Cambrian: Slice of Life

BEST OF: A silvery Thanksgiving memory

In the November 2002 issue of Gourmet magazine, then Editor-in-Chief Ruth Reichl penned a wistful retrospective column about her first Thanksgiving dinner as young bride/hostess/chef. It sounds as if her gourmet evening was a smashing success, despite the five flights of stairs her family had to traverse to get to her bare-bones New York City loft.

This was my Nov. 14 letter to her about her column:

Dear Ms. Reichl;

Your Thanksgiving-flashback column triggered my own dose of nostalgia for a bygone holiday. Immediately on reading your account, I went into emotional reverse gear, back to my first big, traditional food-fest on my own as a semi-self-supporting, semi-adult.

However, my ending was a little different than yours.

I was barely 19, single and working as a copywriter and on-air interviewer at a big-city radio station a thousand miles from my family. As I was living in a tourist-oriented area, almost nobody in my financial bracket or social strata got to go home on the Thanksgiving holidays. So, I knew lots of other people who, like me, appeared doomed to dining solo that Thursday on a Swanson turkey dinner.

Having been trained by my hostess-without-peer grandmother to be gracious, I — like you, Ms. Reichl — decided to host my first Thanksgiving Day dinner as a grownup.

That’s how I wound up feeding 26 people.

Undaunted, I planned and schemed, made lists, and even posed the inquiries my grandmother taught me to ask, such as “Is anybody allergic to any foods I’m serving?” or the now-politically-incorrect query, “Do you smoke? What brand, so I can have it here for you.” I stocked everybody’s favorite beverage, fixed up my tiny apartment and got to cookin'.

The meal was no problem; I’d fixed all kinds of meals since childhood. Very little in the culinary world daunted me then or now.

After haunting the very best ingredient sources, I whipped up Virginia City-style candied ham, a nice turkey with stuffing and gravy, even a roast beef. The ham and rare beef were served chilled, because I only had one oven. Fortunately, I had a large refrigerator.

Appetizers, yams, mashed potatoes, pies. We had it all.

Like your fledgling meal, the food and the evening were great, even if I do say so myself — until people got their food and looked around for silverware.

Oh, I’d begged and borrowed enough plates. But way too late, I discovered that, for 26 people, I had eight forks.

After my guests dished up some merciless teasing, we ate in shifts between giggles. “Come on, it’s my turn. Share the fork. You’re just being mean over there, smooshing your leftover stuffing around in the gravy.” My own coming-of-age ritual taught me lessons that, later in life, served me well as the owner/operator of a full-line retail bakery and catering company.

Item one: No matter how good your list is, you WILL forget something.

Item two: If you don’t broadcast the omission, you’ve got an 80 percent chance that nobody will ever notice.

Item three: If you keep your cool, and laugh at yourself, guests will exonerate you for almost anything, even if they do figure out what’s missing. Item four: Eating nutmeg-laced yams, sherried turkey gravy and caramelized corn with a spoon is OK, but ham and roast beef are a pain.

Item five: If the food is tasty, and the company convivial, it’s amazing what people will forgive, remembering in future years only the high spirits, laughter and shared good times over a good meal.

PS: I’ve had other embarrassing moments in the kitchen since then. But I never again ran short of forks.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!!

This column ran first in The Cambrian on Nov. 14, 2002.