bird for all of us. I was a little leery, as he kept suggesting to each female graduate student that he could have a little fun with her, and some Mazola oil! Luckily, he behaved himself around me and we all ate well. But not before we had to cut the bird open with a scissors. It seems the two grandchildren of tailors did too good a sewing job on the turkey, and we had to resort to surgery!
Sid moved on to Washington, thank goodness, and became a political consultant. His oleaginous nature probably suited him better there. After 35 years from the date of the Thanksgiving of the too-expertly sewn turkey, my other friends from graduate school, their families, and ours still spend Thanksgiving (without fighting) and many other days during the year together by choice. They are all gourmet cooks, and my kids would not dream of going elsewhere. Happy T-day to y'all, and may all your turkeys be chewable!

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