Tradition is a serious word; not to be taken lightly. Tradition resonates several different images but everyone can agree that when they hear “tradition” their minds tend to wander towards Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving, everyone wants their turkey roasted a specific way, the perfect amount of butter added to the mashed potatoes, and the right amount of cayenne added to the Butternut Squash soup. Tradition in my family is taken very seriously and followed almost religiously. Every fall we make the pilgrimage to Pittsburgh and visit extended family in a marathon family reunion. During our travel some event always go awry and usually results in drama, stress, occasional tears, laughter, and eventually evolving into a much loved Thanksgiving memory.
My Italian Grandmother envisions a “Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving” and insists on cooking the perfect turkey. One iconic Thanksgiving memory is the year the turkey was spoiled. My Grandmother had woken up early and was preparing the stuffing, green beans and getting ready to cook the turkey. The infamous turkey was ordered weeks in advance from a specialty butcher in Pittsburgh. My Grandmother had spent weeks pouring over recipes because she needed the turkey to be absolutely perfect.A little side note, my grandmother takes her cooking very seriously.The bird was picked and given a comfortable resting place in the freezer before the preparation began.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving morning; my grandmother was cutting open the turkey wrapper when we heard a cacophonous screech from the kitchen.
And all hell broke loose.
The turkey was spoiled; completely inedible. It smelled like a mixture of leftover garbage and deviled eggs. A small garden of green mold was living inside the cavity of the rotten bird. Everyone had to file down the processional line and confirm that the turkey was rotten. Then my My Grandmother reasoned the cause of the rotten turkey was the packaging, it was not sealed or preserved well enough. She had solved the mystery. Of course she had no knowledge of Pop Pop taking the turkey out of the car and leaving it next to the garage. He accidently left it outside on an unseasonably warm Autumn day and then completely forgot about. Pop Pop made a futile attempt to amend the situation by trying to sneak the turkey into the freezer. It was too late, the turkey was spoiled.
The smell soon radiated from the kitchen into my bowl of Life cereal. My grandfather was ordered to go to the grocery store and purchase a turkey on Thanksgiving morning. He found the very last turkey and returned home beaming with pride—his mission was complete and he could return to his coffee and newspaper. But the turkey was frozen and there was not enough time to defrost and brine the turkey to “perfection”. Then my grandmother began to cry and she called my aunt on the phone telling her that Thanksgiving was ruined. The events of this particular Thanksgiving morning reminded me of “A Christmas Story” when the turkey is eaten by the neighbors villainous dogs and the family enjoys Christmas dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. I was beginning to wonder if our Thanksgiving would take place at the local Benihana. Alas, Chinese food for Thanksgiving did not occur because my Grandmother has a deep affection for her freezer. My Grandmother had cooked a turkey breast three weeks prior because she was having friends over and wanted leftovers. The leftovers were substantial for two people but for a family gathering it was going to be tight. That particular Thanksgiving the turkey breast was strictly rationed. When I bit into the dry turkey I turned around and spit it immediately back into my napkin desperately trying to hide my look of disgust. It was flaky, dry, and very hard to cut. The turkey had to be sawed into pieces and chewed for a minimal 5 minutes in order to choke down a bite. The gravy did little to help, only providing a creamy layer to the unpalatable cardboard taste. More turkey discreetly ended up in the trash and was covered with a napkin. Everyone “enjoyed” eating a three week old frozen turkey breast and made sure to commend the cook endlessly. When we sit around the table at Thanksgiving the story never fails to crack a smile.
This year, everything changed.
My father casually slipped during dinnertime that my aunt would be hosting Thanksgiving in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was thunderstruck. I knew my aunt had moved to Wisconsin but I did not realize the entire family reunion would be transplanted to another state. My father has a strong aversion to crowds and the stress of traveling was “too much” over the Thanksgiving holiday. If we visited my aunt in Milwaukee we would have to board an airplane. Time to break out the airport procedure manual. Airport travel is a very stressful affair. In addition to the mess of traveling I would be missing the family hysterics, the buttery mashed potatoes, and the allergy boy stuffing. [My brother has severe allergies to milk, eggs, nuts and peanuts so we occasionally call him allergy boy. My grandmother goes out of her way to make “allergy boy stuffing”; stuffing without butter…it tastes revolting]. I soon came to the realization that I was going miss visiting my family and I would really miss the “allergy boy stuffing”.
Thanksgiving Present Day:
I woke up early before the sun had risen and got into the car. The air had just turned and it was actually cold out, requiring a winter coat and gloves. I moved into the seat plugged in my earphones and we were moving across the turnpike at a rapid speed. The sprawling farms and the cows appeared in greater frequency midstate. The sun had fully risen and was spreading over the tops of the mountains.
It was only an illusion.
Instead of waking up to the golden Pennsylvania highway I woke up to the stale light slipping through my window panes. There would be no Butternut squash soup with cayenne, rotten turkey, or butter free stuffing. The holiday felt empty but when time progresses traditions will change, it is simply inevitable.