Thanksgiving: Notes from a Small Eater

The Thanksgiving feast will commence tomorrow afternoon and I will be quaking ever so quietly, studying the food with unease counterbalanced by good will. I’ll take my place at the table, made longer with a second extra leaf to seat 12. I’ll cast my eye over the repast. Roasted turkey with its accompaniment of velvety gravy; bright sweet potatoes and delectable brussels sprouts; green beans with fennel; cranberry/apple/orange relish; that golden mound of potatoes; a roasted beet and squash salad. And not least, stuffing. And pecan and pumpkin pies, of course. I’m leaving something out, no doubt; let me check with my husband on that.

Consuming that food will prove a challenge for me. It always does. I’ve shared with my parents and a couple of siblings an unfortunate proclivity for digestive issues, from colitis to diverticulitis to IBS to a general dyspepsia–whatever decides to attack every few days/weeks months. We also do battle with any number of food intolerances and allergies, even when all else behaves better. So eating with abandon is unlikely. Eating large amounts in utter faith that happiness will reign in stomach and gut is downright foolishness. Yes, there are medicines–they help manage things but do not cure. Accordingly, I have a complicated relationship with food and tend to keep it simple: whatever is a known factor and bland, whatever appears benign is what I enjoy. Every now and then I throw caution to the wind and exult in my good fortune. But that is infrequent to rare.

My life has been physically very active and I enjoy getting out and meeting people, travelling and finding fresh experiences. But unless you have these ills, you may not imagine how they dictate daily choices. How one’s digestion system can create a false appearance of anorexia or even annoying finickiness. How it influences what you do and where. How it can wreak havoc on what was a delightful time with a gathering of friends. Nonetheless, I appreciate food when feeling mediocre to well. The rest of the time it still appeals to me– but in theory.

Thus, I can work up real excitement about enticing new recipes. I like to peruse exotic or historical cookbooks, albeit with some longing. Meanwhile, chiming in with my ideas gets a nod or two from my husband as he prepares dinner; he cares for my well being and has some interest in my feedback. He took over much of the cooking years ago since I cooked for 7 people–often more as children brought home buddies–each day for twenty years. Now I more look forward to sprucing up the home and dressing up the worn antique table with a pretty tablecloth, an arrangement of flowers and candles. I seek a balanced but lively look.

Last Saturday we went to our favorite farmer’s market, exclaiming over earth’s astonishing bounty. I appreciate ogling edible items and having our coffers well-stocked. I got to pick a few goods while he chose others. I am drawn to baked treats–carbs are easy to handle–or vibrant fruits while he waxes nostalgiac over heirloom vegetables. He at times imagines himself a bonafide chef; I am usually grateful he does. He can eat anything, it seems, and will research and prepare food with a gusto I cannot quite fathom.

M. is an engineer, an expert in manufacturing quality assurance. His position requires detailed data gathering, statistical process control and overseeing the production at three plants. He is passionate about systems, spread sheets and problem solving. It turns out these come in handy as he prepares for a large meal like Thanksgiving dinner. Not only does he create a grid of needed items on computer, he keeps notebooks in which are jotted down ideas and recipes. They are accompanied by doodles–decent ones–in colored pencils, commentary that is a bit mysterious. He devises a timetable of days, hours, minutes. He has, in fact, records of previous years: how long things took to cook, at what temperatures, what seasonings and recipes worked or did not and why, the line up for oven and stove—well, you get the gist of it. As noted, he’s an engineer.

All the while he is singing praises (at times literally–he sings well) of the beautiful food he gets to work with, the dishes he will create. (“Look at the cranberries, they’re like jewels!”) And I help out. I fetch things, shop for items, make sure he has forgotten nothing vital. Clean up, provide fresh tea towels as the used ones fall to the floor. I’m like the assistant in the slightly mad scientist’s laboratory. But mostly I’m not too welcome in the kitchen as he gears up to full speed. For one thing, it’s a small u-shape. Our city apartment is good-sized but for some reason the design didn’t include a kitchen that more than 3 medium-sized bodies can comfortably occupy. And when he gets into motion, well, one can be elbowed or squashed if venturing in unannounced. Or even if I call out a warning. For M. is busy with executive direction and production of a feast! He is engaged in an important purpose, heading toward that goal of having every dish ready at the same time–the hour people are to arrive for his delicious dinner. Even if he doesn’t quite have time to change his clothes, it will happen.

I admire his can-do attitude as he solves timing issues or plows past mini-failures. More so, his joyful industry. But he didn’t always pitch in during mealtimes; he traveled often those earlier years. He does now at times but how much easier to to fix food for one. Even a sandwich will do.

So I cooked for our brood but it was often at the last hour, favoring one pot meals of stews, hearty soups or chili, baking a nice roast or chicken with a few veggies thrown in, then tossing a big (easy) salad. I had better things to do–running 5 kids everywhere, doing house chores, working for pay, trying to find a few moments to write. Or slowly breathe, alone somewhere. Creating one stanza of poetry would provide me with gratitude and a generous benevolence for days. Yes, food was important to growing children, but it didn’t need to take longer than 30 minutes prep time. It didn’t need, well, frills.

Besides, I had to fix decent food despite being chronically ill with the woes; i.e., feeling nauseous and/or in pain. I wanted to love cooking and all manner of fabulous food and to hone great skills, but I needed primarily for my children to eat well enough on a then-tight budget. I often just ate their leftovers, a habit that suited me if others thought it a bit odd. It beat saving scraps in the frig, then forgetting about them until they bloomed with unsavory growth.

I recall at least once being asked to specify the things I could not eat. The one recounted was for a visit to my mother-in-law’s. I told her to not worry about it, then at her insistence listed the culprits. It was my spouse’s mother, after all. But to my embarrassment, the list was long; to me, the food taboos were instinctive, well-ingrained. A simple part of my living. I hated to put her out, for her to shop for special things as though I was a poor sickly person who had to be accommodated. I am self-conscious reminding people of even though it is hazardous if I don’t. No one likes to draw attention to themselves over something that others take for granted. But I can’t just dismiss food’s potential hazards as if a small annoyance, a fly buzzing over your plate.

I hear things clanging around in the kitchen. My husband calls out to me.

“Cynthia, do you know where I stored the big roasting pan for the turkey?”

“It’s where you always keep it…”

“No. Not there. I have looked everywhere.”

“Did you look in the cupboard above the frig? The ones below and  above the stove? Way back in the corner of the main one? The storage room?”

“Yes, yes, yes…but it’s not anywhere!”

M. is marinating a 17 pound turkey in brine tonight and tomorrow it will be roasted long and well. I push away from the computer desk, get the flashlight and lay down on the kitchen floor. I am smaller than is he, admittedly more agile. I peer long and hard into the big cupboard. Nothing but pots and pans and wait, a casserole dish I had forgotten, plus a swooping cobweb or two in the farthest shadowy corner. I can see no spiders but that means nothing in Oregon. I consider eliminating the cobwebs before I meet up with said sly spider some morning when I am too tired to notice. But he asks me if the pan is found so onward with the search. After five minutes, the roaster pan is still missing. He throws up his hands and grabs his jacket and is off to the store once again.

I adore that M. loves to cook, that he finds joy in colluding smells and flavors, textures and colors. I do, too; the variety of food and combinations is entrancing. But I am ever the prudent eater. A consumer of small sums of known things. I cheer him on as he blazes a culinary trail: raw to cooked, freezer to oven, salt and pepper to fennel and chestnuts and cranberries and yams. I can be duly surprised how well things turn out; other times, just surprised…but I am without question grateful he will cook. When he sets my plate on the table, a stained tea towel dangling from his forearm, I feel special.

That is what tomorrow will mean to all 12 of us: being treated well, feeling treasured, partaking of the banquet with one another. As did my mother, I set the table with care, center the flower vase just so, light the candles as the family takes their seats. We’ll take each other’s hands and say a brief prayer. Often we share what we are grateful for. And the eating begins. I will dig in the best I can. This overflowing table will be duplicated in countless homes all over our country. My hope is that few if any spend the afternoon hungry or alone; our city provides thousands of meals on Thanksgiving.

Afterwards there will remain the same work I had as a child at home: cleaning up the aftermath. I might pick at what’s left, get the dessert dishes lined up for pie later. So I will set the coffee to brewing, the tea kettle boiling. It’s all good. Good and satisfying. The murmur of my family’s voices will find me as I quietly rinse and wash, stack and dry. The pleasure has been in sharing time, thoughts and conviviality over a hearty meal. Giving my attention to each who has favored me with his or her presence.

I might have some company, my son or daughter, grandchildren checking in, asking if they can help–and what’s next? (Likely a game of charades or a chat about school, maybe some art making if we’re inclined.) Or my husband will sneak up, place his arms about me from behind as I scrub and scrape, my wavy grey-streaked hairdo now out of sorts. He’ll give me a squeeze and then find a spot to put his feet up. Belly full. Content with all for the moment. Me, too.

 

{Thank You, O God, for the gathering of family and friends, the sharing of sustaining food. Awaken the love that You have provided our hearts and souls. Deepen Your healing over this world rent with strife and grievousness. Provide us with steadfast courage. May we find and share hope in coming days and nights. Bless and guide our lives with deep peace and compassion. Amen.}

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