In college I had a friend who adored cooking for me. She said she put love in the food while she chopped, cooked, and served. I swear, the simple meals she made for me in her family’s kitchen tasted better than anything I’d ever eaten.Fast forward 25 years. For over a decade, I have been my three kids’ primary cook. And generally, not an accomplished one. I am a huge proponent of Ore-Ida, Birds Eye, and Stouffers. My children can testify that it is hard to put love into a frozen fish stick. One daughter infamously asked, after taking a bite of breaded chicken I’d made, “Mom, are you trying to poison us?”
She wasn’t joking.
She, and my two other children, thus learned to cook at an early age. And cook passably well. For a while, we had a family rule that each child had to prepare dinner once a week.
There were three rules: the meal had to be something liked by all, there had to be one vegetable involved, and no microwave cooking was allowed. Our youngest once served bacon and baked potatoes. I have to say, it was better than my cooking. It even tasted like she’d put a little love in it.
So you’d think Thanksgiving, with its ridiculous, obsessional, nationwide focus on homemade cooking, would be rough sledding for me. That my children and husband would beg, plot and scheme to go elsewhere – anywhere else, including a food pantry for the homeless — for Thanksgiving.
Years ago, in what has become known in our family as “The Time of the Two Thanksgivings,” we discovered the surprising answer to that question. We happily accepted the invitation to join friends who also had young children. They served a delicious gourmet Thanksgiving meal, replete with sweet potatoes, nutty stuffing, and a turkey boasting an enormous breast of white meat.
My children chewed politely through the meal. And howled for the whole car ride home. “NO MASHED POTATOES? NO BACON ON THE TURKEY? WHITE MEAT??? WHAT WAS THAT BREAD CRUMB STUFF WITH NUTS AND CRANBERRIES IN IT?”
Forty-eight hours later, on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, I cooked a full, homemade Thanksgiving dinner for them as penance. They made me promise never to take them anywhere else for turkey day. I have kept my promise.
This past Thanksgiving we drove to our beach house, blissfully quiet and serene. Bare trees, more deer than people, leaves skittering on the empty roads. A few friends stopped by to watch – and play – football on the big day. But no one was staying to eat.
So I was free to go radically simple with the menu. Turkey with an entire pack of bacon draped over it. Yukon gold mashed potatoes liberally dosed with whole milk and butter, whipped for nearly 30 minutes to a light froth. The disgusting brown store-bought gravy my kids love.
My kids stuffed themselves until they fell off their chairs like satiated ticks dropping off a hound dog. Even my husband, who grew up as the only child of a fabulous, Austrian-trained cook, agreed the bird and spuds were unsurpassed ever in his lifetime. I too ate until I had to undo my jeans.
We all knew it was because there was love in that food.