“So … what is that?” my uncle inquired, poking a fork at the platter of tofu turkey in front of me.
I was sixteen, so I frowned and crossed my arms sullenly, rolling my eyes. “It’s tofurky,” I said with an exasperated sigh. “And it’s delicious.” I delicately sliced a rubbery piece from the platter and placed it in my mouth, pretending to revel in the taste.
Thanksgiving has always been an odd time of year for me. Until this past August, I was a staunch vegetarian, and for that reason, I couldn’t enjoy the holiday’s most notorious flavors. The golden-hued turkey was, of course, out of the question, along with the succulent ham, the creamy gravy, and, in most cases, the moist and herbaceous stuffing.
Though I feigned enjoyment in the meat substitutes offered by my grocery store’s health food aisle, I couldn’t ignore the slightly processed, too-chewy texture. I relied largely on the cornucopia of side dishes to please me, which meant that I usually filled up on sticky, gelatinous cranberry sauce and pureed sweet potatoes.
To throw another wrench in the mix, I spent the entirety of my adolescence in bitter battle with eating disorders. (I promise I’m perfectly healthy and happy now.) If the average person has trouble wrestling with post-feast guilt, imagine what an entire day centered around gluttony means for a young woman wrestling with anorexia and bulimia.
When I wasn’t picking delicately at soybean-based “meat,” I was surely munching on crudités in attempt to trick my family into thinking I’d actually eaten. I was utterly tormented during the obligatory passing of the plates, watching a parade of meat, vegetables, bread, potatoes and relish slide underneath my nose and past my plate. And dessert? Forget about it. I’d either clutch a cup of black coffee and nibble on a clump of marshmallows and cranberries, or frantically gulp down 3 pieces of pumpkin pie and become instantly riddled with anger and self-hatred.
I paint this picture not to sadden or frighten – and certainly not as an attempt at purgation of past emotion.
I tell you all of this, instead, to demonstrate how purely excited I am to take part in this year’s Thanksgiving – how much it means to me. For the first time in my adult life, I look to the holiday with wide eyes and moist lips. I cannot wait to carve the turkey alongside my father, to chop vegetables with my mother, and to share a bottle of wine (or two) with my sister.
It’s so deliciously exciting to look to this holiday as an opportunity to immerse one’s self in the two things that really matter – those I love, and the act of eating well.
It’d be awfully horrid of me, though, to end this small story without some of the good memories of Thanksgivings past. Stay with me as I recall some of my favorites:
I certainly can’t ignore the fact that my mother made – and makes – brilliant bread. Her dinner rolls are always impossibly light and porous, shaped like clovers and soft on the inside with a gently browned outer crust. The way butter melts in them is positively obscene.
An aunt once made yams for the holiday, and mercifully didn’t mash them into oblivion. Instead, they were thick hunks of vegetable, slick with maple syrup and honey, glistening, hot and juicy.
The best dessert I’ve ever encountered at Thanksgiving was a simple spread of warm dates, pralines, and puffy peppermints. After we finished nibbling that year, my entire family enjoyed a game of charades – it was clichéd and silly, but oh-so-much fun.
Ultimately, I’m looking to this year’s holiday as a way to marry my past self with my current one. It’s an interesting task; one that’ll surely be made easier with delicious food, both simple and extravagant. I’ll be nodding to years past with my inclusion of a tart, homemade cranberry relish. I do so love the flavor of the red berry, but am eager to leave the canned variety behind. I’ve included here a recipe – the recipe I’ll be using this November 27th. It originally appeared in the New York Times, but I’ve tweaked and twisted it so much, that I’m comfortable calling it my own. And that’s what tradition is about, isn’t it? Taking something generic and personalizing it, bringing it close to your heart.
I sign off with one small request: a call for your favorite Thanksgiving recipes. I’m eager to know what you love to eat on this special little holiday, and even more so to know the stories behind the food. You can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment here – and I sincerely hope you will.
Cranberry Relish, adapted from The New York Times
1 tbsp. butter
1 medium-sized shallot, minced
1 sprig fresh rosemary
3 fresh sage leaves
2 cups dried cranberries (unsweetened, if you can find them)
1 cup apple cider
¾ cup orange juice
¼ cup grapefruit juice
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ tsp. fine sea salt
2 ¼ cups fresh cranberries
1 cup chopped toasted walnuts (or, if you prefer, pecans)
Zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
Melt butter in a medium-large size saucepan over medium heat until browned and lightly fragrant. Add shallot and cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently.
Drop herbs in pot, along with juice and cider, stirring gently. Add dried berries, sugar and salt and stir to incorporate. Bring liquid to just below boiling, and simmer until reduced by half; about 25 minutes.
Give fresh cranberries a rough chop and stir into pot. Keeping the liquid at just below a boil, stir for 25 minutes more, until mixture resembles a thick jelly. Remove from heat. Remove herbs from the pot and stir in nuts and citrus zest. Chill and serve cold or at room temperature. This is excellent slathered on a toasted baguette or eaten by the spoonful.
*This column was originally published in The Dolphin.