Twenty years ago, I whipped up my very first Thanksgiving feast. I secretly wanted to prove to my new man (and his mother) that I knew my way around a kitchen. And the meal did not disappoint. But flaunting my culinary skills backfired in the sense that I have cooked the entire meal every year since.
a 28 pound beauty cooked up for my fiancee and our families in 1996
A word of prophecy from my sister ~ inscribed in my first cookbook
Several years ago, we started spending Thanksgiving with my mom, my aunt and her family. And whether it was at my house or hers, I was in charge of the entire meal. And for good reason.
My mom is a talented lady with many gifts, but cooking isn’t one of them. Remember, this is the woman who taught all of us to bring Oreos as a dish to pass. So you can be sure she isn’t making the Thanksgiving meal.
My aunt is one of the smartest and most generous people you will ever meet. But she doesn’t cook, either.
Don’t get me wrong, my mom and aunt are both amazing hostesses. If you visit either one of these two you will be well fed. My mom will take you out for dinner and my aunt will set out a delicious spread purchased at Costco. They just aren’t about to wile away their time in the kitchen. And they are both just fine with that.
I am all for laid back hospitality. But I will admit, I am particular about my holidays. I go full on traditional for each celebration with little room for error. I want ham at Easter and beef at Christmas and a beautiful golden turkey with all the fixings at Thanksgiving. But in order to achieve this, I have to cook it myself.
This year, my mom and aunt put their heads together and concocted a brilliant scheme to give me a year off from my chef duties. I balked at the idea of them cooking – because I knew who I was dealing with here. But they pleaded with me to let them handle the meal.
Here is one text exchange with my aunt:
Seeing as how my aunt’s happiness was on the line, I relented and agreed to let them do Thanksgiving their way.
My sister decided to come from Virginia to see the family and my uncles let us know they’d join us on the way home from hunting. And as the number of family members grew, I became nervous about letting these two anywhere near the holiday meal. So did my sister. But they insisted the food would be delicious.
I had pretty low expectations. I figured they’d order a meal from the grocery store and we would eat dry turkey, especially once the plan became to pick up the meal on Thursday to re-heat on Friday to accommodate family schedules.
Even after I learned that my mom had actually ordered the meal from a truck stop (which she still insists is a restaurant), I decided to kick back, enjoy the year off and not worry about the meal.
On Thursday, I took my kids to swim at my brother’s cabin since I didn’t have to cook and we weren’t eating until the next day anyway.
While sipping wine with my sister, I received a text from my husband, who was back at my aunt’s farm, indicating something was awry with our meal. Apparently the truck stop where they’d ordered the food was upset that no one came to get it at the scheduled time … so they started serving it to customers.
I wondered how in the world they could serve a meal that was packaged and ready to go. He informed me they were “remaking it” and my aunt was on her way to pick it up.
I have cooked enough birds in my life to know that no turkey can be remade in an hour. My sister and I looked at each other in alarm and all of my laid-back, go with the flow attitude vanished.
We pleaded with him to tell my mom to just cancel the order … because for the love of all things holy we would surely get salmonella from this debacle.
In a panic, we said we could shop early in the morning, cook together and have and entire feast ready to go by the time family arrived. But we were informed it was too late.
The bar was already about as low as it could get with this meal. But I will admit, none of us were prepared for what my aunt brought home.
Thanksgiving 2016: school lunch served in styrofoam clam shells … reheated
My mind couldn’t make sense of what I was looking at. This meal was a disaster. How were they planning on storing and reheating … that?? The self-talk started immediately to calm my screaming brain:
“Tammie … it is just a meal. Lots of people would be grateful for this meal. You KNOW people who would be grateful for this meal. There are starving children in Africa. This is not a big deal. Breathe. Don’t make mom feel bad about this.”
My husband texted me a picture of my aunt and mom scraping all of that gravy covered chow into tins to reheat the next day.
I was convinced that we would all get sick. But I didn’t want to pile on my already embarrassed mother. So I willed myself to saying nothing about this epic culinary failure when I walked in the door later that night.
But I couldn’t stay silent forever … because I am not that good of a person.
So the next morning, while sipping coffee, I looked over at my mom with a twinkle in my eye and quietly asked if we could both admit that she flunked out on the Thanksgiving meal. She exhaled and started giggling. Then laughing. And before long I was laughing. And guess what … the laughter continued for the rest of the day.
I laughed with my uncles when I showed them what their sisters had come up with for our meal.
I laughed with my mom and aunt when I realized they literally had no idea how to even heat all of this food and I had to take over.
We laughed when I had to use a wok to re-heat the potatoes.
I laughed with my cousins when they begged me to please cook the meal again next year.
I laughed with my kids when my youngest wandered up to me after the meal, bewildered and asking when we were going to eat from the “big turkey.”
We laughed at the milieu: the cat that darted in the house with a dead mouse in its mouth, everyone’s fascination with the grouchy sugar glider and how my uncle carried it around in his pocket, grandpa snoring on the couch, the hamster rolling around in a ball, a dog running through the room, kids screeching, and one large extended family genuinely enjoying the whole experience.
The entire mood was light and festive and we had an amazing time together. At the end of the day, the food didn’t matter one whit. But being with family did. And our National Lampoons-worthy gathering wound up being one of the best Thanksgivings our family has ever had.
My mom and aunt can’t cook, but they can laugh. And so can the rest of our family. And it was good to remember that all anyone needs to survive a holiday fiasco is a sense of humor to share with your loved ones.
I am beyond grateful for these women in my life who have taught me well to always focus on what really matters in life.
We can dress up our holidays and celebrations every which way … and there is nothing wrong with doing so. But we should never get so wrapped up in the externals that we miss this critical truth: at the core of every celebration, what really matters is the people you are spending time with.
I am not saying I will buy a truck stop Thanksgiving meal ever again. But its nice to know it is an option.