Despite its excess, its gaudy commercialization and celebration of intemperate consumption, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is not the food, for I don’t particularly care for turkey or pumpkin pie, but the communal celebration, the sharing a meal with the people who matter in my life, that holds Thanksgiving’s appeal.
I am fortunate in that most of my close relatives live nearby. My mother lives about 7 miles away in the house I grew up in, a house she and my father bought in the early 50s. My brother and his wife live 3 or 4 miles from her. My sister and her husband, in whose house we will celebrate Thanksgiving, live about half an hour drive away up in the foothills. Two of my wife’s cousins and a nephew live about a mile from us. Although we get together in different combinations many times throughout the year, on Thanksgiving we all gather together for a few hours.
The absence of a loved one—a soldier deployed overseas, a family member who has moved away or cut off contact with others, a hospitalization or death—the void of this absence resonates at Thanksgiving like at no other time. We come together to share our blessings, to bask in the company of each other. That absence reminds us of both our good fortune and our loss, evoking memories of Thanksgivings past and awareness of losses to come.
The foods of Thanksgiving, the familiar dishes we return to year after year, anchor our celebrations. While some pimp the traditional with whatever the current culinary rage might be—cranberry foam on spherical turkey ravioli with bacon crusted Brussels sprouts—most of us long for the comforting reassurance of the dishes we remember from when we were children, and were loved and protected from the world. We might not like the green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and fried onions from a can, but if that is what we had as children, we find comfort in its presence on the table.
This Thanksgiving we will be missing someone special. I’ve known my sister-in-law’s mother, Teddy, since I was in high school, when Richard Nixon was President and we were still fighting the Vietnam War. She has always been an extremely gracious, giving person with an unflappable air of calm about her. While my sister-in-law might be raging or bubbling over with excitement, Teddy would always murmur, “Oh, Lisa,” or “hmm, hmm. That sounds wonderful.” Over the years, Ted and Fred (my sister-in-law’s father), have been extremely generous towards our family, welcoming not only my wife, but also her extended family of cousins, nieces, and nephew.
Teddy passed on all her cooking skills to her daughter, so it’s fortunate that Lisa married someone who likes to cook. Otherwise, Lisa would be living on a diet of canned, boxed, and frozen food. Teddy tells of the time she cooked her first Thanksgiving turkey and was so pleased to find the turkey came pre-stuffed, not realizing until after it was cooked that the neck, gizzards and liver weren’t intended as stuffing.
Someone else cooks the turkeys for our Thanksgiving dinners, but Teddy’s cranberry jello mold has been a fixture for many years. Although Teddy won’t be able to make it to this year’s gathering, her jello will be there. As difficult it sometimes is to please Tjing’s demanding palate, she loves Ted’s jello salad. Fortunately, Tjing requested the recipe from Teddy several years ago, and, of course, Teddy graciously passed it on. Shopping for the ingredients this week, I was unable to find either the Cranberry Jello or the Raspberry Jello called for in the recipe. I substituted Black Cherry Jello for the cranberry and a generic raspberry gelatin for the Jello brand.
Holiday Jello Salad
(recipe courtesy of Teddy)
1 large pkg Cranberry & Fruit Jello
1 small pkg Raspberry Jello
3 cups boiling water
1 can whole berry cranberry sauce
2 small cans mandarin oranges, drained
1 large can crushed pineapple plus juice
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
In a large bowl dissolve the two jellos in the boiling water. Add cranberry sauce and stir to dissolve. Stir in mandarin orange segments and pineapple. Mix in walnuts. Pour mixture into jello mold(s) and chill until set.