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T-day treason

Why CL's food critic abandoned his family's annual celebration


"Grandmother asked if you were coming home for Thanksgiving," my mother says over the phone. Guilt-riddled silence radiates from my end. It's our annual conversation on the subject. "But," she continues, "I told her it would probably be hard for you to get the time off from work."

"Thanks," I respond sheepishly. We both know I've permanently defected from the family Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, hands down. I love the celebration of food and abundance and tradition and gratitude. Well, in theory I do, anyway. I'm just not so fond of the way my own family celebrates, which is to gather at Grandmother's house and sit down to a bland, joyless meal that relies almost exclusively on the wonders of modern convenience foods.

The core of Grandmother's menu each November consists of a Butterball turkey, pop-up timer at the ready; Stove Top stuffing (original chicken flavor); and Del Monte canned green beans, heated unseasoned on the stove, then dumped into a serving dish. Gravy is made with help from a packet. Baked potatoes and sweet potatoes are served in tin foil. A stick of margarine is passed around the table to dress them. Maybe there's canned jellied cranberry sauce, if someone remembered to pick it up from the store.

It's completely depressing.

I'm aware I sound like the most unappreciative, snobbish grandchild on the eastern seaboard. But I know Grandmother can cook. She used to prepare memorable, crispy-creamy codfish cakes on Good Fridays when we gathered at her house for Easter. We relished her homegrown kale cooked with pork, and longed for the fresh strawberries in springtime from her garden by the side of the farmhouse.

But after my grandfather died, I think Grandmother lost her spirit for cooking. Or maybe she'd felt it was her duty to cook all those years, and grew tired of making the effort.

Grandmother does bake fresh bread. The best thing about the meal, though, is the big bowl of Silver Queen corn. Grandmother cuts corn off the cob and freezes it each summer. I fill half my plate with the stuff when I come home for Easter (which is the same menu as Thanksgiving, but with ham instead of turkey).

No wine is served. Grandmother doesn't believe in drinking.

Dinner is eaten off paper plates. It makes it easier to clean up afterward.

"Well, Mr. Gourmand Snooty Britches," you might be thinking, "if you find this meal so dull and offensive, why don't you take over Thanksgiving dinner and give your octogenarian grandma a well-deserved break?"

Oh, I tried. And I learned. My extended family likes their food bland. Attempts to assimilate some of my city slicker dishes into the mix have been met with curt dismissal, if not downright hostility.

I came home from New York City one year and broke the news to my family that I had become a vegetarian. They rolled their eyes, smirked at one another and called me "Bambi Lover" and "Tree Hugger." I wasn't surprised. Most members of my family hold a current hunting license. But I thought I'd use the opportunity to slip in some new offerings. I made a roasted vegetable salad flavored with smoky chipotle chiles and ginger, and whipped up some meat-free gravy. I offered the gravy to anyone who could live without pan drippings. My cousin Michael was adventurous and helped himself. He grimaced. Not only was it meatless, it was "too fancy." It had fresh herbs in it.

I noticed a thin smile break across Grandmother's face. It seemed she was starting to look upon me as culinary competition from the big city, and was pleased to know everyone at the table was staying loyal to Del Monte and Stove Top.

Even after I started eating meat again, the only acceptable part of the meal I could make a contribution to was dessert. Nonetheless, I sensed Grandmother felt slighted if someone chose my almond cake with lemon curd over her pumpkin pie topped with Cool Whip.

So I bailed on my people. Now I make an extravagant feast for my friends. They appreciate my creamed spinach-caramelized onion gratin, my lentil-chestnut soup garnished with marjoram and roasted pepper puree, and my vanilla-flecked crepes filled with homemade apple-date butter and topped with blood orange caramel. I get to be as fancy-schmancy as I want, with nary a complaint.

At some point on the big day, the clan always calls. I'm always genuinely happy to hear from them, even if some of them intone, "We've missed you today," in the same way that fundamentalists slip in, "We missed you at church this Sunday," when they run into an errant congregation member at Publix.

I will confess, I miss the dinnertime conversation at my family's Thanksgiving dinner. We have a particular penchant for dredging up hilariously grim stories that involve goings-on around the farm. A favorite entails my uncle going postal on Bo-Bo, an ornery ram that finally pissed my uncle off one too many times. ("Don't you dare tell that story," admonished my mother when I called to collect forgotten details. "The people of Atlanta will not understand!" Alas, I can only tell you that Bo-Bo met with a gruesome demise.) Even Grandmother has tears of laughter rolling down her cheeks by the time we've finishing recounting tales of exploding pressure cookers and chickens that actually do run around after their heads have been cut off.

I doubt I'll ever go back to Maryland for canned green beans and Butterball turkey. But every year, as I swirl my Oregon Pinot Noir and gaze happily at my chums' satiated expressions, I do wish someone would regale us with the story of how Aunt Clara got out her shotgun to shoot the snake off the porch.

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