Posts Tagged With: Family

34×34 #21: Host a Dinner Party – Expat Thanksgiving Edition

You would think by now I would stop writing the repetitively themed blog, “I had this perfect vision…but reality did not live up to my expectations. (But then it was perfect anyway).”

It’s like, so basic and self-evident, and yet I must learn my lesson over and over and over.

Sisyphus and me, the universe’s bitches.

This past November was the third Thanksgiving in a row I was missing at home, and I didn’t like it. Year one was spent on the boat, eating crummy buffet food, albeit with forty of my nearest and dearest entertainment department family. Last year Thanksgiving was in Manchester, where a deceptive online grocery store misdelivered several crucial elements at the last minute, giving my fellow expat friend and I a unique, if somewhat frustrating, meal. With that friend re-expatriated to France, I didn’t know what I was going to do for Turkey Day this year.

I wanted to host Thanksgiving for the few other Americans I know in London, but I live in a vegetarian flat. As in, I am not allowed to bring meat into the house. Not deli meat, not on takeaway, nothing. But none of my friends has a space to accommodate a group of six or more.

I do. I have an enormous kitchen. And then I found an American grocery store called Partridge’s near Sloane Square. They had French’s Fried Onions and I knew I had to do this.

American foodses in London

American foodses in London

I don’t know if it’s the delicious food or the concept of family and gratitude, but Thanksgiving is a big deal to me, and while none of my fellow Americans seemed overly concerned about the day, I was determined. I negotiated my stubborn landlord/flatmate into allowing me to have people over, as long as the turkey was cooked elsewhere, and none of his kitchenware touched it.

One American friend took charge of the turkey, gravy, and stuffing, another decided to make mashed potatoes, and our Australian friend promised cranberry sauce. That left me to make pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie, green bean casserole, and butternut squash lasagna.

In my 34×34 vision of hosting a dinner party, I cooked the full multi-course meal – an appetizer, a meat-centered main course, a dessert. Part of the point of this self-challenge was to face my strange distaste – almost fear – of touching raw meat. The reason I can live in a vegetarian house despite not being a vegetarian is that I don’t ever cook meat: I don’t like to touch it, and I don’t really know how to prepare it properly.

So was I cheating by delegating this pivotal portion of the meal to someone else? I mean, quite frankly, it’s the quintessential element – people could live without the butternut squash lasagna, but nobody wanted to do a turkey-less Thanksgiving. Also, because of the kitchenware stipulation, I had to buy paper plates and plastic cutlery to serve the meal. This did not fit into my elegant vision of hosting a dinner party either.

You know what? I’m counting it. Judge me as you must. And just for full disclosure, I cut up some cheese and dumped some crackers on a platter for my appetizer. Sue me.

At the last minute, one of my friends realized she couldn’t make the mashed potatoes because her refrigerator was broken and she had to work all day preceding dinner. Potatoes are as necessary as turkey, so I added them to my schedule. One of my goals with attempting this dinner was to learn how chefs/cooks/my sainted mother time their preparations to set all the food out piping hot at the same moment. There is a real art to cooking a whole meal, and I’ve never mastered it. Things get cold or burn, but nothing is ever ready simultaneously.

Getting down and dirty

Getting down and dirty

My day started at 9am, baking bread, two loaves of pumpkin made separately because I wasn’t sure if I could just double the ingredients and then halve the mixture into two pans – and it was 4am in New Jersey, too early to call my mother.

Pumpkin bread!

Pumpkin bread!

My mother played a prominent role in my day – I called/skyped her at least once an hour, freaking out about what order I should do things in, what ingredients I might be forgetting as I went to the supermarket one last time, how to bake the squash and mash the potatoes and what was the recipe for chocolate chip cookie pie? Really, I know nothing about cooking. My mother must be disappointed in her three children, none of whom took up her great culinary skill and enjoyment. She LIKES spending all day in the kitchen preparing a groaning table’s worth of food for her family.

Chocolate chip pie and pumpkin pie. Amazeballs.

Chocolate chip pie and pumpkin pie. Amazeballs.

Anyway, I got through it. Breads were followed by pies, which cooled all day on the counter, teasing me. I prebaked the squash and mashed it, then boiled the potatoes and mashed them – all by hand, because we don’t have a mixer or blender or anything fancy in my house (we only barely have a microwave, after much whining on my part). Everything was going well until one friend apologetically texted that she and her boyfriend would be an hour late – totally throwing off my calculations for getting everything ready simultaneously.

At that point I started drinking wine and eating cheese cubes.

Classy spread

Classy spread

But that’s as dramatic as it gets; everyone eventually arrived, loaded with food and alcohol, all of which was delicious. Everything I made came out perfectly and reasonably hot. No one even touched the chocolate chip cookie pie, so stuffed were they from the meal.

I am my mother’s daughter, wanting to be absolutely sure everyone was gastrointestinally protesting too much food.

Eight of us ate and drank together: 3 Americans, an Aussie, a Lithuanian, a Frenchman, a Brit, and an Italian. Just like the Pilgrims would have wanted.

Mmmm. Food.

Mmmm. Food.

My contribution

My contribution

After my funny little hodgepodge family left and the dishes were washed, I Skyped with my other family in New Jersey. I realized I had done all that work mainly for myself – no one else was nearly as fussed about it, no one was desperate for pumpkin bread and green bean casserole the way I was. But that’s okay. It was worth it for the leftovers alone.

I’m so grateful to my mother for all her help, even from thousands of miles away. We stood in kitchens on opposite sides of the Atlantic, cooking together, and if my meal came out even a fraction as well as hers, I have reason to be proud.

So I accomplished my goal: I brought people together, we broke bread, we laughed, we were thankful. So fuck the turkey. Maybe next year I’ll tackle “cooking meat.”

Fat now.

Fat now.

Categories: 34x34, London | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

In Memoriam

Over the holidays, I started thinking about a blog about family. About the funny little paradoxes of family. Family who want to show their gratitude and love so they try too hard to be helpful; their assistance makes things take twice as long, results in things broken or done wrong. I was thinking about the little O. Henry dramas of real life, when you get a gift that isn’t quite right but you just have to love it so hard because of the love and thought that went into it, even though it sort of symbolizes a fundamental disconnect in how your family views you and how you view yourself. Even if it’s just pajama pants.

You learn to cherish pajama pants because of your family.

Family is complex, and frustrating, even in the moments of its purest distillation of love.

Last week my godfather died, and my kaleidoscopic view of family shifted again.  Irritation melted away, and I longed to find myself trapped in the web of family that I have sometimes worked so hard to extricate myself from.

My godfather, my uncle, was the eldest of his siblings, seventeen years older than my baby father. He was the oldest member of one generation, I was the youngest of next. Every year until I was a teenager, he gave me a Barbie doll for Christmas. This is what having a godfather meant to me. I thought it was a contractual obligation. He smoked a pipe; I loved the way it smelled. To this day smelling pipe tobacco slaps me with a strong sense memory of his corner property, yellow house. He had a dry and subtle sense of humor. The older my father gets, the more he looks like his brother.

I can’t say truthfully that my uncle and I were very close; I was a shy little kid, and being so much younger than everyone in my family (my oldest cousin is probably pushing sixty; my youngest is seven years older than me) I generally tried to sit in a corner and not be noticed. In recent years I’ve tried harder to connect with my father’s extended family, four siblings and eighteen cousins, but my uncle has been unwell for several years, and his whispery voice made me nervous, afraid of missing his words – situations where communication is not easy always give me anxiety. And so, even as I have tried harder to ask questions about the family history, my relationship with my godfather has slipped away.

And now it is gone, and there are certainly some regrets.

No matter how close he and I were, he is in all my memories of rambling restaurant Thanksgivings and December 26th Bethlehem Christmas round-ups, family weddings and family picnics, sitting on a folding chair on the uneven brick patio of the house I grew up in. He is part of the fabric out of which my life is woven. There are five siblings on my dad’s side: they are the reason the rest of us exist, they knit us into a family. Despite two sibling spouse deaths in the last decade, this feels different. I suppose we are clannish that way; I’m sure my sister-in-law would agree we swarm to protect our own from outsiders – it takes them a long time to become an insider. This death feels like a loose thread, the start of a greater unraveling that I am not prepared for.

Today is my uncle’s funeral. This is the hardest part of being far away. I feel strongly that I should be there today, more for my father than anything else. He has lost a brother, a person he knew the length of his life, a person who is part of his context, a connection to his own parents and history.  I can imagine his grief, and I’m sorry I’m not there to ease it, just by my respectful presence. I am fortunate that while I was home for Christmas I got to travel to Pennsylvania with my parents to see his family, and I sat in a room with all five of the siblings. It’s the last time that will ever happen, and I’m one of the only people who got to witness it.  That is more meaningful I suppose than being home to witness a box being lowered into the ground. There is nothing I could DO if I were home now. Except be there.

But being there is important.

So I write this as a way of being there, connecting across distance, of throwing myself at the web, of acknowledging my place in it and my gratitude for it. My heart is already in Bethlehem, but I hope my words can create a bridge for its easy import and export. It seems trite, it seems small, but it’s all I have, it’s all I can do.

Dear Uncle Frankie,

Thank you for helping to create a family tapestry on which I am grateful to claim a small corner. May your journey now be easy, and joyful. You will be sorely missed.

Much Love,

M

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