Turkey Day Tears and Other Woes

In Celebration of the Intrepid Home Cook

We’ve seen it a thousand times: “Freedom From Want,” Norman Rockwell’s 1942 ode to the great American Thanksgiving dinner. There is Grandma in her white apron, clutching a perfectly glazed turkey the size of a small boulder under Grandpa’s smiling gaze. Beside them, a giddy assortment of relatives—all good-looking, mind you—exchange grins across the table as they prepare to devour what they know will surely be the feast of the year.

As I look at this painting, beloved by so many, I am conflicted. It is at once the quintessence of Thanksgiving and the very bane of it. It stokes our dreams of the perfect family gathering, and yet, year after year, our own ambitions may fall short of its glimmering idealism. Rockwell himself did once say of his work, “I paint life as I would like it to be.”

Not as it really is.

Just as I sigh and wonder if my own family gathering could ever measure up to this veritable reverie of a Turkey Day table scene, I take heart. Beyond the polished silver, the dimpled child and the sunshine is Grandma’s face. Take a closer look. Like the revelatory eye in a hurricane of delusion, Grandma’s not grinning at all. What is that, a smirk? A crumpled frown damming her tears? She’s exhausted at best; at worst—indignant. Why? Because Grandma has been working her tail off in that kitchen. All. Day. Long.

I am so thankful that Rockwell didn’t paint a grin on Grandma’s face. Her expression is a merciful dose of realism in an otherwise cruelly cheerful scene. None of us may ever live up to the rest of that little family’s barbaric holiday happiness, but I’d be willing to bet some of us will always be able to relate to Grandma. As long as Thanksgiving includes homemade turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and pie, someone in the house is going to have mixed feelings about the task of preparing all of it.

To that I say, “Long live Grandma and all the other courageous home cooks across the nation!” While everyone else is snoozing and salivating, you serve as both the sacrificial lamb and the indispensable hero of every holiday meal. What would the rest of us do without you?

I can remember my own grandmother slaving in her kitchen, days before our family arrived every Thanksgiving. She planned a shopping list, braved the grocery store aisles, and always began her prep work a day or two before the big meal. Her menu, a mainstay that our family came to count on, included all the usual suspects: green beans, gravy, cranberry sauce from a can, buttered corn and, of course, her perennial pièce de résistance: The Turkey. Pride of home cooks everywhere, and a thorn in their sides, too. How did my grandmother manage to cook hers through every year? How did she know to baste it so well, to pull it out of the oven, perfectly golden, at just the right moment? The way she brought a Thanksgiving meal together on time seemed to me like something akin to witchcraft. Magic! How she did it, I’m only just beginning to understand.

Home cooks know that Thanksgiving does not mean kicking the old heels up, or watching the football game from the couch. Just like Rockwell’s Grandma and my own grandmother, they know it entails a significant amount of effort, planning, time-sensitive execution, dodging of cranky kids and meddling adults—and all for what?

The only reason I can think of why anyone in their right mind would embark on the preparation of a Thanksgiving feast is simply this: love. Love of celebration, of thankfulness, of good food and yes—even of family, no matter how deranged or grumpy or grinning they may be as they gather around the table together.

Here’s to all the intrepid home cooks as you embark on Thanksgiving dinner 2016. Godspeed. You might plop that turkey on the table in tears. The bread might burn and you might even find a child’s wicked little finger snooping around in your beautiful pumpkin pie, but remember: there never was, and never will be, a true Thanksgiving without you.