We had finished grace and were about to take the first bites of our Thanksgiving dinner. It was my first trip to meet my in-laws to be, and I was rather nervous about everything: Staying in their home. Getting along with Peggy and Felix. Knowing which fork and spoon to use.
I had helped Peggy to make the dinner x— a two-day endeavor — and she and I had gotten along quite well as we chopped vegetables and rolled pie crusts. She prided herself on her cooking, as well she should have. Though it was a traditional meal, it had many special touches. Lobster bisque. Green beans almondine. A vegetarian wild mushroom soup for me.
Just after the blessing, there was a long but not unpleasant silence as we passed and filled our plates. Felix was the first to speak.
“Peggy,” he said. “The turkey is dry. It’s too dry.”
Perhaps I choked on my mashed potatoes. In my house, growing up, even if the turkey were drier than sandpaper, no one would have mentioned it. Our family tends toward the superlatively positive — what we call “Grandma Betty-itis.” Great Grandma Betty was frequently known to exclaim, “This is the best ___________ I have ever had.” And I have to believe that she was telling the truth. She was a remarkably happy woman who, though she probably never heard of Buddhism, had a very Zen quality to her.
It occurs to me now that as much as we learn new recipes and new dishes from our in-laws, we also learn new ways to engage with a meal. What I did not yet understand that first Thanksgiving in Connecticut was that this was a usual discourse, and that after almost fifty years, Peggy was not offended by Felix speaking critically about the food.
Still, it was difficult for me to swallow. In subsequent dining experiences, I did my best to not feel offended when Felix was unimpressed. He was a tough customer in restaurants, too, often returning his plate for one reason or another. The soup was too cold. The meat too done. The espresso too weak.
A few years later, I was a bit nerve-wracked about the first holiday meal I was hosting for Peggy and Felix in our home in Colorado. It was Christmas. Eric and I chose to serve a basic Thanksgiving menu, knowing it would be something they would understand and enjoy eating. Luckily, it was just the four of us, so I didn’t feel enormous pressure as a hostess.
Eric prepared the meat eaters’ part of the meal — the turkey, stuffing, and gravy. I focused on the parts of the meal a vegetarian knows best — green beans (my favorite recipe is to sauté them in peanut oil, then toss with garlic, toasted sesame seeds, salt, and red pepper flakes), mashed potatoes, bread and, of course, pumpkin pie.
Now my pumpkin pie. I’m kinda proud of it. Fresh pumpkin. Ginger, cloves, and allspice to my own liking. Farm fresh eggs. A flaky butter crust with a rippling edge. Vanilla ice cream on the side. Let’s just say that folks besides my great grandma have said it’s the best pumpkin pie they’ve ever had.
As I mixed the ingredients, Felix sat at the kitchen counter, supervising. “It looks as if you’re doing a good job,” he said as I scraped the cooked pumpkin from its limp shell.
“Well,” I said, “It’s pretty impossible to mess up a pumpkin pie.”
After an hour, I checked on the pie in the oven. It was not at all set. Knowing that the fresh pumpkin often takes extra time, I set the timer for another twenty minutes.
Still not set. Not even close. I gave it another twenty. Then another. After two hours, the crust couldn’t take any more oven time, and I was flummoxed. That is when I realized I had done the impossible. I had messed up pumpkin pie. I forgot to put in the eggs. I stared at the pie through the oven window, my whole body cringing. “It’s just a pie. It’s just a pie,” I reminded myself. But I didn’t believe it. So much more was at stake.
I pulled the sweet pumpkin soup from the oven and set it on the stove top. There was no time to make another before the meal. I braced myself for Felix’s harangue.
“Don’t worry,” he said when I admitted my mistake. His smile was soft and somehow innocent. “It will make a great topping for our ice cream.”
First, I laughed in embarrassment. Then in disbelief. Then in full-on love. I hugged him long. Though I didn’t say it, he had given me the best Christmas present he could have — a generosity of spirit that I took very personally.
In the end, we didn’t eat the pumpkin sauce on our ice cream. I threw it away. We ate plain vanilla ice cream. And you can bet it was the best vanilla ice cream I ever had. 6
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer served as Western Slope Poet Laureate (2015-2017). One-word mantra: Adjust.