As American as …
On our first Thanksgivingtogether, my husband and I went to the supermarket. I was thrilled tolearn that our mothers had both used crackers and celery in theirturkey stuffing. See, I thought, we have everything in common.
Then we got to the baking-goods section.Immediately, I grew cold. Burton lifted from the shelves two 24-ouncebrownish-gold cans of Libby’s pumpkin-pie filling, enough to fill two10-inch pie crusts.
“What’s that for?” I asked idiotically.
He proceeded to load up with condensed milk, eggs,sugar.
“I’ll make some more pies for the freezer,” hesaid.
“Pumpkin pie?” My surprise made no sense, but ithit me at the level of core belief. I was 26 years old and had nevertasted pumpkin pie. Had no interest in it. Pumpkin pie was not evenon my radar screen of culinary desires. Pumpkin pie was alien matter,weirder than rhubarb, more foreign than mincemeat. Strange fruitindeed.
I knew I was being ridiculous and held my tongue.Inside, I was shriveling. Here was a side of my husband I didn’tknow, and a world I wasn’t ready for.
It was as if my husband was purchasing a Christmastree and expecting me to go along with it. Pumpkin pie was more thanmerely disinteresting; it was terrifying, a step toward –assimilation. In a flash, I saw what was coming toward me; wreaths onthe door and eggnog and caroling.
“I love pumpkin pie,” Burton said, benignly. “Ican’t imagine the holiday without it.”
My own imagination was another story. Thanksgivinghad a special character when I was young. Though my grandparents hadimmigrated to America at the turn of the century, we were stillnewcomers, latter-day Pilgrims.
My mother’s mother died when Mom was 12; from yearto year, her uncle Sam might invite them to dinner, or might not. Thefamily celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Pesach together, and that wasthat.
So by the time my parents were married,Thanksgiving was a totem to an intact family, a dream holiday,something real Americans celebrated and a tradition my mother aspiredto learn. She cobbled together the holiday meal from LIFE magazineadvertisements and Jewish comfort food. I doubt that the Pilgrimsserved chopped liver for an appetizer. Or stuffed derma as a sidedish. But we had yams. And French-cut string beans. Like realAmericans everywhere.
Of course, we had a turkey. What a reception thisexotic bird got at our table. In the 1950s, turkey was not yet theall-purpose, everyday low-fat substitute for red meat it has sincebecome. Turkey was king, the symbol of American prosperity. A turkeyon the table was an event, the arrival of a kind of secular Elijahthe prophet, only dead. Somehow, I came to equate the annual turkeywith Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy; to our family, turkey meantaffluence, an escape from the Great Depression, the success of theNew Deal, and the arrival of good times for us all. To make a turkey,to have this crisp, bronzed, well-done bird presented to your guestsonce a year, meant you were making it in this great land.
But making it at what cost? Always there was thethreat of the “outside,” the world beyond our neighborhood, withcustoms even more exotic than a wild bird on the table, a world onlyvaguely understood.
“It’s your America,” my mother told me.
It was at the Thanksgiving table that I translatedAmerica for the benefit of my uncles and aunts. I was the oldestcousin, the first spy out into the new America that the youngercousins would soon be venturing into. Uncle Bernie put me on the hotseat, making me account for every new idea from Hula-Hoops to privatePrincess telephones. I answered for my generation’s views on civilrights, interracial marriage (my relatives worried less that I’dmarry a Catholic or Protestant than that I’d move to GreenwichVillage and move in with a beat poet or jazz drummer) andVietnam.
Inevitably, these benign “Meet the Press” sessionsended in confusion and anger. You’ll go far, my concerned uncle said.Maybe too far.
That brings me to dessert. Some people think thatthe national dessert is apple pie. They’re wrong.
“Chocolate whipped cream pie,” my mother recalledthe other day. “I always thought it was all-American. It’sclean.”
Chocolate whipped cream pie was as far intoAmerica as this accomplished cook could get in those days. Her recipegives the story away.
Two packs of My-T-Fine chocolate pudding (notinstant!), made according to the package directions. Graham crackercrust. Fresh whipped cream.
“We’re in America,” she said. “What can be badabout this?”
Actually, there were two desserts at ourThanksgiving table: my mother’s chocolate cream pie and a pineappleupside down cake. Nancy Silverton, owner of the elite restaurantCampanile in Los Angeles, writes in her new cookbook that thepineapple upside down cake of her youth, with canned pineapple andmaraschino cherries, is unredeemable. Her new version uses freshpineapple, macadamia nuts and takes three pages to describe. When thehunger for childhood is great, my guess is that we’ll