There’s no better holiday than Thanksgiving. Family- and food-focused — or the other way around, depending on how well you like your tribe — and no pressure of gift giving.
Doubtless, retailers are working on a way to sucker the public into yet another buying opportunity, and perhaps this year’s birth of Black Thursday is the genesis of that movement.
I just like Thanksgiving’s predictability: the menu’s always turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry relish, etc.; football dominates the TV; the post-turkey torpor triggers a nap; and maybe the evening is capped off with a trip to the movie theater or a bowling alley.
Real pilgrim stuff.
If my wife and I are hosting the meal and I’m doing the main courses, it’s easier knowing my family of origin likes my food and brings what I ask them to. No vegans, vegetarians or seriously picky eaters. We know which dishes each has mastered, assignments are always the same, so the whole thing works. (When my wife’s side of the family hosts, I make 15 pounds of mashed potatoes, 10 pounds of stuffing and a quart of gravy. Easy-peasy.)
My own family also knows to let me have my space, particularly around the cutting board. Though I haven’t been a chef in 22 years, I’ve added to my collection of razor sharp knives, long, sleek tools ideal for dissecting a turkey. Like a brain surgeon with no regard for the nurses who set up the O.R., I’ll use every tool available if I think it’ll assist in the disassembly of ol’ Tom. They’re not doing any good lying in the drawer, right?
Problem is they cut humans just as easily, an ever-present threat when guests sweep in to sample some sliced, succulent bird while my knife is in action.
No cuts yet, and hopefully it never happens, but friends and family seem bent on flirting with such a disaster on Thanksgiving. (Remember, the list of activities includes football, movies and bowling. Not hospital visits.)
Perhaps the cocktail-infused mood emboldens them to have a go at it—despite my reminders that I also have consumed an adult beverage or two. My accuracy with the blade is still good under such circumstances; I’ve got 10 digits to vouch for it after all. But hands coming in without warning from the left or right—sometimes simultaneously, which is doubly cool—slipping into my periphery just as knife divides flesh from bone … it freaks me out to even write about it.
In 1996, when my wife and I moved into our first home, we thought it clever to host Thanksgiving for both sides of the family: 28 people squished into a 1,200-square-foot domicile.
It worked, believe it or not.
The following day, after my wife’s family and I had gone to Churchill Downs, we gathered at the house to revisit the leftovers. I returned to the cutting board to carve some turkey with a very long knife: a 14-inch blade sharp enough to take hair off your arms.
After my nephew, then 4, ran between me and the counter—right below the knife as I drew it back—I asked his mother to take him to another room.
“Oh, he’s just excited. Relax, I’m watching him,” she said.
“He’s really going to be excited if he gets scalped!” I snapped back.
Not surprisingly, she saw my logic.
I’ve become so protective of the cutting board area (some call it paranoid) in my home that a friend labeled it “the DMZ.” We have an island in our current kitchen, and his family now jokes, “Can I enter the DMZ?” if they need to get behind me while I’m working.
I like that. They get it. Be safe, be courteous and nobody gets cut.
But I haven’t convinced everyone yet.
My family and some dear friends established a new tradition two years ago, Pre-Thanksgiving Dinner, which happens mid-fall at one couple’s remote farm in Indiana. Why? Because we’re a group of good cooks who generally scatter to Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan around the holidays. So we wanted a holiday meal of our own. (I can see retailers reading “Pre-Thanksgiving” and stealing our idea!)
We all prepare our own dishes, and my job is always the turkey: a brined bird slow roasted and deconstructed with a scary-sharp knife. That such a weapon is in my hand is not news to the otherwise bright people at this dinner. We’re in each other’s houses year round. They’ve borrowed my knives. In fact, this year, one in the group borrowed my paring knife to peel potatoes and cut herself.
And yet, like Alzheimer’s patients seeing the world anew with each hour, these normally smart, thoughtful and careful people walk up to the cutting board and start grabbing slices of turkey next to my active knife.
To their defense, they were a “cocktail courageous” group this year who spent the afternoon relaxing in the Indian summer warmth playing corn hole. And refilling their glasses. Frequently. So there was no “Danger, Will Robinson!” alert going off in their minds as some reached for juicy nibblettes as my knife carved away. The only thought in their minds was, “I want me some of that!” and they followed their bliss despite the obvious danger.
This year I got smarter. After a few, “Damn, that looks good!” slices disappeared from the cutting board, I compromised by working on just a section of the bird at a time and moving the remaining turkey carcass about two feet away. That let the Bumpus Hounds have their way with the meat-flecked skeleton while I relaxed a bit and finished the detail work.
No cuts, no bruised feelings. Just a good meal.
And no gifts.