I'm an old hand at Thanksgiving. I cooked my first turkey at 22 and never looked back. I've served Thanksgiving dinner for twelve in a 10 by 20 studio apartment. I've coped with turkeys that didn't thaw and rolls that didn't rise I've searched out free-range turkeys, made trips across town to buy Delicata squash, and picked through the Brussels sprouts to find buds no bigger than my thumb. I've tinkered with my mother's stuffing recipe and my great-aunt Beulah's raisin sour cream pie. For more than twenty years, I gathered a mix of friends, family, and strays around my table.
Then I fell in love.
My Own True Love's family has a rigid approach to Thanksgiving dinner. Permanent assignments were made long ago. Sister Nancy brings green bean casserole. Cousin Luellen makes her butterflake rolls. Josephine, whose relationship to the family was never explained, bakes pumpkin pies. My love brings beer. His mother supervises the gravy. Things have been unchanged for twenty years. Maybe even thirty.
The first year that I joined them for the holiday my innocent question, "What would you like me to bring?", dropped into the family communication system like a pebble into a deep hole. I asked again. A third time. Finally an answer echoed back. Cranberry sauce.
At first I was indignant. Cranberry sauce was wading in the baby pool and I was a long distance swimmer.
"Count your blessings," my friend Karin told me. Her sigh gusted through the telephone like a hurricane off Plymouth Rock. "My mother-in-law asked me to bring homemade egg rolls for 30 and three mince pies."
Indignation was replaced by panic. My favorite recipe for cranberry sauce is sweet with honey, bright with citrus, and unexpectedly sharp with jalapeno and mustard seed. My love's family likes their food plain. Pepper was a luxury when they immigrated to America and they've never seen any reason to change their opinion on the subject. If there is something red and unexplained in their food, they poke it with their forks and ask, "Is this hot?" My spicy cranberry relish would be a flop.
I asked my love "What kind of cranberry sauce does your family usually have?"
He looked confused "The regular kind," he said.
"Should I call your mother and get her recipe?"
"It comes in a can," he said in a voice that suggested he was beginning to doubt the wisdom of taking me to the family dinner.
I looked up cranberry sauce recipes in 52 cookbooks. They ranged from spartan (cranberries, water and sugar) to weird (cranberries with port wine, fresh figs, dried cherries).
"Just chose a recipe," Karin said patiently from half way across the country as I sobbed cranberry sauce tears into the phone. "They'll eat whatever you bring."
"The recipes all sound so awful," I wailed as the cat licked salty tears off my face.
"Thanksgiving isn't about the food." Karin repeated with every call. "But I'll ask around."
Karin did ask around. Our friends, and their friends, rallied. Cranberry sauce recipes poured in. Raw cranberries chopped with walnuts and orange peel. Gelatin molds made with cranberry juice. Cranberries blended with sour cream and mayonnaise. I grew more and more distraught.
Finally a recipe arrived that I could taste on my mind's palate without flinching. Karin's friend Wanda's boyfriend David offered a recipe that promised a silken balance of tart and sweet.
"Thank you," I answered a hundred helpful e-mails. "I'm ready."
David's cranberry sauce was a wow. I set out on the drive to southern Illinois confident that every bite would be eaten with, I allowed myself a chuckle at the pun, relish.
The weather was bad that year. Snow blew across the road and coated the highway signs until they were unreadable. We kept a running count of the cars in the ditch, with a sub-total for those that had turned over. The three-hour drive stretched to five. My Own True Love drove with ferocious concentration. Finally, the inevitable happened. A car fishtailed in front of us and spun into the median. My love swore. He made a controlled slide to the left, then the right. From the back seat came a horrible sucking noise like a monster pulling itself out of the primeval swamp.
"What was that?" my love asked in the hysterical voice of a man who fears he has damaged his car beyond repair. We pulled off the road to inspect the damage. It was the cranberry sauce.
Which is why we appeared at Thanksgiving dinner the next day with a case of beer and two cans of cranberry sauce.
The cranberry sauce was a wow. Every spoonful was eaten; not a drop left to spread on a turkey and dressing sandwich that evening. My love's family told stories and praised every dish from the butter through the pie. And I realized that all the friends who sent me cranberry sauce recipes were right. Thanksgiving really isn't about the food.
Next year it will be our turn to host Thanksgiving dinner. I plan to shake things up a little, but I'll make sure there's room on the table for Nancy's green bean casserole. Right next to the free-range turkey, the homemade tamales, and two bowls of cranberry sauce, one sweet with orange juice and one with the unexpected bite of jalapeno and mustard seed.