By SHANNON WATKINS
Let’s say that somehow, miraculously, you got out of having to make Thanksgiving dinner this year. I don’t know how, and of course that may not have happened, but because I’m fond of you, and I know how hard you’re working just to get Christmas together, let’s presume it did.
No getting up in the middle of the night to start the oven for a bird that’s the size of your torso! No frantic scrambling for a store that’s open because you forgot that one crucial ingredient for your stuffing! No dodging overly-helpful in-laws, both of the tiny adorable variety who nonetheless get underfoot when you’re careening around the kitchen, or the older, dour sort who proclaim “that gravy’s going to lump right up if you don’t keep stirring it” in tones normally reserved for bad news from the court!
You’re going to someone else’s house, obviously, probably a relative’s. If you’re pretty lucky and blessed with a good family, this will be mostly relaxing. You can offer to help stir, chop, baste, pour and carve, without the pressure of being in charge. There will be pleasant conversation and lots of good food.
Unless, of course, THAT branch of the family is hosting. You know the ones; you barely ever see them, but they’re there. Here’s a field guide to the types you might encounter:
The Forbidding Masticators, a group who mutely and almost unblinkingly clump around the television, staring at the Macy’s parade, seldom moving and never smiling. This behavior continues at the table, where everything is passed with a grunt and everyone chews in stony, businesslike silence. The head of the household will carve the turkey like a lumberjack sawing planks and nobody will offer to dab a little extra candied yam on your plate. They aren’t unhappy per se; they just don’t seem to have the emotional capacity for small talk or cheer. The food is usually good, solid stuff; it’s just impossible to really enjoy when nobody’s smiling or talking. At Christmas, they will send you a box of incredibly excellent fruit purchased from a church or school fundraiser, but with no note of goodwill or best holiday wishes.
The Coziest Family on Earth, a group so self-consciously adorable they’d send Norman Rockwell screaming into the street. After 30 minutes of their merry, apple-cheeked company, you’d join him. Everyone is glued to the TV for the Macy’s parade and make a point of exclaiming over the floats and laughing boisterously at each other’s jokes. The family matriarch will always mention her signature dish is an heirloom recipe served ever since Col. Cozy came home from The War, and that her great-great-great-great-grandmother made it every year with love and care and The Secret Ingredient. She is always elfishly sly about mentioning The Secret Ingredient and says she can’t imagine sharing her knowledge, but she will be very disappointed if you don’t plead for it anyway. (Hint: Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup.) The food is OK, but you’ll get press-ganged into saying it’s better than your mom’s. At Christmas they will send you a pair of slippers that double as doggie beds or some other handy-dandy gift item that was advertised on TV recently.
The Free Rangers, who are educated, socially conscious and incredibly fussy. They will serve a purebred turkey that has a degree from an Ivy League school, if they don’t just skip meat altogether and eat tofu. There will be organic yogurt in several dishes you normally don’t think of putting yogurt in, and no dessert because everyone is watching their figure. You admire them in theory, but being asked to have complex opinions about the latest news story on NPR while chewing an underdone green bean casserole and longing for dinner rolls that aren’t studded with gravelly whole grains is more than you can manage. Nobody watches the Macy’s parade because they don’t own a television, though after dinner, their two perfect children will perform a recital on cello and piano. For Christmas they will send you an exhaustive family newsletter full of tasteful boasts about their accomplishments, both material and spiritual.
It’s quite likely you will ask ahead of time if you can bring something, because you’re helpful and you want to contribute. “Oh, no,” your host or hostess will say. “Well … bring a little something if you want,” and then they’ll rattle off the stuff they already have, which makes you realize there’s nothing left to take. Almost.
Inspiration comes in the form of Martha Stewart’s cranberry butter. Say what you will of Martha, she’s hard to beat in the recipe game. My mom got this one from her, and I got it from Mom, and my stepsisters demand this be served every year for both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. Sadly, they won’t be home for Thanksgiving this time. Happily, that’s more for me.
2 sticks room-temperature butter
¾ cup fresh cranberries
2 tsps. grated lemon zest
6 Tbsps. powdered sugar
Put last 3 ingredients in food processor and pulse until well chopped. Add butter and process until pink with red flecks.
That’s it. It’s the easiest thing you could make and yet it’ll be the most popular. Pack it into cute little molds, or serve it scooped into a cut-crystal bowl. Everyone will try it, after some caviling.
The Forbiddings will stop and stare at the rest of the roll they’ve just eaten half of with surprise, blinking wide-eyed. “Good butter,” one will say. You might get five minutes’ talk out of them, which is quite an accomplishment. The Cozies will all start pantomiming elaborate pleasure until the littlest one blurts, “This is the best thing I’ve eaten!” after which Col. Cozy’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter will drop her coy act and spend the rest of the meal staring daggers at you. The Free Rangers will all jump like they’ve been electrified and then look guiltily at their plates and one another; after all, there they are enjoying butter from what may not have been pedigreed, cruelty-free European cows, and cranberries that might have seen pesticide, not to mention – horrors! – sugar, but gradually, with swift, furtive gestures, they’ll devour it to the last smear.
No matter what you remember of any them, they’ll remember you fondly. (Well, except for Mrs. Cozy.) Which is a great success, unless they like you so much they insist YOU host next Thanksgiving.
And not to ruin a hopefully comic ending, but some people, unfortunately, don’t have even overdone turkey to enjoy for Thanksgiving, so remember to donate to your local food banks. Also there are plenty of people going it alone for the day who’d enjoy your company, especially the elderly. Even if you’re not sharing The Secret Ingredient.