Monday, November 7, 2011

Memories to be thankful for

Roadtripper (from Western Illinois Family Magazine)

Here comes November.
Fall is on the wane, with many of the beautiful colors and Indian Summer days of October starting to be replaced by bare trees, grey skies and the first warning signs of wintertime. It's both a beginning and an end, as we say goodbye to a season and a year, and look forward to the beginnings of the Christmas season, with all its joys, grace and blessings.
But before you start shopping, wrapping and watching for signs of Santa's elves, you've got something to do.
It's one of my favorite holidays, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
It's not the day-long football-fest on TV, nor even the half-true stories of pilgrims and Indians I regale my grandchildren with.
It's certainly not the big box pre- and post-Thanksgiving weekend Christmas sales that start bombarding us on the airwaves sometime around the end of July.
It's not even the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and other tasty delights that entirely make my day, though I'm honest enough to admit that the eating is a big part of it.
Yes, I'm thankful for all the above, but for me, the biggest, best thing about Thanksgiving is getting ready for it.
What'd he say?
It sounds crazy, I know, but I think the very best times are those spent together with family and friends preparing for the big meal and the big day. Of course, if you're imagining it's all a kind of living Norman Rockwell scene around my house, think again. My memories of our shared culinary triumphs, trials and downright disasters are, for the most part, a little more, uh, interesting than the average "over the river and through the woods" trip to grandmother's house or anything you'd see on the Food Network.
Like the year I thought it was time to treat the family and our friends to something new. As an avid National Public Radio listener, I had heard commentator Susan Stamberg wax poetic about her mother-in-law's cranberry relish for years. She has, in fact, shared the recipe with listeners every year on the Friday before Thanksgiving ever since 1972.
I'm not saying Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish ever really sounded particularly good to me. After all, the recipe calls for an unlikely mixture of raw cranberries, chopped onion, both a dollop of sour cream and a healthy dose of sugar, and--wait for it--a potent portion of horseradish. But I was so smitten with Ms. Stamberg's warm delivery and intelligent viewpoints that I wanted to give it a try, just to please her, I guess. Besides, I kind of figured anything that came from public radio was apt to make us all a little smarter, too.
Or not.
Actually, most of our dinner guests that year showed an immense amount of good sense when they politely declined even a tiny taste of the light-pink Pepto Bismo-looking stuff I ended up with. A good choice, as it tasted almost exactly like how you'd expect combined cranberries and horseradish to taste.
Enough said.
Our son Colin, who has worked for years as a sous chef and other in-kitchen positions, owns his own page in our family memory book based on a phone call he made home the first year he was in college. This was way before his career path took a turn through the kitchen door, though he was, apparently, already developing an interest in cooking for a crowd.
I answered the phone that night, and Colin explained that he and a number of his friends were planning an early Thanksgiving feast of their own before returning to their own homes and families for the actual holiday.
"We're bringing the turkey," he said proudly. "So I was wondering, when should we start defrosting it?"
"When is the dinner?" I asked cautiously.
Uh oh.
For years, I had been told that a slow, cold defrosting process was an absolute must, lest bacteria grow in the too-warm turkey. Dire newspaper headlines filled my mind's eye.
"Galva kid poisons college chums. Dad held for giving bad advice."
But other than suggesting a trip back in time with Sherman and Mr. Peabody in the wayback machine, I had no choice but to instruct him in the best, safest ways I could think of to quick-defrost a frozen fowl. Luckily, either the college kids he shared it with had hardened intestinal systems from their cold pizza and warm beer diets or he just got lucky, because they all lived to talk about it.
But perhaps the most, uh, explosive Thanksgiving faux pas came at the hands of yours truly. With a big crowd expected for dinner, I was in charge of peeling twenty pounds of spuds for the spectacular sour cream mashed potato recipe I learned from our friend, Lynda. I disrobed the entire bagful, while blithely jamming the peels down our in-sink disposal without taking time to grind and wash them down periodically throughout the long process.
All fine and good until, with the job done, I attempted to run the disposal with the entire pile of peelings jamming the works.
Yes, jamming. Thanks to me, our kitchen sink was as clogged as, well, a drain jam-packed with lots and lots of potato peels.
I tried every amateur drainpipe-unplugging trick in the book, plunging, snaking and adding water to the stopped-up sink with no result, until finally, in a flash of inspiration, I made my way to the basement. Just above where the drain pipe entered the floor was a plug that looked like it could be unscrewed.
"Aha," I thought. "This'll do it."
Well, I guess it did. In spectacular fashion.
Actually, nothing happened at first, so I called upstairs to my wife, who was standing by the sink, waiting for a miracle.
"Try the plunger again," I called.
It worked.
And how.
The highly compressed water-and-potato-peel mixture shot out of the pipe with a force very similar to one of those water cannons cops in certain parts of the world use to break up crowds of rioters and political dissenters.
The high-charged mess hit the floor and ceiling. It sprayed the furnace, the hot water heater and even the cat, who had followed me down to supervise my efforts. But mostly it blasted me, soaking me from head to toe with the unpleasing mixture.
"You did it, honey," called my wife. "You're a genius."
"Yeah," I thought as I began to pick peelings out of my hair. "That's just what I was thinking."

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