I come from a long line of great cooks. I count executive chefs among first cousins on my Mother’s side and creative cooks who never saw a recipe that couldn’t be improved by improvisation on my Father’s side. Which is why it surprised us all when Mother veered off the recipe one Thanksgiving. She’s a rule-follower extraordinaire, an accounting supervisor, someone you can trust with the church treasury. This was erratic behavior and completely out of character.
We were gathered at my aunt’s house, the mother of the first-cousin executive chef. My Mother and one of my first cousins by marriage were tasked with a favorite Jell-O recipe, the one with nuts and pineapple and cream cheese topping. You know the one, I’m sure. I was given an innocuous task, something simple that couldn’t be messed up. I peeled potatoes alongside my favorite uncle. Evidently this had something to do with peelers not having sharp edges like knives. I don’t know why they didn’t trust me in the kitchen with knives, but that’s a different story.
Men-folk cousins took turns basting the turkey outside somewhere. It’s possible it was being smoked that year. Or, it could have been inside the kitchen in the oven. At any rate, they took turns going outside, cups in hand.
My aunt had an extensive collection of that Lenox china, you know the holiday one with gold rim edges, ivy and holly berries. That one. She believed in white tablecloths, real china, candles, a centerpiece and a family table where all were welcome. I believe too. I believe in this more than I believe in Santa Claus and I believe we are not to talk about S.C. until after Thanksgiving.
My aunt had the complete “in” on desserts. She taught high school, not just any classes, mind you. She taught the kids who would go on to become chefs, run restaurants and determine dining menus in Zagat-rated venues. Her students prepared a sugar-coma-inducing array of sweets, each following a recipe she had selected for precision and sure results. She purchased our favorites. There were pies – pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple pie. There was a ginger-bread pudding/bundt cake covered with hard lemon sauce that I can still taste. There was a pumpkin roll stuffed with cream cheese filling and topped with nuts. Some years there were jam cakes covered in caramel icing. The dessert table stretched yard after yard, all the way out to the porch deck.
We arranged ourselves before the banquet table next to the kitchen in the ‘side parlor’ that served as a dining room. We prayed as a family. Candles flickered, faces flushed from kitchen warmth and the cups the cousins consumed. Holiday cheer and genuine thanksgiving abounded in our hearts.
My mother and the cousin-in-law excused themselves to the kitchen and brought out one more dish. The Jell-O dish whose name I’m sure another cousin will call me and remind me of as soon as this blog is posted. I’ll add it in the comments, I promise. Maybe even the recipe, if you ask nicely.
The apologies began. The topping looked awful, like someone had taken the cream cheese, hardened it into mud-cakes from Army boots and thrown it atop the jello. A disaster. (In all fairness – it still tasted terrific.) Cousin-in-law looked like she was biting her tongue. Mother explained weakly that the recipe called for this and that process, but she and Cindy (oops) had speeded it up and and thrust the topping into the freezer on waxed paper with a sneaky plan to then unroll the wax paper atop the Jell-O foundation. Mother muttered some more, mortified, tried to pass the dressing and change the subject.
Someone – pretty sure it was cousin Kenny – picked up the rectangular glass dish and shook it. No jiggle. Top layer too taut. Laughter spouted out lips and nostrils. Kids giggled. We took turns trying to make it shake like Jell-O should. Tears streamed down cheeks in the hot steamy warmth of a Thanksgiving that all of us will always remember.
Sometimes it’s the mistakes that make the best memories.