Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Thanksgiving of Epic Portions 2009

Our family made the seven-state trek to Wheeling, WV again this year to spend Thanksgiving with my husband’s family. What started a few years ago as a “special” trip out to WV for the November holiday has now turned into a “family tradition” that my children and my in-laws both eagerly anticipate (don't get me wrong, I do to-sorta). Weeks before the trip the kids start running around the house planning the games, headphones, food items, blankets and pillows they will shove into the backseats, making the mini van look like an episode of Hoarders. I, on the other hand, spend those weeks calling our friends to borrow the roof-top luggage carrier (that I should name for how much time it has spent with my family) and trying to mentally organize the van so I’m not up to my pits in crap before we leave our street. My husband actually asked if we really needed the luggage rack. I just laughed.


I didn’t time our departure very well, and heads up: 2:30 p.m. is not a good time to leave Massachusetts heading south on the 95, given that it puts you at about New York right around the time people are flying out of the city like The Birds revisited. Half-way through Connecticut brake lights glowed like a river of lava, and you know how well four-ton minivans with luggage carriers and three young passengers do while bobbing along in lava. We decided to follow the GPS and GET OFF THE HIGHWAY, which, heads up again: is NEVER a good idea. The traffic you know is always better than the traffic you don’t know. Needless to say, three-hours later we broke free of the auto-chains keeping us back and actually made it into New Jersey.


Now I’d like to give a shout out here to my three children, who, despite the traffic and the length of the trip thus far, were absolutely perfect angels. No one cried, pouted, whined, peed their pants, threw-up, or got a fever. I’m sure some of their good-naturedness had to do with the fact that their eyes were glued to some type of hand-held gaming screen or video playing device, and their mother who usually polices their time on such drivel was actually throwing movies at them card-dealer style and suggesting they play a few more games, even if their thumb joints were tired. If I have ever said a nasty word about video games (I haven’t, have I?) or our societies dependence on the damned television set, I would hear-by like to publicly eat my words and thank those designers and engineers who probably failed English, but dammit, save the lives and restore peace to traveling families worldwide. Even my youngest sat in her car seat, her face reflecting the glow of Elmo banging away on his dollar store piano for at least 70 blissful minutes.

My children were so fabulous they didn’t even complain about not getting to eat dinner until 9 p.m.. Sitting in traffic threw off the eating schedule, and in addition to feeding their brains with mind-numbing entertainment, I was also throwing back the only food I had brought with me: candy, fruit snacks, Gatorade, and stale Halloween pretzel packs. In fact, now that I’m typing this, I’m starting to see why the kids love the road trip so much….But anyway, by 9 p.m. I was feeling guilty for not providing some type of official dinner, as I’m pretty sure that’s in my parental job description somewhere—dinner before bed—so we pulled into the first place we could find. I couldn’t even tell you what town we were in, but we managed to locate a Quizno’s where I ordered food for me and my husband, while he took them to a McDonalds that was located inside a Walmart. Since I had met them at Walmart after I got our sandwiches and Mickie D’s was about to close (it being 9:00 p.m. and all) we decided to picnic in the parking lot. Now if I was a town resident and I happened upon a family sitting in a mini van with the back up in a dark parking lot of Walmart, whose kids were sitting on top blankets eating dry beef-product patties on a bun with 1.5 pickle slices, while their parents wolfed down sodas and hoagies simultaneously trying to keep the pillows and crap from falling out of the vehicle onto no doubt dirty, filthy, pavement crawling with germs, I would probably have called the police to tell them a transient family may need some assistance, or asked them if they needed $50 bucks and a place to stay the night. Fortunately, we managed to finish our quality eats, change the kids into pajamas, clean out the accumulated trash, and reorganize the pillows and blankets before Social Services stopped by to questions us. Unfortunately, no one offered us $50 bucks. Which I would have greatfully taken, as it’s rude to reject people trying to minister to others. I’m sure we looked like we needed some ministering.


The rest of the trip was uneventful, and our vacation—and the food prep—was in full swing bright and early later that morning (we got in at 3 a.m.). I will admit that when we started going to Nana and Papa’s for Thanksgiving it was difficult for me to leave behind the Thanksgiving traditions of my youth: the food dishes that were served only during the holiday meals, the sense of prepping, decorating, and setting a pretty table. After all, an Italian themed Thanksgiving is not what I was used to, and seeing spaghetti sauce on the table made the holiday seem, well, like a school night.


But as the years have progressed and I’ve grown in maturity and understanding, (how big of me to admit) I’ve let go of my assumptions about the Thanksgiving menu. What food items show up on the buffet table are the items I will eat, and if I really need to have a particular dish I can make it when I get home. As for the kids, I’m not sure you could please my children more than by offering gnocchi and sauce with every meal, that is unless you let them watch tv, play video games and gorge themselves on sugar for 10 hours. But the holiday menu is, well, rather loosey-goosey, and Papa and my brother and sister-in-law all love to cook and prepare food. When you get that many great chefs in the kitchen, it’s best to just go with it and make what you are told, or offer to perform the mundane tasks such as prepping or peeling or dicing. In fact, now that I think about it, Thanksgiving at the in-laws is all about cooking and preparing the food--creating fabulous dishes and offering a variety of personal favorites for each guest. Whether or not those dishes actually all go together or ever showed up on the Thanksgiving plates of the first New Englanders is of no concern. It’s also been my experience that Italians are a meat-loving bunch; the more meat you can serve and put into other dishes the better. Like I said, I’ve come to embrace the carnivoristic tendancies, even if it means I may need a stool softener later.


Turkey did make the cut this year, all 22 pounds of it. Yes, a 22 lb turkey. From what I’ve read, you should figure on 1 lb of turkey per person (which I think is a bit ridiculous because when is the last time you sat down to eat a full pound of anything, unless it’s a slice of fruit cake from your old Aunt Pat?) which would have meant a 10-12 pound turkey would have done the trick, but this Thanksgiving I suppose that each of were entitled to almost three pounds each. Ingest that much turkey and you may as well sprout feathers and a wattle. Or a waddle. Either one. And where’s room for the Thanksgiving meatballs?


The night before Thanksgiving, it seemed as if all the adults had been cooking for two solid days (in fact my middle daughter complained, “Mah-muumm, we haven’t even seen you since we’ve been here. You’ve been in the basement kitchen the whole time and haven’t even come upstairs.” Yes, I know. There is another pretty complete kitchen in the basement which is another blog entirely) and we were still saying things like, “Have you started the gnocchi yet?” “When are we going to put on the roast?” “How long does the bread take to make?”


“Do we even know what we’re serving?” Someone asked.


“Why don’t you write down what we have,” Someone else suggested.


So my brother-in-law started writing. Here’s the menu we ended up with:


Thanksgiving 2009

  • Roasted (22 lb.) Turkey
  • Pork Loin
  • Meatballs
  • Sausage Stuffing
  • No Knead Wheat Bread
  • Gnocchi & Sauce
  • Cranberry Chutney
  • Roasted Cauliflower Casserole
  • Brussel Sprouts Piri Piri
  • Green Chile Corn
  • Green Salad with Pears
  • Parmesan & Garlic Brussel Sprouts
  • Deviled Eggs
  • Antipasta Platter
  • Mashed Potatoes & Gravy
  • Pumpkin Pie
  • Pumpkin Pecan Pie
  • Pineapple Upsidedown Cake
  • Pumpkin Roll
  • Jenis Ice Cream
  • Cinnamon Coffee Cake
  • Fruit Cake

Now, at this point I’d love to tell you that the family gathering numbered more than 45, or that we cooked 15 dishes and provided 7 different desserts for the hungry college students from Franciscan University 25 miles away who were unable to go home for the holiday. But we didn’t. There were eight adults and three kids. Just us. We ate. And ate. I stood up, unbuttoned my pants and had a second plate of food. And after dinner there were so many leftovers we could have bathed in the remnants and still had enough for dinner the following day. But like any good, quality family gathering, it doesn’t have to make sense. The menu, the food items. The fact that we filled every plastic baggie, bin, and resealable container with food and were storing them on the back porch outside and under the front of the house because the two household refrigerators were already full, just goes to show you what a food-loving bunch we all are. Did we have the leftovers for breakfast? Well, some deviled eggs, but Papa made pancakes. Did we eat the leftovers for lunch? No, the ladies and children ate at Costco and the gentlemen ate fried fish at the American Legion. Did we have leftovers for dinner? Yes, we did pull them out for dinner. But guess what the kids ate? You got it. Gnocchi and sauce, leaving us with approximately 15 pounds of cold turkey.


But with any family gathering, the good times must come to an end, the love and stress of the holidays bottled and saved for next year. We packed up all the gear we brought, then packed up all gear we purchased, then packed up all the gear Papa gave us, and with the luggage rack near bursting, the kids knees at their chins for the 50 pound car jack, gently-used V-Tech phones, orange flashing dome light with car lighter adapter for emergencies, BB gun for my son (what 10 year old doesn’t need a BB gun?) and other accoutrements at their feet, we set off for the 10 hour trek back home. Did I do any complaining about the amount of items we brought back with us? Not much. Because one of the things we left with was a brand spankin’ new Cuisinart food processor my father-in-law happened to have on the shelf down in the basement kitchen. Not even being used. Just gathering flour dust. And funny enough, a Cuisinart food processor was just what I wanted for Christmas.


I’d love to continue this blog with a hellacious story about the ride home, but was surprisingly peaceful. The kids’ eyes bulged at the screens. We listened to our ipods. We even stopped for dinner at a REAL restaurant and even ate inside at a table. Dinner was good. Traffic? Non-existent all the way home. Weather? Crystal clear and starry. We pulled in around 1:00 a.m. and everyone went to bed without a fuss. Perhaps this ride home is my reward for all the other years of hellish driving conditions and screaming children. That, or maybe I was mesmerized by the thought of the 22 lb turkey and my new Cuisinart.