I grew up thinking that Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover illustration of a family Thanksgiving dinner was the template of what that holiday feast should look like.
If you haven’t ever seen his painting “Freedom From Want,” it shows at least three generations surrounding a dining table set with china, silver, a white tablecloth, side dishes and Grandma delivering a 30-pound roasted turkey to the place of honor. Faces are lit with smiles of anticipation, no doubt because this scene had been repeated for decades.
Well, Mr. Rockwell never visited my family’s November gatherings, or his painting might have been titled “Freedom from Successful Meal Preparation.”
My mother, who was a talented artist in her own right, only excelled at creating bizarre experimental cuisine, not boring stuff like roast turkey, dressing, gravy or even mashed potatoes. If the Pilgrims had only served canned salmon and eggplant souffle’, or steak and kidney sandwiches, my mother would have given Julia Child a run for her money.
It also didn’t help that her mother-in-law, Grandmother Hall, excelled at producing traditional holiday fare. Grandmother’s biscuits still remain my gold standard, and her giblet gravy always turned out perfectly blended and lump-free. So even if my dad, my siblings and I never made the comparison out loud when mom plunked down a gravy boat filled with a brownish library paste with flour chunks, she didn’t have to be a mind reader to know what we were all thinking.
This could also be the reason why we kids had milk, and our parents had martinis as the Turkey Day beverage.
Aside from Army mess hall Thanksgiving dinners, which were usually pretty great, the closest I got to going “Full Rockwell” was a frozen Swanson turkey TV dinner.
My wife is a superb cook. She is the very best at producing perfect pies, with her legendary pumpkin-pecan creation topping the long list of perfect desserts. But since we’re “empty nesters,” with our Air Force officer son and his family usually stationed at faraway bases, Sheryl and I haven’t done a full Thanksgiving dinner at home since a fateful day in November 2003.
That year, our son was assigned to Boeing as a logistics liaison and our daughter-in-law, Misako, invited her extended family to visit from Tokyo. We all decided to have our Japanese relatives plus my wife’s brothers and sisters over to our home for a full-scale holiday dinner.
The cliché It seemed like a good idea at the time fits perfectly, as hosting 20 people (half of whom spoke no English) in our snug house made for a cornucopia of cacophony.
Misako’s family brought shopping bags full of beautifully wrapped gifts, per Japanese tradition, and while Sheryl was finishing dinner prep, we started to open packages. I was thumbing through my English-Japanese phrasebook, intending to ask if I should light the gas log in our fireplace, when I noticed the pan of gravy on the stovetop had ignited into a rapidly growing conflagration.
“Kaji des!” (“It’s a fire!”), I yelled, startling my wife and our guests.
Sheryl tossed a lid on the pan, but didn’t quench the flames, so I grabbed a small halon fire extinguisher we kept in the kitchen. Seconds later, after a burst of inert gas, the fire was out, and our Japanese guests applauded.
Though my wife and I considered the meal that followed to be a relative success, we later learned from our son that Misako’s family had thought the whole flaming pan incident was staged to entertain them.
Fortunately for Sheryl and I, there are plenty of restaurants open on Thanksgiving Day.
Dave Hall of Steilacoom is a former soldier, retired cop, and full-time golf enthusiast. He’s one of five News Tribune reader columnists in 2019. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org