In the beginning, as it must be for most people, Thanksgiving was all about family — and turkey and stuffing and rice (a concession to my dad’s Louisiana roots), gravy, cranberry sauce and a dish my mom called “million dollar salad.”
The delightful smells coming out of my mom’s kitchen permeated the house like the heady perfume of an oriental bizarr, inflicting the exquisite torture of sharpened hunger that grew more ravenous with every passing hour as the turkey roasted, the gravy bubbled and the other dishes slowly warmed on the stove.
Family Thanksgiving dinners were wonderful when we were children. I tend to give thanks to this day that our Pilgrim Fathers starved for several winters, until the gentle Native Americans taught them agriculture — something they should have known before setting out to the New World. I was also thankful that the schools I went to had yet to be infected with political correctness and therefore the desire to shatter the idyllic story of white man and Indian sitting down together to eat and give thanks.
Later, when I got married, Thanksgiving became a hectic day. Dinner was done at two different sets of parents, my wife’s in the early afternoon, my own in the late afternoon. Dinner at Chantal’s parents included a few things that most people do not know were eaten at the first Thanksgiving — pasta, fennoci, and other Sicilian delights.
That reminds me of the story of how spaghetti sauce was invented. The story is made up, but the children find it amusing.
It seems that two ancestors of my wife, Guido and Giovanni, were on a voyage of exploration, seeking the Northwest Passage in the service of the King of Sicily. Needing to replenish their water supplies, the two brothers landed at Plymouth Rock. They noted the aroma of cooking and the sounds of merry making and one brother looked to the other.
“Mamma mia!” both exclaimed “A festival!”
They broke out the dried pasta along with some garlic, herbs and olive oil and went hence to the settlement to invite themselves to the party.
(At this point Chantal interjects, “Surely as the Pilgrims were fanatical Protestants, Guido and Giovanni would have been shot on sight.” … “Hush, dear. Who is telling this story?”)
So, giving William Bradford some cock and bull story about being refugees from the Inquisition, the two brothers were invited to share the feast and to cook this wondrous food called pasta. They proceeded to do this with a will, but noticed that the usual mixture of garlic, herbs and olive oil was running short.
At that point one of the gentle Native Americans, probably Squanto, approached them with a basket of strange, red fruit. “Tomato,” he told them.
(“Surely, tomatoes were native to South America,” Chantal will always mention.)
Tomatoes, which Squanto had picked up from a passing trader for some fur pelts and salted fish. Shrugging, the brother cut them up and tossed them into the pot with the olive oil, the herbs and the garlic.
To make a long story short, the pasta with the new sauce was a big hit at the first Thanksgiving. Guido and Giovanni departed with lots of gifts and good wishes.
(“And why didn’t pasta with tomato sauce become a staple in New England?” asks Chantal.)
Unfortunately the Pilgrims soon learned that Guido and Giovanni had lied to them and were in fact good Catholics. As a result, pasta with tomato sauce was declared a product of the devil. Guido and Giovanni, having not found the Northwest Passage, made it home to Palermo and opened up their own trattoria where their prospered with their new dishes of pasta with tomato sauce.
Some Thanksgivings were bittersweet, such as the one the year my mom died and this year, with a death imminent in Chantal’s family. Some have been adventurous, like the year I was obliged to cook the turkey. I stuffed the cavity with onions, garlic, olive oil and herbs (the memory of Guido and Giovanni still fresh) and rubbed the inside of the skin with olive oil, garlic, herbs and cayenne pepper. It turned out very tasty and was well-received.
I am thankful for being alive and, for the most part, healthy in this the first decade of the 21st century. Life has its troubles and aggravations, as it always have. But there are family, friends, a great country to live in, a future that always looks brighter than the present, good books, the Internet and amusing things to watch on TV and at the movies. I love the job that allows me to render opinions for money and all the other opportunities that are available.
In short, it is great being alive and free, and if we must stuff ourselves with turkey and all the trimmings to acknowledge that, it is a burden I am most willing to bear at least once a year.