Doomed, but I didn’t know it. I wanted to show off my new cooking skills in my liberated open kitchen, in the late 1960s, when Julia Child ousted American housewives from their kitchen closets by turning the kitchen into a family room.
So, my first (and last) Thanksgiving in our tract house in suburban New Jersey was doomed by architecture. A concrete box set on a cement slab was meant to be an all-in-one living/dining/cooking space, with niches behind for two bedrooms and a bathroom and a sliding glass door to bring the outside in. So efficient, so modern, just one big happy family. All together now—screeeam.
My 3-month-old baby screams in his bassinet, my 3-year-old toddler howls in her playpen, my cat meows on the kitchen counter, and my husband moans in the bathroom. A typical day in the house we had rented sight unseen after a year abroad in London and Provence.
Julia in Paris had no kids to distract her from mastering the art of French cooking for the “servantless American cook.” So we moms became cooking servants. We cooked next to the playpen and the diaper bin and the open shelves of china and the rack of imported wine. Thanks to our open kitchens, guests could watch the hostess retrieve a fried egg from the floor or warn the host when he dropped ash from his cigarette into the pitcher of Martinis.
But today—Thanksgiving—I ignore the screams, howls, meows, and moans and focus on the oven. I baste the turkey with butter every half hour, a big boy of 20 pounds who demands a lot of butter and produces a lot of smoke. I bake the oyster-cornbread stuffing to get a crisp crust and brown the icky marshmallow-topped yam casserole, made especially for our Brit couple who asked for something “typically Ahmedican.”
After all, Thanksgiving is supposed to honor cultural exchange, no? Even if all the food happened to be Native American—like corn, venison, cranberries, pumpkin and, occasionally, a wild turkey.
I’m out to prove to our two visiting Brits (and our two Brooklyn natives) that there is an American Cuisine, created by a mishmash of immigrant groups in quest of the new (opportunities, lands, continents) and united by a hunger for freedom, which made this country great.
My timing is perfect. The skin of the pasture-raised turkey glistens, juices pouring from a fork puncture. I set the bird to rest on the long open counter that separates stove from dining table. My table gleams with what’s left of our wedding crystal and Rosenthal china.
I pacify the baby with a nippled bottle, the toddler with a whole bag of M&Ms, the husband with a restorative shot of brandy, the cat with a bowl of cream set out on the porch and slide the door shut.
I have 15 minutes to rip off apron, put on lipstick, brush hair into a braid (not a beehive), take a pee, adjust girdle and bra, locate the wedding carving set, and get out the ice bucket for husband to make cocktails at our bar on wheels.
The doorbell rings. Enter the Brits, prompt as always. With a raised eyebrow at the peculiar all-in-one space, Mrs. Brit says, “What a wonderful smell from your—uh—kitchen?” They avoid stepping on the cat’s rubber mouse to sit on the sofa. Brooklyn arrives next, names exchanged, drinks ordered and served. A ritual question from Mrs. Brooklyn: “Can I do anything to help?”
“No. We’re all set.” I turn to the kitchen to serve my first course of leaf-lettuce salad. Unseen by me, a guest slides open the porch door to look at our yard. I seat the guests: Brooklyns with their backs to the counter, Brits opposite, husband and me at each end.
Everyone gobbles down the salad. A Brit remarks, “How amazing that Ahmedicans serve salad first instead of last, with the cheese.” I explain the unhappy history of salad in America and my happy replacement of iceberg-lettuce with actual fresh garden greens.
Everyone passes dirty plates to my end for removal to the sink. I place the hot casseroles on trivets at my end, to dish and pass family style once the turkey is carved. From a decanter, my husband pours out the Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I stack warmed dinner plates to the left of my husband to make room for the carving. I turn to my right to bring him the platter.
At that moment, our cat, who snuck in from the porch, leaps onto the bird to grab a wing. His weight tips the platter over. A clang of metal and a smash of glass. Mrs. Brooklyn screams from hot juice on her neck. Her husband rises with alarm as the beast tumbles into his lap. A flood of red wine gushes toward the Brits. Everyone yells, napkins flap. So much screaming I lose track of its source—guests, kids, cat?
My husband and I run for towels, hot water, carbonated soda for wine stains. We dab at dresses and suits with “so sorry, so sorry, so sorry.” A clap of thunder announces rain. Guests use rain as an excuse to get home fast. I gouge hunks of turkey and blobs of trimmings into doggy bags.
Husband and I pour full glasses of red wine as the front door shuts. Well, our friends got what they asked for, right? A typical American Thanksgiving dinner in the land of the free where togetherness is cool and America is great.
Betty Fussell’s latest collection of essays, EAT, LIVE, LOVE, DIE, is now on sale from Counterpoint Press.