About this time every year, I suffer a mini nervous breakdown in the baking aisle of Wal Mart.
It goes something like this: Upon discovering that the only instant pie filling left on the shelves is banana-flavored, I launch into a profanity-laced tirade against JELL-O franchise, followed by a stifled sob into my shopping list, followed by a public declaration of outrage regarding the inequitable burden of being a woman during the holidays.
There’s just too much to buy, too much to cook, and too much football to miss while trying to get it all done, I tell the little old lady sifting through spices. Why are the stores packed with women and not men? Why must women be in charge of all the holiday preparations? Whatever happened to women’s liberation?
After the breakdown, I call my mother and suggest that we ditch Thanksgiving dinner altogether, order a pizza, and donate the difference to the local food bank.
“That’s obscene,” she says. (She actually uses the word “obscene.”) “If you want to donate, go right ahead. But we’re doing Thanksgiving with all the trimmings whether you want to or not, just like we do every year.”
Just like we do every year.
And so, just like every year, I dig out the recipes from generations past and get to work.
There are recipes from my maternal grandmother, who grew up in rural Appalachia in the wake of the Depression. The daughter of a farmer, she learned to cook on a wood-burning stove. Thanksgiving guests included uncles who worked in the nearby coal mines, grandfathers who remembered fighting for the Confederacy, and aunts who were honest-to-goodness relatives of the American hero Daniel Boone. The first in her family to go to college, she became a gifted schoolteacher. For years, Grandma’s inheritance was withheld by her brother, who claimed that land traditionally went to the male heirs alone. Grandma got herself a good lawyer, and in October was liberated from years of sexism to claim a little hill in North Carolina as her own.
There are recipes from my paternal grandmother, an excellent cook, who liked to serve lamb and duck on weeknights. Born of Lithuanian immigrants, she rejected her Catholic background and converted to Protestantism, writing a letter to the Pope explaining why. She overcame alcoholism and alienation from her family to become an important member of her church and community. Strong-willed and smart, she held her own in political debates with my grandfather. She passed away on Thanksgiving Day a few years ago. There are wind chimes hanging from the trees around her grave.
Of course, most of the recipes are from my mother, whose handwriting on the gravy-stained note cards sets my mind at ease. Mom grew up Independent Baptist, and as a girl, was forbidden from dancing and going to movies and marching for civil rights. As a kid, she spent Saturday mornings scrubbing toilets and ironing clothes. Determined to break the cycle of legalism, Mom ran a home filled with compassion and grace, with very few chores, no forced church attendance, and special concern for the least of these. She and my father honeymooned in Mexico, rode donkeys through the Grand Canyon, and shot photos of grizzlies in Yellowstone. They were in the stands during the great Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game of 1976, when backup quarterback Clint Longley threw the game-winning 50-yarder to Drew Pearson. When they got home from the game, they found that their turkey (and most of their kitchen cabinets) had caught fire while they were away. Mom says it was totally worth it.
And so, just like every year, I take a pause from my rant about women’s liberation to remember the women who came before me—women who probably cried in grocery stores, swore at meat thermometers, and struggled through shopping lists, all to preserve our seemingly insignificant traditions surrounding gravy recipes and turkey garnishes. It’s the only time of year when I feel a strong, palpable connection to all of them at the same time.
Perhaps this is why I keep going, even after the annual breakdown. Perhaps it’s why I insist on making strawberry salad every year, even though I know Dan secretly doesn’t care for it. Perhaps it’s why women all over the country keep cooking and cleaning and hosting and shopping and sharing and giving, on top of all the additional opportunities and responsibilities we take on every day.
We don’t want to forget how far we’ve come in liberating ourselves in the important things.
Ladies, how do you cope with all the holiday preparations? What traditions do you strive to preserve? I actually get a lot of help from Dan, so I can't complain...well, I can...but I probably shouldn't. :-)