The Nexus of All Despair


First Person

Frances Brundage, Thanksgiving Day Greetings (detail), ca. 1913.

Our Winter 2015 issue features an interview with Jane and Michael Stern, who have written more than forty books; their Roadfood, first published in 1978 and now in its eighth edition, brought a new fervor and attention to regional American cuisine. To celebrate the new issue and the holiday, Jane Stern reflects here on Thanksgivings past. Happiness abounds. —D. P.

I’ve always thought that Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday, based solely on the fact that I adore turkey. But if I were to remove turkey from the equation, I would probably realize that this holiday, for me, has been nothing but one hideous thing after another.

Why Thanksgiving is the nexus of all despair is a mystery. But to prove that it is, here’s a short list of some of the things I remember. 

1956, New Haven, Connecticut

The table is beautifully set in the dining room of the gracious colonial house on Trumbull Street, where my aunt and uncle live. I am ten years old, and my older cousins—Eric, seventeen, and his sister, Willa, thirteen—are my teen idols. After the family takes a few snapshots of all of us smiling, the food is spread out on the table and the shit hits the fan. Uncle Henry makes a snide remark about Elvis Presley, who has just been on The Ed Sullivan Show, and cousin Willa flings herself from the table in a histrionic fit. The whole table erupts into a pro- and anti-Elvis fight. The dinner is ruined, no one is hungry, and the gravy curdles as “All Shook Up” blasts from the phonograph in Willa’s room behind the slammed door.

1971, New Haven, Connecticut

A newlywed, I forgo seeing my family for Thanksgiving, and for a change of pace Michael and I invite two friends over. The only flaw in this plan is that I do not know how to cook. Undeterred, I take cookbooks out of the library, buy bags and bags of food, and at some point realize the twenty-eight-pound turkey (for four) will not fit in our apartment’s modest oven. I hack it into pieces.

By the time the two guests arrive, I’ve been cooking for four days, making unspeakably horrible and complicated dishes. I’ve also arranged flowers, cleaned the apartment, repainted the bathroom, and stocked up on Mateus and Boone’s Farm apple wine. I vaguely remember the guests arriving. I’m told that twenty minutes after they did, I excused myself and went to bed. I wake up the next day to a sink full of dirty dishes.

1977, Evanston, Illinois

My in-laws live in the Midwest, and every other Thanksgiving Michael and I travel to see them. This year we’re going to a close relative’s house a few miles away from where his parents live. These relatives are very pretentious. The house is Japanesque. We are instructed to remove our shoes when we enter. The floors are highly polished wood; the furniture is low, uncomfortable, and expensive. The host, a doctor, collects small, tortured bonsai trees.

Seventy-seven is the year the Cuisinart hit the American food scene, and these relatives are nothing if not on trend. Their Thanksgiving menu: pureed capon, pureed creamed spinach, pureed potatoes, pureed carrots, and, for dessert, a pureed pumpkin puree with pureed chestnuts on top. When I am very old and in a nursing home, I will look back on this meal fondly. But now, not so much.

1981, New Haven, Connecticut

Much of my family has died, unexpectedly, from awful diseases and fateful occurrences: my mother from a brain tumor, my cousin Willa from breast cancer, another cousin from a car accident, my grandmother from a broken hip, my father from smoking five packs a day. Those of us who are still living are at my Uncle Henry’s house for the traditional Thanksgiving meal. My Aunt Liz is cooking from rote, undeterred by her galloping Alzheimer’s. We all sit around glumly forking at the stuffing and Uncle Henry begins reading the most ghastly poetry, stuff he’s written for the event. It is not so much poetry as a morbid recitation of terminal cancer symptoms in iambic pentameter. I want to go screaming into that good night.

1995 and 1996, Redding, Connecticut

Michael is now devoted to AA. We accept invitations from people in his home group, knowing there will be no cocktails. The first Thanksgiving is at the home of a woman who has a very dysfunctional relationship with her grown children. By ten at night, we’ve still not eaten anything, and it becomes clear that her children are not going to show up. The food remains in the oven as a hasty committee is formed to keep her out of the liquor cabinet.

The next year we go to Thanksgiving dinner at a local restaurant with an AA couple I have never met. Michael swears I’ll like them because they own a parrot.

They don’t eat anything. One has an ulcer and the other has brought a round cushion to sit on, for hemorrhoids. After they stare at us as we eat, they ask us back to their house to see the man’s artwork: tracings of Donald Duck and Pluto.

2002, Redding, Connecticut

Most all my relatives are dead, and Michael and I are afraid to accept dinner invitations from anyone. We stay home, make the world’s smallest turkey breast, the usual side dishes. It is depressing, so we go for a drive around town, staring into other people’s dining rooms, where they all look jolly and familial.

2008, Ridgefield, Connecticut

I’ve just had stomach surgery because I can’t lose weight in a normal way. I have 80 percent of my stomach removed, and I feel awful—not in any mood to socialize. I’m still on mushy foods as I heal, and this Thanksgiving I’m alone in front of the TV. I eat a two-ounce jar of baby food: Gerber’s turkey and sweet potatoes. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, and I am thrilled by how baggy my jeans feel.

2012, New Jersey

Michael and I are divorced. I go to visit my one remaining cousin, who lives in Howell, New Jersey. It’s a four-hour drive, and when it gets dark I get lost in Newark and then in New Brunswick. I’m afraid to get out of the car and ask for directions. Eventually, I find my way back to the New Jersey Turnpike, where a really nice lady in the tollbooth wishes me a happy Thanksgiving. My spirits lifted, I drive on.