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My Big Fat Orthodox Thanksgiving by Ruth Carmel

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My Big Fat Orthodox Thanksgiving

by Ruth Carmel

November 2014    

It’s almost Thanksgiving. I’m planning to make a turkey and have a family dinner.

This sounds pretty tame but it’s pretty big, though not as big as last year. Last Thanksgiving, in a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, was also the first day of Hanukkah. But what made the day unique in my household was that I finally made a Thanksgiving feast.

I didn’t grow up with much of a Thanksgiving tradition. It wasn’t part of my mother’s experience; her parents had emigrated from Israel in the 1930s and never adopted the holiday. My late father’s family celebrated Thanksgiving, but he willingly deferred to my mother on many matters, Thanksgiving dinner among them. So Thanksgiving in those early years was a maybe thing. Some years we schlepped to New Jersey to join my paternal aunt’s family for turkey (her husband was a butcher). Some years we didn’t. As a young adult I did Thanksgiving if friends invited me; I have indelible memories of a particular wild-rice-chestnut-mushroom stuffing in the late ‘80s.

Otherwise, Thanksgiving was just a day off, a chance to bundle up and head out to Central Park West to see the parade.

Here’s the thing. As a child, the message I got was that Thanksgiving wasn’t particularly Jewish. Orthodox Jews have a rich array of holidays, ordained by the Old Testament or our sages. Thanksgiving is not among them. So to some, while Thanksgiving is not off-limits the way Christmas is, it’s still, somehow, suspect.

When I married and began running my own household, my tenuous feeling about the holiday was strictly pragmatic, centered on the fact that Thanksgiving is always on Thursday. Friday is the eve of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Shabbat features a couple of big, labor-intensive family meals to be prepared on Friday (no work on the day of rest). The idea of spending hours making an epic feast and cleaning up afterward and waking up the next day to do it again in time for the onset of Shabbat at sundown made no sense at all. I love cooking for Shabbat, but I couldn’t see doing that kind of work two days running.

Anyway, even when I thought of giving in and making Thanksgiving for my husband’s sake -- he grew up celebrating the day -- I was spooked at the idea of creating the American icon that is the Thanksgiving turkey. I pictured its gleaming, russet, Norman-Rockwellian, stipple-skinned breast ready to go under the knife as the whole family sat there, getting hungrier, expecting a sensory delight. Too much pressure for a turkey virgin. Plus I would have to do the sides: sweet potatoes and cranberries, and something green to avoid visual monotony. And stuffing. I had my Bubby’s terrific stuffing recipe, a production even with a food processor: peeling and sauteing onions, prepping a mountain of shredded carrots and celery. And checking the eggs for blood spots, part of the biblical proscription against consuming blood: crack the egg, let the albumen slip into a small glass bowl, shift the yolk from half-shell to half-shell; if you’re satisfied there’s no speck of blood, drop yolk into bowl, pour into mixing bowl, and repeat until you run out of eggs or patience.

These days, Thanksgiving represented a rare occasion when my husband and the kids all had time off. Until now he would take them to his mother’s. He would bring takeout so she didn’t have to cook, and I would sometimes come along, and sometimes I wouldn’t. His mother is a smart woman, and I knew that as long as I sent her son and grandchildren to see her on Thanksgiving, she was fine with my not being there.

Why tamper with success?

Yet I knew my husband would love a Thanksgiving dinner at home. So if I made a family dinner on the second night of Hanukkah, Thursday night, I’d make everyone happy. It would be a celebration of Hanukkah. My mother-in-law would be here, so my husband and the kids wouldn’t have to run off to her house. And the kids would get to see my mother, too. The rest of our clan lives across the Atlantic -- we are a far-flung family -- so there wouldn’t even be a crowd. But the plan required a homemade roast turkey. I wasn’t about to do takeout, not this time.

Then, the Friday night before Thanksgiving, a friend set me straight. Rachel was our guest for dinner, and as we cleared the table I kept yammering about my turkey fears. Finally, she stopped me.

“You don’t have anything to worry about,” she said. “You do it every week.”

I looked at the platters of leftovers on the counter. Roast chicken. Sweet potatoes roasted with olive oil and parsley. Curried cauliflower. Not mention the chicken soup. Well, of course I cook every Friday for Shabbat. That wasn’t the same as making Thanksgiving, was it? But I was suddenly tired of worrying. Would my mother-in-law and mother care whether the turkey was perfect when they were (a) with their grandchildren (b) having a lovely meal (c) that they didn’t have to cook? I mentally tossed out the Platonic ideal of a turkey.

That Sunday I strolled the aisles of the Shoprite in Teaneck, hunting. There they were, the frozen Empire turkeys, massive bulgy forms piled high in their stretch plastic green-and-white jumpsuits. I finally found a 14-pounder. Fingers near-frostbitten, I tried to haul it into the cart I’d parked a little too far away. The thing slipped out of my grasp, landing on the floor with a resounding thump. Everyone turned to look. I felt my face go pink.

A Shoprite guy said, “We’ve got a strict policy with our turkeys.” Oh, hell. What now?

“You break it, you bought it.” I giggled and heaved it up and over.

Wednesday night, the first night of Hanukkah, my kids and I watched as my husband lit the menorah. The moment glowed, echoing years of Hanukkah lightings receding into memory. I almost forgot what I had gotten myself into.

Morning came. I tried to keep my cool; my mother was bringing the cranberry sauce and apple pie, and I had already discarded the notion of a green vegetable. Turkey and a few brown and orange side dishes would have to be fine. I had everything except fresh donuts, a Hanukkah treat my kids love, and I picked up another dozen.

Suddenly, it was 1:15 PM. Showtime. With Mark Bittman as my sherpa (via his indispensable How to Cook Everything), and taking certain liberties, I began. I poured olive oil into a huge rectangular roasting pan, peeled and diced a few large onions and two fat carrots and threw them in. Garlic? Not in Bittman’s recipe, but it was good enough for Friday night chicken, so good enough now. Too lazy to peel a headful of cloves, I sliced the entire unpeeled bulb clean through the papery skin and tossed some into the pan; I’d stuff the rest into the turkey.

Ah, yes. I had ignored the turkey since Sunday, assuming that as it lay at the bottom of the fridge it was thawing out on schedule. Now as I wrestled it onto the counter, I realized that it was still a bit icy. Too late now. I slit the plastic, peeled it off and dumped the bird into the pan. I stepped back and surveyed the monster. Time to show it who’s boss. I paprikaed the hell out of it, shoved in the rest of the garlic, hefted it breast-side down on the chunked vegetables, dusted it with more paprika, added water to the pan and slid the pan into the hot oven. I walked away feeling light as a feather.

You will note I did not make gravy. Pan juices are the lazy cook's best friend.

I went with Bittman for the stuffing, although the recipe sounded much too easy. Heaping cups of breadcrumbs, a cup of butter, sauteed onions, herbs and lots of seasoning: That was it? Well, he wrote it was based on a recipe by James Beard, and like any good yeshiva-taught girl, when one respected authority cites another, you listen. I swapped out the butter for good olive oil, naturally (no milk at a meat meal), but otherwise was faithful to the recipe. Bittman helpfully recommending tasting the stuffing often to make sure it was flavorful enough, so that was fun. Done.

My mother was at the door, coming back from an emergency vegetable run. When I walked back into the kitchen my husband was getting off the phone. “My mother isn’t coming.”

I went into high dudgeon. “Are you kidding? I’m making Thanksgiving so your mother can have it with her grandkids and now she’s not coming?” It was fun to pile on the guilt, even though I knew I got points for making the meal whether or not she showed up.

“She can’t,” he said. “It’s freezing outside and I don’t want her to catch pneumonia.” I knew better than to argue.

Time passed in a whirl of clearing up and dishwashing. The turkey was finally, probably, done. I keep meaning to get a meat thermometer, but I did some poking and the juices ran clear. I let the pan rest on a wire rack. The turkey lay demurely under its foil tent like a recovering marathoner, one bronzed and zaftig leg rakishly protruding just to keep us interested.

It was after five. We lit the menorah for the second night of Hanukkah. My husband and kids sat down and my mother and I brought out the food. The turkey, not quite gleaming bronze but handsome nonetheless. The stuffing, which turned out to be amazing, redolent of tarragon, crunchy on top where the crumbs were browned, and moist from all that olive oil. The addictive, tart-sweet cranberry-orange sauce my mother had made. Of course, the simplest menu item was missing; with all the hours I had available, I had put the sweet potatoes in the oven too late, and they were hard. Still, we had a platterful of crackling-hot, peppery, greasy potato pancakes, or latkes, a traditional Hanukkah food. These were not homemade. Homemade latkes are an ordeal of standing and frying and flipping, watching everyone else eat them while you keep pouring batter into the pan and shoveling pancakes out. I knew no one would care if the takeout place across the street made them. I was right.

And in the end, the turkey was succulent and delicious, though as I carved it close to the breastbone, I saw the flesh was slightly too dense and pink. Not quite done, actually. I must have turned over the bird too late. But the dark meat was fine, so I served that, and just the white meat that was cooked through. Nobody came down with food poisoning. After the accolades (thank you, it was nothing) and pie and donuts and tea, I sent my husband to his mother’s house with turkey and Hanukkah gifts.

After he left I knocked on my neighbor’s door and dropped off some extra doughnuts. And before my mom went home, she and I snacked on the no-show sweet potatoes, now spoon-soft, their undersides caramelized bitter-sweet.

The funny thing was, Shabbat was easier than usual, because with a ton of leftover turkey and side dishes, I hardly had to cook. A chicken soup and a couple of other things and that was it. Nothing to it.

By now I feel like an expert. So one fine October day, in the middle of the Jewish festival of Sukkot, I announced my plan to repeat my triumph. Would my husband tell his mother? He would. She may even come, if the weather works out. So I guess I’m going to make a turkey again, even though there’s no Hanukkah cross-over. Maybe I’ll plant it with candles, for old times' sake.

  Ruth Carmel, a lawyer, lives in New York with her husband and children. She began writing creatively when she found she preferred tarts to torts. Her recent essay about mothering a child with autism appears in Talking Writing.


Photo used under Creative Commons.