When I started rationing my protein bars the week before Thanksgiving, I knew I needed a trip home.
I fantasized about my mother’s cooking as I gnawed on the last of my cement-like energy bars and scarfed down quick dinners of scrambled eggs. Surely my family’s fridge would bulge with Kroger’s top selection of apples, kale, chicken, and gouda, and mom would have a steaming dish of something delicious on our table the moment I walked in the door.
A crock pot of pulled pork sat on the counter when I rolled into Clarkston around 9 o’clock. All my Thanksgiving break dreams were coming true.
And then Wednesday came. My sisters and I scavenged around the kitchen and made ourselves breakfast and lunch, but dinner proved a fiasco. The holiday company had arrived, and my parents wanted to order takeout, hoping to minimize effort and mess on the eve of the year’s most intense day of cooking. It sounded easy, but then we had to pick a restaurant.
I wanted Chinese. Lilly vied for Mediterranean. Betsy announced her need for pizza.
I wanted Chinese. My mom reminded us that one family member is sensitive to MSG and two others need gluten-free options. Dad hoped to keep the order on the inexpensive side.
I wanted Chinese. My grandfather didn’t want to drive far to pick up our meal.
I just really wanted Chinese.
An hour later, as I begrudgingly stuffed chicken shawarma into a pita, I realized how much family complicates everything, especially something as simple as food. I’m used to grabbing a turkey club from A.J.’s Café or zipping down to Bon Appétit whenever I want, and suddenly seven other people were hollering out their opinions on what we eat and when we eat it. I found myself wishing I could retreat to Hillsdale, fry an egg in Mauck’s kitchen, and move on with life. Anything to whisk me, the sage soon-to-be college graduate, away from my beloved family who takes an hour to order dinner.
On Thursday I sat and snapped green beans with my grandmother, and we started talking about the Thanksgiving dinners she enjoyed as a little girl. She talked about Gra, my great-great-grandmother, who would stir together an oozing mound of her signature mac-and-cheese for any special occasion. It’s the best mac-and-cheese my Uncle Danny has ever tasted, I heard him reminisce from the other side of the room. A close second, though, is the bubbling crock of mac he had from a local shop in his Manhattan neighborhood.
My grandmother and I ventured on to more family stories as we filled up our bowl with trimmed beans. She and her brothers used to snack on fresh-picked tomatoes they had rubbed on the cow’s salt lick at the family farm. Her grandmother always made her mother black walnut cake on her birthday.
Every story she told was about food. I guess sentiment melds with flavor to forge a special, long-lasting kind of memory. As we cooked and baked, I started looking outside myself to see the family who raised me and who, thankfully, stands by my side today and those who aren’t with us anymore.
I rarely think about my mother’s grandmother, my Great Grandma Read. But every time we dish up the applesauce at Thanksgiving dinner, I remember how she and her husband built their home together; how, as a child of the Depression, she saved everything; how she sheltered her daughter and granddaughters after a divorce; how she loved Indiana University Basketball, the Yankees, Dalmatians, and peppermint candy.
I thought for a moment this Thanksgiving that our tight kitchen buzzing with many voices might eliminate any chance at a peaceful, home-cooked holiday meal. But, as usual, my family proved me wrong. We didn’t make it to turkey-carving time without a few arguments, but we did connect as a family and remember our loved ones as we made Thanksgiving dinner.
I’ll be driving home again in a little more than two weeks. Christmas joy will abound, as will family drama about food, gifts, tradition, and much more. If Thanksgiving taught me anything, it’s to relax, forget about my oh-so-prestigious, know-it-all college self, and just be with my family.