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Thoughts While Walking the Dog
Memories of a Jewish Childhood
By Lynn Ruth Miller

Thanksgiving in Reverse

I prepared my first Thanksgiving feast the year my husband was a student at Harvard University. We were living on the top floor of a ramshackle Victorian that had seen better days and our apartment was about the size of a disabled toilet. The living room had just enough space for one chair and the bar my husband's parents had insisted was a necessity for gracious entertaining. 

Most of the students in my husband's class lived too far away to drive home that November and the snows in Cambridge precluded any notions of a quick flight.  The airport had been snowed in since late September and only the very courageous ventured out of their homes, much less out of town.  I was very glad we decided to forego a couch and keep that bar after I volunteered to cook a holiday meal for our crowd.

"Our crowd" meant every hungry person I saw on the street including the check out girl at the A&P and that ragged gas station attendant with the red nostrils I had almost murdered when I crashed into his gas pump.  My mother always prepared a holiday meal for a minimum of thirty people not to mention those she saw waiting at a bus stop or walking past the house anytime after Labor Day.  She assured these strangers that one extra at her table was no trouble and I believed her.  Mothers never lie.

By the time the last Monday in November arrived, I had invited twenty people for a gala feast I fully intended to cram into our living room along with a card table and two dozen extra chairs.  "You serve them drinks and keep them amused," I told my husband.  "I'll do the rest."

Although I had never organized an elaborate holiday meal, I was certain I could put one together as easily as my mother did because I had handed her the mixing bowls and washed the dishes after her banquets for so many years.  I had a very good memory and I could read a cookbook.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving I went to the A&P, stuffed a 30 pound turkey and all the paraphernalia I remembered on my mother's table into two shopping carts.  I pushed them to the checkout stand and reconfirmed my invitation to Janet, the check out girl.  "Be there at four," I said and I pointed to my overflowing baskets.  "We have lots of eating to do."

That night I baked a pumpkin pie and an apple pie and mixed the dough for my ice box rolls.  I put the pies in tightly covered containers and set them out on the back porch where the temperature was about 40 degrees below zero.   My under-the-counter refrigerator was packed with perishables and forty trays of ice.  "People drink more in cold weather," explained my husband.

"I thought you put olives in martinis," I said.

"Most of my friends like scotch on the rocks," he said. 

I hauled out the Joy of Cooking and read the directions for roasting a turkey.  They seemed simple enough.  You rubbed the bird with grease, stuck it in a pan and let it cook until you could rotate the drumstick. I prepared two jello and sour cream molds and mixed the cheese dip for our hors d'oeuvres. I opened the refrigerator and two jars of mayonnaise fell out and rolled across the floor.  A bottle of milk had been wedged so tightly on the top shelf that it had spurted most of its contents on the butter and cranberry chutney below.  I removed the ice trays and repositioned everything in the refrigerator.  "You better go out and get some more gin," I called to my husband. "And olives."

The next morning, I stuffed the bird with a lot of stale bread and onions and put it in the pan I had purchased on special at K Mart.  My oven was very old and small and in order to get the roaster and the casserole of sweet potatoes in it, I had to tape the door shut with freezer tape.  The entire apartment became so warm, the candles on my centerpiece melted into the pine cones and I felt like I was roasting at a faster pace than my entree. I managed to peel potatoes, curl carrots, chop up vegetables and whip the cream for my two pies by drinking a lot of water and running to the window to breathe deeply as often as possible. 

The pastry had frozen into rock when I took them inside to spread the whipped cream on them, but there was no room in the ice box and I had to  put them back outside. I opened the kitchen window as wide as it would go so that they would defrost in time for dessert.

Upwards of thirty guests, two small poodles and a stray cat managed to work up healthy appetites climbing the four flights of stairs to our place and my husband greased the wheels of conversation with straight gin martinis for everyone. I kept opening the oven to test the turkey but the one I had purchased obviously was still suffering from a severe case of rigor mortis.   By the time I managed to move the drumstick using both hands and holding the rest of the bird steady with a fork, my company was well oiled and I was done in.   My hair hung in soggy wisps around my face, and I was so flushed with heat that I looked like I had over dosed on Retin-A.  My blouse was spattered with melted butter and paprika and  I had scorched the sleeve when I tried to rescue a flaming pot of beans.  The material hung in scorched streamers that trailed into my vichyssoise and dripped white blobs across the floor.  I arranged the casseroles and side dishes on the table and realized I would have no room for the turkey unless I put them on the window sill.  I returned to the kitchen,  placed the bird on an immense platter, garnished it with parsley and circles of cranberry sauce and carried it triumphantly into the dining room.  When I put it on the crowded table, one leg buckled.  I propped it up with our new Webster's dictionary but not before two water glasses spilled into the cranberry sauce.  "Dinner is served!" I exclaimed.

My husband's eyes were glazed and he seemed to be having trouble enunciating his words.  I handed him a carving knife and smiled.  "You carve, honey," I said.

"Why?" he asked. "My mother always carved the turkey at our house." 

I gave him a look reminiscent of the one I would give him when I issued my ultimatum a year later.  "Your mother had a maid to cook the dinner," I said.  "I didn't.  You slice that thing or we don't eat."

My husband gripped the table for balance and plunged the knife into the turkey's breast. The bird bounced off the platter and spurted a fountain of blood so high it left a red blotch on the ceiling.  Janet's eyes widened to the circumference of soup bowl.  "IT'S ALIVE!" she screamed and fainted across the table.  The gas station attendant stumbled on an overturned chair and fell at her feet.  I decided my only salvation  was to live life in the Tao.  I smiled at my guests.  "I'll just put the turkey back in the oven and bring in dessert," I announced.  "This year we will celebrate Thanksgiving in Reverse."

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