My First Thanksgiving

Darryl Campbell wanted to experience a traditional American Thanksgiving. Or at least he thought he did.

In September, when I volunteered to make the turkey for my friend’s Thanksgiving party, I was expecting to feed a reasonable seven people. Over the course of two months, however, the party got more and more out of hand. The guest list ballooned to thirteen, crates of wine and a keg of beer began to appear on the “alcohol wish list,” and I found myself responsible not only for a fourteen-pound bird, but also a vegetarian main course, the gravy, and a side dish.

So already it was shaping up to be a traditional holiday — and not just because of the turkey and trimmings. Thanksgiving, I’m convinced, is an excuse to raise America’s collective blood pressure. Consider the sanctimonious New York Times op-eds that take us to task over animal cruelty or not fasting before feasting, which are enough to send anyone screaming to the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Or else the how-to guides that present minor culinary decisions into life-or-death choices.

But even in the run-up to the big day, I reveled in all of it. When I lived with my parents, Thanksgiving meant watching TV with Dad, helping Mom season and baste the turkey, and not much else. I’m an only child, and with my mom’s family back in the Philippines and my dad’s family scattered across the country, our holiday meals tended to be on the quiet side. So I never got to experience the trappings of a traditional American Thanksgiving: large gatherings, cramped kitchens, and alcohol-fueled melodrama. This year’s meal would be a rite of passage that I was very much looking forward to.

Even as early as Wednesday afternoon, culinary storm clouds were gathering. Not only was our designated pie-maker fighting shortages of canned pumpkin (thanks to a rained-out crop) and Pyrex pie plates (thanks to bad planning), in her frustration she ruined two batches of pecan pie filling by curdling the eggs with hot caramel. Meanwhile, I had to eradicate a layer of orange mold in the cooler where I’d be brining the turkey, which involved a garden hose, laundry detergent, and bleach — unorthodox Thanksgiving ingredients, at least as far as I knew. Between cleaning out the cooler and vying for stovetop and oven time, what I’d thought would be a four-hour prep turned into an eight-hour marathon. Shell-shocked, I went home just before midnight, to gird my metaphorical loins for the next day’s onslaught.

Prepare

Twelve hours later, I was back at it, preparing food and choreographing the entry and exit of various dishes and platters (two kinds of stuffing, the vegetarian main course, brussels sprouts, Yorkshire pudding, and, of course, the turkey itself). And our little brigade de cuisine managed to keep dozens of minor disasters — the total collapse of our $2 aluminum turkey roasting pan, thieving cats and guests, clogged sinks, shortages of milk, eggs, and turkey stock — from escalating into major ones, in spite of our cuts, bruises, and steam and grease burns. And, miracle of miracles, we managed to get everything on the table at 6:00, as promised — except that our guests didn’t start showing up until 7:00. But they eventually sat down, the plates went out, and I got to sit down for what felt like the first time in two days.

I soon learned, however, that getting off of my feet wasn’t the same as relaxing; I’d exchanged a culinary minefield for a conversational one. The more wine (and champagne and prosecco and beer) that flowed, the more the line blurred between jokes and insults, between appropriate dinner chitchat and the finer points of table members’ sexual and/or hygienic habits. It was a melee of opinion and impudent observation: dignity was bruised, secrets were outed, and a few people ended up nursing their egos with pumpkin and pecan pie. I felt like I’d stepped out of an episode of Iron Chef and into one of Curb Your Enthusiasm — except, of course, that our Thanksgiving soundtrack consisted of Delilah on the radio playing Christmas music.

Consume

After the meal, I lay, nearly passed out, off to one side of the party, and I made peace with two things. First, I understood that the frenzy of pre-Thanksgiving meal-related anxiety that plays out in the food sections of newspapers and on cooking shows is actually good for us; it allows embattled hosts and hostesses to test out their stress-management techniques in a safe space, before the unpredictable and potentially scarring environment of a family gathering. And second, I could sympathize with my parents, who never bothered to organize, or pressure anyone into organizing, a large family gathering — they might have saved us all from a few holidays’ worth of severe emotional trauma.

I’m glad all of it happened, and I’m glad all of it is over, too, which I think means that I’ve finally experienced a traditional American Thanksgiving, from the stuffing and cranberry sauce to the physical and emotional exhaustion. If nothing else, I’ve learned how to successfully brine a turkey — that, in itself, is a minor accomplishment, too.

Clean Up

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.