Special Occasions Made all the More Special by Problems with the Food

Some years ago, my parents were having a large group of friends over for a special Sunday lunch to celebrate something or other. My mother had spent days preparing a very elaborate buffet, which was laid out on the kitchen table ready for the admiring guests to begin to eat.

The guests stood salivating, plates in hand, as my father reached to open the first bottle of champagne. This one was livelier than most, and, as he worked away at it slowly and turned to joke with a friend, my mother noticed the cork was extracting itself with more than the usual speed. She called out a warning to him, whereupon he hurriedly turned back, jerking the bottle in precise line overhead for the exploding cork to jet straight up and collide with the fluorescent light. The light exploded, disintegrating completely and raining tiny particles of glass and toxic dust all over the full buffet table. The guests stood speechless. My mother turned pale and had to sit down. She later said if the dessert hadn't been safe in the fridge, she would have burst into tears. They barbecued some chops my father found in the freezer.

I am known for an 'open door policy'. My philosophy is: the more the merrier--including holidays. If you don't have a place to come, you do now.

Thanksgiving 2000 was no exception. There were ten of us and for my house, that is a lot. Since my oldest daughter and family could not join us on Thanksgiving day, we had Thanksgiving on Saturday instead. My youngest daughter's boyfriend was also able to be with us. We put the young people in the kitchen and the old married folks at the dining room table. No one really cares about the meal--they are waiting for the pies because I only fix pies during the holiday season. Ben (the youngest daughter's boyfriend) had been waiting patiently to sink his teeth in the pumpkin pies. I was sitting at the dining table when Melissa (my youngest daughter) said, "Mom, what did you do different to the pumpkin pie?"

"Nothing, except I didn't taste-test as I was making them. Why?"

"Ben says they taste different."

"Well, Ben has never had my pumpkin pie, so he wouldn't know if it tasted different or not!"

"I've had your pumpkin pie," piped up my middle daughter, "and you'd better taste this!"

I took one bite and grabbed a glass of water, apologizing profusely at the same time. A word to the wise and to the not-so-wise: pumpkin pie without sugar tastes like soap.

After providing many holiday dinners for my extended family, mostly consisting of turkey and the rest of the traditional trimmings, I decided to rebel one year and make lasagna one Christmas. Although the kids missed the turkey, the pasta went over all right. The bad part is that we ended up calling 911, as my mother-in-law began complaining of chest pains. They sent not only an ambulance, but also a fire truck. It turned out that she was neither on fire nor having a heart attack--it was just a bad case of indigestion from my lasagna. After that, I have only served traditional turkey for Christmas dinner.

I don't know when I first noticed that my mother was a fractured cook. I certainly never gave the issue a second thought when I was growing up. She was a single, working mom, so dinner duties were often farmed out to one of her three daughters. I, more often than not, was the farmee. Cooking lessons consisted of, "Open a can of soup, toss in a few leftovers, and heat it all in a pot."

When my sisters and I left home to build lives and families of our own, traditional holiday meals held at Mom's were always fun--but also dreaded because of the stuffing. My mother believes stuffing is a highly personal matter, and that every stuffing maker adds his or her own special touch to the basic ingredients. Unfortunately for her guests, my mom's special ingredients consist of, well, just about anything and everything she can get her hands on--like olives, pickles, green peppers, red peppers, sausage, all manner of spices and other unidentifiable tidbits.

Each Thanksgiving, my family would gather round the dining table and eye Mom's gloppy mess with mixed feelings. Of course we all indulged by taking a spoonful or two and of course we sang the praises of her "special stuffing," even though we would each have liked to surreptitiously remove the inedible mass from our mouths and chuck it across the room.

In recent years, we've solved the stuffing problem by hosting "chip in" holiday meals and we make certain that Mother never gets the job of making the stuffing. Last year, I was assigned the stuffing job. Since dinner was being held at Mom's, a two-hour drive away, I decided to start it ahead of time in the crock pot. Bad move. By the time I arrived, my moist, savory, subtly seasoned masterpiece had become a paste-textured, gloppy mess--reminiscent of Mom's.

Of course, everyone indulged and muttered polite praises about my folly. I, on the other hand, removed the wet cardboard glob from my mouth and fed it to the dog.

Thanksgiving is upon me. Tomorrow eighteen people will place their feet under our table. I must get this turkey in the oven. I like to cook my turkey in an old-fashioned covered roaster on a rack, using that method where you do some of the time at an incredibly high heat and then turn the oven off and let it continue to cook on the residual heat.

So. My turkey is nice and cleaned and buttered.The oven is preheated to 500 degrees and the timer is set for 1 hour and 10 minutes--just right for a 21-pound turkey. Let's see . . . the time is 10:30 PM, so I need to turn the oven off at 11:40 PM. Into the pan goes my turkey, giblets and 6 cups of water. Into the oven goes everything. Timer is ticking down. I guess I will just rest my feet and watch this TV show.

Gracious, what is that smell? Oh, my timer is going off. Heavens!!! It is 4:00 AM. The house is full of smoke. I don't dare open the oven door, or the house will be consumed with smoke.

Well, it is finally 6:00 AM, so I'll wake up my husband. He takes the turkey (in the pan) outside and takes off the cover. Right in front of our eyes, the turkey turns to ashes, giblets and all. Now what? I begin to cry, and my husband and children can't hold back the laughter any longer. This only makes it worse. Then just like Superman, my son saves the day. He has a ham that his company has given him. So we have ham, dressing made with chicken broth, and no giblets. The rest of the meal is the traditional Thanksgiving food. To this day, we (even I now) get a laugh about that poor turkey. Needless to say, I no longer rest my feet or watch TV until my turkey is turned off. Viva la Thanksgiving!

"The rest is gravy." Boy, there's an ill-considered cliche. As if gravy were all windfall profit, with no work involved. Actually, turkey gravy is one of the most nerve-wracking and labor-intensive of all Thanksgiving dinner chores, because you have to make it from scratch, on the spot, using two burners that you probably can't line up (diagonals don't count), while everything else is supposed to be heading from stove to table and the turkey is "resting" -- in other words, getting cold.

But never mind the flour-and-turkey-grease roux, which you have to make in the roasting pan (hence the two burners), nor the careful balancing act you have to accomplish when you blend in turkey stock, cream, cognac, salt, and pepper to get the flavor and consistency right. For me, the greatest challenge has always been getting the stock made and safely transported through the day. One year, somebody discarded the neck and giblets before I could even set them to simmering. Another year, another "helper" threw out the finished stock so she could wash the pot. Worst of all was the year when, in the kitchen of a potter who couldn't bear to throw her broken creations away, I decanted my precious hot turkey nectar into a bowl held together by non-heat-resistant glue.

Nowadays, I do all my Thanksgiving cooking in my own kitchen, with only properly selected and drilled sous-chefs. My stock is as secure as any blue chip. And once I get those two burners lined up, the rest is gravy.

When I lived in Monterey, I dated a guy named Angelo, whom I ever after referred to as the New Age chiropractor. He was into crystal healing, and once claimed to have given me a dose of Vitamin C by laying a crystal on my stomach for 20 minutes -- puh-lease! He always made me wait for him if we had a date, loved that I looked nice "for him," and was terrible in bed.

Anyway, I once made reservations to take him to dinner at the Highlands Inn, a chi-chi hotel and restaurant in Carmel. He made us 20 minutes late, of course, and I felt stupid, but the food was excellent (so this isn't really a food disaster story as much as a date disaster story). Angelo was going through a "food combining" diet phase, so he was like picky Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally." No starch with the protein, etc., so he pooh-poohs the artistry of the menu and orders everything with exceptions. Someone you never want to invite to a dinner party. I don't remember what he had. I had a perfect endive salad and the best prawns of my life. When it came to dessert, he begged off (I'm sure he wanted to keep a light stomach for bad sex later). The check, though, came with two chocolate truffles, for which I immediately reached (he used to tell me my chocolate cravings were a sign of magnesium deficiency). Angelo stopped me from eating one by asking me to share it with him, and when I passed it over, he grabbed my hand, with the truffle palmed, and squeezed. The truffle collapsed and oozed between our fingers, right there in one of the most sophisticated eateries in town. I squealed and laughed, then annoyed him by licking off my hand, when part of his motivation was to save me from the chocolate. We didn't last too long. And I was always sorry I had chosen him over another, less self-centered guy who was the best kisser ever, but called women "little gal" and had awful taste in art. There must be a lesson in there somewhere.

Class was beginning. We were preparing a birthday dinner for a local celebrity, and for dessert, we were to prepare the birthday boy's favorite delicacy: Baked Alaska. All of my cooking students were lined up around the large work area, and as usual, I am careful to have all the ingredients laid out ahead of time--"mise en place," as the French say.

We whipped the egg whites to perfection, baked the bottom-layer sponge cake, sliced this, and put it into place. Each ingredient and technique was clearly explained as we went along. We put it in the oven to quickly brown the meringue, removed it, and all sat down to enjoy this magnificent showpiece of a dessert. Several youngsters (children of my students) marched around the darkened room, with sparklers bursting forth from the Baked Alaska. They stopped in front of our honored guest. His face lit up with pleasure and he quickly scooped out a portion to have the first taste.

The look on his face after just one bite was a blend of surprise and displeasure. What, I wondered, could be wrong? Without wasting a minute, I had a taste myself and felt an immediate pang of shock and recognition. We had made the meringue not with sugar, but salt. One of my students, trying to be helpful, had apparently refilled some of my glass storage canisters and had mistakenly put salt in the sugar canister.

I had tutored Miss Nancy through her senior thesis on Spanish history; she was a little slow, as they say, and it was a torturous process -- to the point that I believe her degree belongs to me as much as it does to her. In the course of that formal relationship with Nancy, she became fond of her tutor and when she, alas, had degree in hand, she invited my husband Bill and me to her graduation party.

We expected the usual home scene of young college peers mixed with the fawning aunts and uncles. The plan was to drop in, place the gift on the table, congrats to parents and Nancy, quick toast of awful red punch and boom, right out the door. It was not to be. Bill and I were the youngsters -- the living room was lined with chairs holding the blank-faced elderly aunts and uncles. It seemed right (at the time) to find two empty chairs. Time passed with blips of dull conversation, while Nancy, who was seated near us, seemed filled with anticipation for the cutting of the cake.

Her glance darted to the cake on the dining room table whenever conversation lagged. This happened pretty often, as I recall. Mom finally stood up and decided, for darn good reason, that I should have the first piece of cake. Nancy delivered it to me with me thinking all the while that actually, the grad should have the first piece of cake -- but Our Miss Nancy had her eye on the icing-covered diploma that rested on the icing-covered book on top of the tiered cake.

Nancy's mother then slid the cake knife under the diploma, placed it on the paper plate, and handed it proudly to her daughter. All eyes were on the graduate. She quickly found her seat in the hushed circle, and lost all awareness of where she was. She took a big bite of the (cardboard) diploma and with operatic horror screamed out, mouth full and all, "Mom, it's not a cannoli!"

Both of them thought it would be a cannoli. The horror of the discovery ruined the party for some, but Bill and I have celebrated that moment for many years.



Catherine S. Vodrey is available for freelance writing, editing, fundraising/development, and photography projects at:

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