Thankful

I prepared my first Thanksgiving dinner the first year I was married.  We bought a very small turkey and I used one of those turkey-cooking bags that are specifically designed for morons, which was really an appropriate choice for me. I went a little bit overboard with the side dishes:  stuffing, yams, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuits . . . basically, the equivalent of month’s food budget in one overcooked meal.

It was hard for us to figure out how to juggle his family, my family, our family, my step-family, his grandmother, his other grandmother . . .

Gradually, I stopped making a meal on Thanksgiving.  It really didn’t seem to be worth the expense or effort since we were all stuffed to bursting already from all of the family gatherings.  In case I haven’t mentioned it before, my ex-husband’s family are simply not normal people when it comes to preparing food.  These people have traveled down from the Heavens above to grace our taste buds with divine ambrosia, with the food of the Gods, with flavor combinations that can make a strong man weep tears of ecstasy.   As I am fond of telling people, even the forks taste good when these people start cooking.

If my former mother-in-law served a plate of bricks for dinner, we would dive right in and enjoy every bite of those bricks.

But I digress.

Over the years, our families have dwindled, and so have our gatherings.  His grandmothers are both gone; my father and aunts are gone as well.  Most of the nieces and nephews have grown and moved on into their own lives, trying to juggle multiple get-togethers just like we did as newlyweds.

And we are divorced now.  This is my first Thanksgiving without The Big Guy.  Without his mom or his brothers and their wives, without his aunts and uncles and cousins who made me one of them for the last eighteen years.  Whether we met at Aunt June and Uncle Fred’s, or at Aunt Jan and Uncle Dale’s, I was never just their in-law.  I was family, right from the start.  They accepted me as one of them.   His cousins became my cousins.

The first time I met his grandmother, I asked her what she wanted me to call her.  I was expecting “Mrs. Meyer” or perhaps “Virgie.”  Instead, she looked at me as though I had asked her the stupidest question ever asked, and instructed me to call her “Grandma.”  Of course.  What else?

Duh.

I don’t think The Big Guy ever realized what a precious gift he gave me by sharing his family or how honored I am by their continued love and support despite the divorce.  My own family was so different.  Grandma lived in Arkansas and made it very clear that I was not her favorite; I can count on one hand the number of times I ever received a kiss or hug from her. My cousins in Arkansas and Oklahoma seem to be very nice people, and their wives are absolute darlings.  One of my greatest wishes in life is to meet them someday outside of Facebook.   My other cousins live less than an hour away, and we are all really making an effort to regain some kind of closeness, some of the camaraderie we shared as children.

Overall, though, my family has become my sister, her children, and my children.  And that’s just going to have to be enough for now.  Someday, I may fall in love again, but I just don’t know if I’ll ever fall in love with an entire family again.

For the time being, I am planning my Thanksgiving dinner for the first time in over a decade.  I have a twenty-two pound turkey, which is exactly ten pounds over my current lifting restrictions, so getting that baby in and out of my oven is going to be an adventure.  I will keep it simple, with only the side dishes that I know my children will eat, and I will follow it up with the obligatory pumpkin pie and my much-requested chocolate-chip cheesecake.

I’m going to set the table with my grandmother’s Depression Glass dishes, and I’ll be setting out an extra plate for the excellent young man who is dating my daughter.  A rite of passage in its own way, about which I am in complete denial, but that’s a subject for another day.

And you know what?  I’m actually looking forward to Thanksgiving on my own this year.  On my terms, in my way, with my family.

As long as I can get someone to get the turkey out of the oven for me.

The Language of Food

Whenever my family hosted a get-together and potluck, I was always told to bring the paper plates or cups.  Maybe the drinks.  But under no circumstances was I ever allowed to actually cook anything for my family. I don’t know if it was because I was the last one to remain single and they assumed I didn’t know how to cook or if they took exception to my messy kitchen and assumed my food would kill them.

They were probably right on both counts.

Then I got married to a man whose mother is one of God’s greatest gifts to the culinary arts.  This woman is incapable of making anything that tastes bad.  When she cooks, something as simple as toast can bring on moans of ecstasy; even the forks taste good at her house.

When I married her son, she gave me a box of hand-written recipe cards with all of the family recipes.  And by “family recipes,” I mean recipes from her mother, grandmother, sisters and aunts – people who create the same kind of magic in the kitchen.  It took me a few years to realize what a treasure that little box was, but it eventually became one of my most valued possessions.  In fact, during the divorce, my ex-husband and I argued more over custody of that box than custody of our children.

She gave me everything I needed to become a better cook.  Not just the recipes, but a 24-hour helpline when I screwed up.  Learning to cook with her family was like being admitted to a secret society.  Giving me that little box was her way of saying “Welcome to the family.”

Nobody leaves her house hungry.  Ever.  Not under any circumstances.  It would be a crime against nature to walk away from such divine fare with an empty belly.  But in her family, food is about more than filling one’s belly.  It’s a message.  Cookies can say everything from  “thank you for mowing my lawn” to “I want to remind you that I love you.”  A German chocolate cake on my birthday says “I love you enough to remember that this is your favorite.”   A big pan of chicken and dumplings says “I know you are hurting and I don’t know how to make it all better.”   Even a simple crock pot full of pulled pork says “I want my family to get together so I can see you all!”

A handful of freshly-written recipe cards a few weeks ago meant “I still love you.”

I used her dessert recipes more than any others.  Grandma Tice’s Sugar Cookies.  Aunt Neva’s Peanut Butter Cookies.  Quagmire Bars.  Grandma Goodwin’s Applesauce Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Peanut Butter Oatmeal No-Bakes.

 

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The No-Bakes became my specialty during the summer of 2011, when I was pretty well immobilized in a brace after breaking my neck in a car accident.   I couldn’t do anything by myself, but the one thing I truly missed was being able to bake goodies for my family.  I couldn’t bend over the oven or lift the cookie sheets, so my family ended up eating store-bought cookies.

Which is simply not done around here, so I became the queen of the peanut-butter no-bakes.  Batch after batch after batch.  I made them for my family.  I made them as thank-you gifts for the people who helped us after the accident.  I made them at least once a week, sometimes more.  And a strange thing happened.

People started requesting my no-bakes.  I don’t know why.  No-bake cookies are no-bake cookies.  A simple recipe, easy to duplicate.  And yet somehow, mine earn praise when I least expect it.  And I don’t know why.

I haven’t tampered with my mother-in-law’s recipe.  Good Lord, that would be like trying to edit “Huck Finn” or improve upon the Mona Lisa.  No, one does not tweak perfection.

  • When a local boy graduated from high school and went on a Mission trip with the church, he told everyone all he wanted was one batch of my cookies to take with him.
  • When a friend sponsored a blood drive in honor of her late father, she asked if I would provide a batch of no-bakes for the event.
  • When I asked a new friend if she needed anything for her daughter’s graduation party, she shot me a sideways look and muttered, “I’ve heard about your famous no-bake cookies. . . ?”
  • When parents are asked to bring a dish to pass at different events, I am rarely given a chance to choose what to bring. It’s a given that I will bring my no-bakes.

It took a lot of years and a lot of baking, but I am finally starting to understand my in-laws’ trick of speaking with food.  When I make a batch of my no-bakes, I am saying “Thank you for thinking I’m a good cook” or “I’m so flattered that you like these!”  I’m saying “I’m thrilled to be a part of your special event.”  I’m saying “You are special to me, and I want to do something special for you.”

When people ask for my cookies, they sometimes act as though they are worried about imposing on me.  They offer to buy the ingredients or pay for the cookies, but they don’t realize that they are speaking to me in the language of food as well.  Every request for my cookies is someone saying “I care about you and want to make you part of this event” or “I value our friendship and feel safe asking you for this.”  And as petty as it may seem, I also hear “You don’t have to bring the cups and plates any more.  I trust your cooking.  You’re as good as the rest of us.”

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a T-ball awards party this afternoon, and I have cookies to make.

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Goodwin Family Peaut Butter Oatmeal No-Bakes

  • 1/2 butter (1 stick)
  • 1/2 Cup milk
  • 2 Cups sugar
  • 3 Cups oatmeal
  • 1 Cup peanut butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Heat butter, milk and sugar over medium heat until it reaches a full rolling boil.  Let it boil for 90 seconds. Less time leaves them gooey, more will make them crumbly.

Remove from heat.  Stir in oatmeal until thoroughly mixed.  Add peanut butter and vanilla.  Mix well, and drop spoonfulls on waxed paper.

Here are my “tricks” when it comes to these cookies:  Always use cheap peanut butter (I don’t know why, but that’s what MIL says, and I always obey).  Use butter, not margarine. Last but not least, if you make a double batch, use the whole 18 oz jar.  Trust me on this one.

Scotch Eggs and Skinny-Dipping

Some people eat to live, while others live to eat. What about you? How far would you travel for the best meal of your life?

I love food. All food. Any food. I eat when I’m hungry or sad or lonely. I eat when I’m happy or when there’s nothing better to do. I like the taste and the smell and that contented feeling that comes with having a full belly. I like to prepare food for others, and I enjoy sharing a good meal with people who appreciate it as much as I do.

Years ago, a writer friend got a job as the historian for a local restaurant that specialized in English and Indian cuisine. They served food with names like Toad in a Hole and Chicken Tandoori. Their mango chutney with papadum could make one’s eyes roll back in the head while one bite of Scotch Egg was enough to lose track of one’s own name. The food wasn’t just good. It was a gift from Heaven above.

My friend helped them find authentic antiques for their walls, and then he wrote up a booklet that explained each one while detailing a brief history of Victorian England.

Nobody cared. Nobody read his little booklets. They were there for the food.

My friend got to eat there for free. He also had a little bit of a crush on me. He was a few years older than I was, and a very nice, very smart, very funny person. I liked him well enough, but definitely did not return his amorous feelings.

But the food was really good.

I am almost ashamed to admit that I went out with him several times, just so we could eat there. I say “almost” because the food was that good. Totally worth it.

We started the evenings with our favorite drinks: Guiness Extra Stout for him, Strongbow Hard Cider for me. We munched on papadum and chutney while waiting for the appetizer – usually a Scotch Egg, otherwise referred to as Heart Attack on a Plate. A hard-boiled egg wrapped in spiced lamb sausage, breaded, deep-fried and served on a bed of basmati rice and grilled onions with peppers.

We experimented with different entrees on each visit, but my favorite will always be the Whitefish Grenoble, dotted with tiny green capers and cooked to perfect melt-in-your-mouth flakiness. Our favorite dessert was the steamed gingerbread pudding, firm and sweet but with a hint of spice and covered with a thick, creamy caramel sauce. We always finished the evening sipping fine Port as tiny pieces of rich, dark chocolate melted on our tongues.

I once took my sister there for dinner, and her eyes immediately filled with tears at the first bite of Whitefish Grenoble. “I don’t ever want this meal to end,” she sighed.

Back to my writer friend and the best meal of my life. I know that the prompt asked how far I would travel, not how far I would go, but I’m going to take certain liberties with the theme.

He never tried to kiss me, never tried to hold my hand. He was always a perfect gentleman. To be honest, it was flattering to have a male gaze at me in adoration like that. I have never been pretty enough to inspire that type of devotion in men, and it was almost as rewarding as the food. I was young and somewhat naïve; the attention was something I had never dealt with before.

The last time we ate at Arie’s London Grille, I drank far too much Strongbow. I sipped a second glass of Port and then a third.
Between the Strongbow and the Port, my friend’s suggestion of skinny dipping in Lake Michigan suddenly seemed like a good idea. It was a bright, moonlit night, and he promised not to look.

It wasn’t until I was neck deep in the water that the harsh, cold reality of my situation slapped me in the face. It was midnight. I was alone on a deserted beach with a man who was easily twice my size. I was drunk and unsteady on my feet. No one in my life knew where I was or who I was with. I was bare-ass naked and quite possibly in very grave danger.

All for the sake of a really good meal.

I was luckier than I deserved to be. I marched out of the water and told him to take me home, suddenly more sober than I have ever been, before or since. We put clothes on in complete silence, not waiting to dry off. He drove me home without another word and I never heard from him again. I can only assume that having your date react to nudity with stark terror is enough to put an end to any crush.

How far am I willing to go for the best meal of my life? Far enough to take advantage of a friend’s feelings toward me, far enough to place myself in a bad situation, far enough to become really, really stupid.

I like to think I learned from that night. I hope I would never treat another person the way I treated poor old Bartholomeo in exchange for a few good meals.

But I can’t be held responsible for my actions if my husband ever takes me out for a Scotch Egg and Whitefish Grenoble. And if he throws in a gingerbread pudding, I just might agree to anything.