Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. Most years when I was a kid, we packed up the station wagon and drove north to central Maine, where my dad’s cousin and her family lived in a rambling farmhouse surrounded by wooded acres and winding roads. The kitchen was open and inviting, with brick-red linoleum and kitschy pine cabinets. Us kids were shooed outside to play for long hours at a time, then welcomed back in with mugs of hot cider and the warmth of the wood stove filling the family room. At night, we were tucked into narrow twin beds under the eaves, toasty beneath the down comforters and heavy piles of wool blankets, our noses perpetually chilled as they poked out into the frost-edged air. The food, too, was wonderful. Sideboards groaned under platters of roast vegetables and green beans, a huge turkey and cranberry orange relish.

a mug of apple cider with lemon and cinnimonThere were always more pies than we could eat; the only thing that connects the members of my gnarled family tree being our sweet tooth. In those days, Thanksgiving was a time when grudges were temporarily swept under the rug and tempers cooled. It was all care and nourishment, adjectives that didn’t define my suburban childhood, especially in my middle school years when my parents’ marriage began to crumble.

Fast forward to my freshman year at Tufts University. My mother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer– the disease that felled her father in just a few short months– just two months earlier, and rather than pushing the boundaries of my newly liberated college life, I was driving home every couple of weeks to take my mom (who by then lived alone) to chemotherapy, do her food shopping and a few loads of laundry and deliver rounds of medications from the pharmacy before turning around to head back to school again.

Come November, while the rest of my classmates eagerly caught planes and trains home for Thanksgiving, homesick and ready for some doting, I packed up my rusty old Volvo sedan and drove the three and a half hours back to New York full of dread and fret, anger and resentment. Most of all, I felt scared.

Mom was sick. So sick. Thanksgiving was a holiday my older brother and I usually spent with our dad, but that year I decided to stay home with mom. Her best friend was going to come and prepare a small meal, and insisted I could go spend the holiday with my father, but I was hell-bent on being near mom. Every moment I was away from her felt like an eternity, a tick closer towards the possibility of losing her. Always a robust, feisty woman with thick calves and hands calloused from handling a garden hoe, I had watched in disbelief as chemo had quickly withered her and turned her sallow. Her skin seemed to hang from her bones, and the fierceness had gone from her blue eyes. She had lost control of her body, and in turn, I felt I was losing control of everything. I was grasping at straws, looking for some way to be of use, a strong a sudden maternal urge taking hold of me. Thanksgiving, I felt, was going to be my test. I had never cooked the meal before, only helped out in a bustling relative’s kitchen as a team each manned their station, pulling together a glorious feast. This year, I would helm the ship.

The kitchen of my childhood home, where my mom still lives, felt sallow itself that Thanksgiving, with its faded yellow linoleum and tall, peeling cabinets. The house was quiet. Mom passed the gray November day in a string of naps on the family room couch, occasionally calling weakly for some juice or a popsicle. I fussed about in the kitchen, having picked up familiar-feeling ingredients from the market. I wasn’t much of a cook yet in those days, and hadn’t moved much beyond chocolate chip cookies and a decent stir fry. I certainly had never roasted a whole bird or pulled off a multi-course meal.

Mary Lynn, my mom’s best friend, agreed to take charge of the small turkey while I got to work on the vegetables. Nothing fancy, I decided. Mom, in all likelihood, wouldn’t eat much anyway. I used mom’s vanilla-stained recipe card to make an apple pie. While it cooled on the butcher block, I got to work on the roots and squash. I sliced a bulbous butternut in half and scooped its seeds and strings free with a grapefruit spoon. I peeled and quartered a couple of onions and added several whole cloves of garlic to the mix. Then there were the potatoes. Blue ones and waxy yellow ones and a few late red new potatoes too. I scrubbed them all, rubbed them dry, then tossed all the vegetables together in a well-loved red roasting pan with plenty of salt and pepper. As they roasted and filled the kitchen with a sweet, nutty aroma, I sauteed the beans and sprinkled them with roasted almonds and lots of butter. I felt able. My body, which had tensed into a seemingly permanent ball of tension, relaxed gently into the movements of rinsing, peeling and chopping. Washing dishes under the faucet’s scalding outpouring reminded me how much sensation I could still feel.

We finally set the table as the last of the light faded from the sky, and mom shuffled, weakly, to the dining room table. I was proud of my spread, and full of hope that the culinary proof of her daughter’s hard work would motivate her to eat. I started to pile a plate high with food.  She insisted I take some away. I gulped back the lump that rose quick and hard in my throat.

We began to eat. The food tasted good to me, but it was hard to focus; neither Mary Lynn nor I could keep our eyes off my mother, who pushed her food around on her plate, barely eating. After a mere half hour, she apologized and said she needed to return to the couch. Sitting up had worn her out. Mary Lynn and I both fought tears as she made her way back slowly to her cushioned perch. We finished eating in silence. I didn’t feel Thankful for anything. Instead I felt defeated, angry and frustrated, as though the whole world had wronged me, wronged us. I wished with everything I had that Thanksgiving could once again could be effortless and cozy, that my family was whole and my mother well again.

Now, Thanksgiving’s upon us again. Many years and many holidays have come and gone. My mother is no longer with us. She succumbed to her disease after a nearly four-year battle. She was tough as nails. Three years after her death, we lost my dad too, swiftly and brutally. Lymphoma. There have been stretches of months where I’ve felt utterly cheated, like my life was drained of hope, faith and family before I ever had a chance to find my footing as an adult. I miss my parents each for very different reasons, and I miss both of them every day. But when I hover over those years of illness and grief in memory now, I see clearly that there’s much to be grateful for. My relationship with my parents during those years showed me how to take care of other humans, what it meant to be accountable to family, and how to develop a practice– for me, cooking– from which I can harvest strength and purpose in times of exhaustion and loss of control.

That first Thanksgiving, with my mom sick and my whole being wrought with fear, I was beginning to learn how to feed myself and the people I loved. I began to understand what it meant to feed at all: to sustain, to nurture, to give life. I began to match skill to need and care to suffering. It was the start of food and cooking becoming central to my life, my sense of self, and my way of making myself feel steady when the world felt as though it was falling out from under me. My mom may not have eaten much of what I prepared for her that first year I was acting as caregiver, but in times of bleakness and fear, the kitchen slowly became my venue for defiant living, a place where, by teaching myself to turn out simple, nourishing meals, I could fiercely declare that I, that we, were still alive, and taking care of one another as best we could. And for that, I’m thankful.

Simple Roasted Fall Vegetables, for Thanksgiving (or Anytime)

a sack of white potatoes and a crate of potatoes of different colorsThis recipe is flexible and can adapt to whatever autumnal vegetables you may have on hand. If I have time to search out ingredients, I like a mixture of colors and textures; potatoes will crisp at the edges while whole garlic cloves and squash will soften and become silky. Blue potatoes make for a nice shock of color, a beautiful, sensual reminder of how quirky nature’s tastes can be. Use whatever you have on hand. This recipe easily doubles for a crowd, but you’ll need more pans. Just be sure your vegetables are on a single layer on the bottom of the pan or they’ll steam instead of roasting evenly.

1 lb blue potatoes

1 head garlic

2 delicata squash, or 1 medium butternut squash

2 red or yellow onions

olive oil (not extra virgin)

kosher salt and fresh black pepper

2 9×13” roasting dish(es)

Preheat the oven to 475 and position racks near the center of the oven.

Scrub the potatoes with a vegetable brush under cool running water. If you don’t have a brush, rub them vigorously with your hands to remove any dirt. Dry them well with a tea towel or several paper towels. Chop into cubes, roughly 1” square. Toss in a mixing bowl with enough olive oil so each potato glistens and several large pinches of salt and fresh pepper. Spoon into a roasting pan with a slotted spoon. If there is extra oil at the bottom of the bowl, keep both the bowl and the oil– you’ll use it for the squash.

Wash the squash. If using delicata, slice in half lengthwise and use a spoon to remove the seeds. Slice crosswise in 1” thick strips, leaving skin on. If using a butternut squash, use a knife or vegetable peeler to remove the skin, then slice into 1” strips.

Peel and quarter the onions. Peel garlic cloves.

Toss squash, garlic and onion quarters. in the same bowl, adding more olive oil as needed so each strip is lightly coated. Use the same slotted spoon as before to remove the vegetables to the second roasting pan.

Roast all the vegetables until the potatoes are lightly browned at the edges and the squash have turned fork-tender. Check at 20 minutes, then every 10 minutes thereafter, shaking potatoes around in their pan from time to time.

Serve hot.

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