Thanksgiving is a Meal that Travels Well

Thanksgiving is a Meal that Travels Well

The Realities and Rewards of Family Traditions

A Greco Thanksgiving has always demanded a feast cultivated from roughly 75 pounds of food. When broken down, that’s two 15-pound turkeys and an equal amount of both Yukon gold potatoes and purple-skinned yams. Don’t forget five pounds of ground beef, a dozen eggs, two bunches of parsley, a pound of grated pecorino-parmesan cheese, and four whole loaves of French bread.

In order to feed an army, you must assemble one. Long ago, we recruited a Thanksgiving brigade de cuisine:

Barbara (Grandma): Executive chef and executive pastry chef

Nancy (Mom): Executive sous-chef

Me: Entered as sous-chef, eventually moving up the ranks to chef de cuisine.

George (Grandpa): Garçon de cuisine, aiding us with the rapid-peeling of five bags of potatoes, and occasionally providing auxiliary support between watching football plays, like removing the turkey from the oven for basting.

“Suzanne just called; Leslie is in town and Stella’s bringing her boyfriend, so that’s two more.” As is often the case, my mother would receive hourly updates from our cousins across Los Angeles about whom we could expect on Thanksgiving Day.

“We better make it five loaves,” Grandma Barbara would utter as she cranked out her fifth pie, crimping the edges of a delicate Crisco-based crust between arthritic fingers.

We know this pattern well, and every year we’re in preparation mode for weeks. My mother became the anointed host for Thanksgiving in the early ‘90s in a house that fit up to 42 hungry Italians. A decade later, we outgrew that space and passed the torch to cousin Tony Jr., whose house could squeeze 68 guests around a Tetris formation of card tables. But just because the venue changed didn’t mean the menu was allowed to. In turn, this required that we transport every bit of our meal all the way up the Pacific Coast Highway. Our turkey stuffing was––and still is––just that good. No one else could make our candied yams. No one wanted to taste another version of our meal, let alone take on the role of cooking any of the number of dishes we mercilessly turn out. By bringing all the trimmings, we were in effect bringing the Greco family together under one roof.

The rhythm of a Thanksgiving morning is something I grew up craving. For years I slept­­­­­­­ on the couch so Grandma (who drove in from Palm Springs, about two hours away) could have the comfort of my bed, and she’d wake me up around six as she scooted past on the way to the kitchen. Still and brisk, the virgin state of that space felt raw, untouched. The residual heat had vanished after baking the last of the pies the night before. Mom and I would lean against the counter sipping on coffee, listening to Grandma recite the day’s orders as we glared at the lump of a thawed turkey and raw ingredients before us.

“Let’s get the turkey in there first, then start on the stuffing. Did we already wash the parsley? Peel the potatoes, boil the yams. Oh—Nancy, don’t forget we’ll need that other pan for the green beans.” It’s the same strategy, year after year.

Like the start of a Formula 1 race, the first ignition of heat on the stove started a day’s worth of laps around the kitchen. Two large sauté pans heated through to make the beloved stuffing. A large splash of olive oil, then a heavy drop of butter. A thick Milky Way-like swirl forms as the fat solids melt together into a shimmering, intoxicating galaxy. Hit it with chopped onions and the smell of our Thanksgiving morning is in full bloom.

Since day one we tapped Barry (my father) and Jeremy (my brother) as equal parts expediters and bus boys. They have always managed the table setup and eventual breakdown by loading stacks of folding tables and chairs into our three-car caravan up to Tony Jr.’s. The pack-up has always been a struggle. Three varieties of handmade pies—two pumpkin, one pecan, one apple—are nestled into cardboard boxes, which stack atop sheet trays and are strapped into the back of an SUV. Mom’s sedan, plus a third car, are filled with the remaining provisions—layers of yams, trays of stuffing, bags of green beans and all finishing tools. The smell of the dressing accompanies us all the way along the freeway, a blessing and a curse as we take our time driving, careful not to disturb the precious cargo or disrupt the tower of tables as we wind along the high roads of the Pacific Palisades to Tony Jr.’s home.

Sometimes we miss having home-field advantage, but we have always been thrilled to have cousin Tony Jr. host. The cost of admission for all (and yes, even for us)? One bottle of wine per person, and it is strongly suggested that it be either an Acacia Chardonnay or Coppola Claret. His house, his rules, and he doesn’t like surprises.

As a man who stood on ceremony, Tony Jr. insisted that we serve salad as a seated first course (never mind that it is served on paper plates), which could simultaneously act as his opportunity to make his welcome address to the family. It was the Greco family version of the State of the Union. It always began with the classic effort to say grace—the standard Italian Catholic prayer: “Bless us, Oh Lord, for these, thy gifts…” which we would all recite together. Tony then turned his conversation with the heavens into a brief moment of solemnity for us to remember all of the souls of our departed family members.

As Tony moved into the second part of his speech, he easily transitioned into why we should all be grateful for any number of things—surviving the current economic landscape, the end of the reality TV era (“What the hell happened to all of the writers in the industry?”), and a toast to our health. When Tony’s speech hit its stride and the wine got to talking, it was our cue that we had around 20 minutes until plating. We didn’t dare to cut him off—Tony’s speeches are among the most iconic of Thanksgiving moments, and have always been the only time the entire room refrained from side conversation. We would sit through its entirety, but always at a tremendous cost––we were forced to rush the final details of the meal. Almost as an afterthought, he concludes with a brief toast to the chefs.

“Let’s give a hand to my mother for making the salad, and to Barbara and Nancy for preparing the feast tonight—and to Lisa for helping as well…” And it’s at this moment, year after year, when I envision myself standing up from my seat, getting Tony’s nod of approval, ready to address the family, proclaiming, “This is the meal I’ve been waiting all year to make, and the last week of cooking has been the most wonderful of my life, and on behalf of Grandma, Mom and myself—we can’t wait to share it with all of you.”

So I take a breath to compose myself and look around the room, but it’s too late––the moment disappears. People have gotten up to help themselves to more wine, and the murmurs of chitchat begin again. Behind my flushed cheeks and budding emotional tears, I see that small opening to bare my heart close up right in front of me. Instead, I cork myself up and scurry out from my seat in the corner at the kid’s table—which is always sandwiched in the rear of the hallway closest to the front door—and find myself back in my place, in the kitchen, to lick my wounds.

What people don’t realize is that I was put on this earth to make this very meal. Back when I had soft little curls covering my eyes, I’d tippy-toe up on a little step stool, memorizing how Grandma cut the shortening into the flour and added steady drops of chilled water as she formed her pie crusts, or how she peeled the yams and layered them with brown sugar and just the right pinch of cinnamon. Then one day it was my turn, to truly take the reins of this feast, to channel the talent of the long lineage before me, to finally inherit the role, the right, and the privilege of feeding this family. The very core of my being is manifested through this meal—and until I can learn to conduct my own sermon, all I can do is hope they recognize it on their plate.

Alas, the final stretch to plating has never been a glorious one. My grandmother, mother and I fight over precious space in front of the stove, often elbowing our way through to get a pan in the oven. But we persevere as a bag of marshmallows explodes onto the sweet, orange-glazed yams that the crowd demands. Flames dance along the side of the saucepan as gravy bubbles away. In this chaos we lose the beauty of the finished plate a la minute, something impossible at this stage. I can only look on in despair as our once delicate and moist dressing ends up severely overcooked, and we are stuck ladling in cup after cup of chicken stock to keep it from becoming a dense brick. Barry sees our struggle, and without hesitation jumps in as the Turkey Carver, a role he inherited early on and has kept even years after we stopped hosting dinner at our house. I see him whittle away shreds of dried-out turkey from a shriveled carcass. My heart sinks further. That window for the “golden-brown and delicious” stage fades quickly. The fluffy mashed potatoes seem to coalesce into glue before my eyes as the abuse of bringing the dish from hot to cold and back again takes effect. The green beans lose their vibrant hue and laze about in their flaccid state, so I say farewell to the al dente crunch, as if my soul is suddenly revealed as a patchwork of wilted green beans.

I’ve lived with the fact that the best food I have ever cooked has been served, nearly lifeless, out of aluminum foil tin trays. Each inch of hand-torn breadcrumbs from five loaves of bread––which we carefully air dried for days until it reached the right texture—feels like a wasted effort, and I’m defeated into thinking maybe next year we can just settle for store-bought bread cubes and spare us the torture. No one has the patience nor awareness to spoon it carefully onto platters that are even remotely attractive. It’s too late to make it pretty. Pretty is far on the other side of the universe at this point. Now nearly 9 p.m., we see the pack appear––two heads, then three, then suddenly there are 30 hungry souls spilling into the kitchen with their plates and irreverent jostling. And as they help themselves to the makeshift buffet in the kitchen or attack dishes set out cafeteria-style on the stove, a familiar feeling grows in me. It happens every year. It happens with the same slow burn and holds on until well past the holidays are over. No one here, in a space full of my closest relatives and loved ones, could possibly see or appreciate food the way I do.

The first couple of years when this happened, where I lost the chance to put my manicured and thoughtful final touches on the dishes, it ate away at me. I grew frustrated that no one would get to see the meal I thought I was capable of, the meal I wanted to present to those I loved. I spent hours tearing through back issues of Gourmet’s centerfold holiday issues, tickled and inspired by the seemingly effortless place settings, strategic plating styles and deft techniques. I fantasized about a glowing and beautiful Thanksgiving table, complete with oversized, gorgeous white platters with thick golden-edged turkey slices layered on top, brightly-colored cranberry sauce in silver bowls, bunches of whole clementines and ripped-open pomegranates, and tiny little candles nestled all in between.

What I got instead was polished silver’s second cousin, the cheap sheen of aluminum foil trays. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I still can’t make sense of it, but each year I have grown to slowly shed another concern that would have otherwise made me scream. So what if we aren’t camera ready and don’t have room to pass the perfectly browned turkey around on a silver platter? Who cares if the stuffing’s edges are just a bit too dark? They all return for seconds and angle to take some of it home, and they are all guaranteed to show next year. The crowd has never once downsized.

When I was first anointed to manage the execution of Thanksgiving for the family, I expected my deepest joy would come from my moment to shine, because food doesn’t make sense unless we share it with others. But now, my purest joy comes only first thing on a Thanksgiving morning. When that first heat hits the pan, before the white noise of four generations of Greco descend upon one house. The quiet splash of olive oil, followed by the heady scoop of butter that browns the onions just right. When I look into the Milky Way that swirls before me, it all makes sense. I remember why this is my calling, and why I am devoted to sharing it with my grandmother, my mother and the masses not yet assembled. Then the phone rings.

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