I remember the grave disappointment with which my sister and I viewed our mother and stepfather, Hugo, as we exchanged glances over the Thanksgiving dinner table. At the tender, trusting ages of 14 and 12, respectively, we had been duped--denied what we considered a fundamental right.
It was bad enough that they made us visit Hugo's family in San Francisco. As far as we were concerned, our Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Tom's house in Montecito was the only place in the whole wide world where real Thanksgiving took place. And here these people were passing out nutcrackers and serving for dinner, on this third Thursday of November, cracked crab! This was an outrage. "It's a delicacy," coaxed my mother in a sort of verbal elbowing to the no-way-Jose looks on our faces. That night, as she tucked us into strange and, if memory serves me, cold beds, we made her promise to cook us, as soon as we got back home to San Diego, a full turkey dinner, "Aunt Jeanette- style."
Of course, this would, this could, never really happen. An Aunt Jeanette-style Thanksgiving dinner is a spread of ambitious, nearly impossible, proportion. Impossible, that is, unless you're Aunt Jeanette, who somehow managed to make it all, in my mother's words, "look so easy." To this day, my mom can be found each Thanksgiving sitting beside the large stone fireplace at the far end of her sister's loft-like kitchen, buttering a piece of orange bread and shaking her head in awe: "She's really something else."
My mother is the youngest of six, and Jeanette the oldest. And somewhere in all of that, my mother developed a deep respect for her sister's domestic competence without any desire whatsoever of acquiring a bit of it herself. The "it all" that Aunt Jeanette makes look so easy invariably begins with the smell of coffee brewing just as the sky gives its first periwinkle hint of dawn, and her freshly baked orange bread with which, along with a full scrambled-eggs-and-bacon breakfast, she tries, pretty unsuccessfully, to keep everyone out of the kitchen for the day. She bastes the requisite 20-something-pound bird to a crispy golden brown and whisks up a smooth, rich gravy with nothing like a recipe in sight. And she never serves fewer than six of those ubiquitous traditional Thanksgiving side dishes. With those side dishes, she always knows just how far to push it, experimenting just enough to make the cooking interesting and the results delicious, but never so tricky that we're left bewildered.
One year she substituted Italian cipolline onions--we'd never even seen one before--for the standard pearl onions, glazing them with balsamic vinegar, an exotic condiment that was just beginning to make its way into our vocabularies. And she is solely responsible for converting me from a kid who would forgo the ritual Thanksgiving day showing of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" if it meant having to down a serving of Brussels sprouts to one who astonished the grown-ups with requests for seconds. Because hers were mixed with roasted chestnuts, tossed with butter and, most important, cooked just right, I couldn't get enough of the slightly browned, sweet and nutty greens that were nothing at all like the mushy, bitter little cabbage heads I'd had to force down.
Until I ill-advisedly accepted an invitation to eat this sacred meal at the house of a college boyfriend--not only with another family, but in an entirely different state in an entirely different time zone--I had never in my life taken seriously the options of canned vegetables or bottled gravy. And I'd never had cranberry sauce served straight from the can onto a plate--ridges and all--and then sliced. (Which, admittedly, I have come to like and even rely upon when, say, in August, I am craving leftover turkey.) But for those late-afternoon Montecito dinners, it was always a compote or a chutney or a relish--sweet and tart and full of fruit-and-nut surprises (that tasted nothing short of divine the following day slathered on sourdough toast in turkey sandwiches). And, after dinner, when one retreated to the octagonal living room under the swaying eucalyptus trees to find my Uncle Tom (who died this year) reading by a dim light next to the fireplace or admiring a piece of music playing on the turntable, one would be reassured by the presence of those three perfect, predictable pies--apple, pumpkin and pecan.