By Lisa Haas
“What are your plans for Thanksgiving this year?” my friend Beth asked over the phone. Since it was early September, I was caught off guard when she called, even though she had been calling every September for the past five years. “I don’t currently have any plans,” I replied. Delighted to hear this Beth asked, “Do you want to have Thanksgiving together?!”
“Sure,” I said cautiously, knowing a long debate would follow. Whose apartment would we have it at? Beth always wanted to have it at her apartment but there were 26 reasons why this couldn’t happen, to which I always said, “I’m happy to have it at my place.” However, being willing to host came with a big “but.”
“But,” I reminded Beth, “I’m not going to cook a turkey. I can make lots of other things, like my rosemary garlic mashed potatoes. And, aside from the fact I don’t eat meat, I don’t have time for the hassle that goes along with cooking one.”
“But we have to have a turkey!” Beth exclaims incredulously each year.
“How about I cook a turkey breast?”
“I don’t like white meat. I only like dark meat.”
“Beth, let’s have Thanksgiving at your place so you can cook a turkey.”
“I don’t have enough room for a group of people.” That was a handy excuse anyone could make, since we all lived in tiny NYC apartments.
“Beth, so far, no one else is coming.”
“I can’t relax in my own apartment.”
“You’re welcome to come to my apartment to cook a turkey.”
“I’d have to be there at 6:00 a.m.!”
“You can spend the night before.”
“I can’t because of the dog.”
“Your dog Sammy? Bring Sammy over!”
“But it’s hard for me to get a car service that will take him. He’s an Irish Wolfhound.”
Sensing the patience being tested of her only Thanksgiving hope, Beth said, “Maybe I can cook a turkey leg and bring it for myself.”
“Who are we gonna invite?” continued Beth.
This prompted my second Thanksgiving “but.”
“Beth, all my friends have plans. Most of my friends were in couples and odds were at least one of those two people were on good terms with some family member, somewhere, who they would spend the holiday with. Someday, I would have a girlfriend, and in my fantasy she would have lovely relatives in Vermont where we would spend Thanksgiving
But then I remembered how much I hated traditional family Thanksgivings. After decades of suffering through the November holiday with my immediate family, my motto was born: tradition blows. And even though Beth had a thing about turkey and a guest head-count, she was the best non-traditional Thanksgiving companion I ever had. She was loads of fun and never got crabby, she made the best sweet potatoes in the whole world, and she could throw together a beautiful spontaneous pagan dinner blessing and play a wild game of charades for hours after dessert. Plus, she helped clean-up.
“Listen Beth,” I continued, “you’ll probably have a new girlfriend by November, so there will be at least three of us.”
For some reason, Beth never backed down on the guest issue, and two days before Thanksgiving I’m frantically calling every person I know and manage to find at least one vegetarian friend to join us.
So year after year, a tiny band of 2-3 vegetarians and one meat-eater gathered for Thanksgiving, with a variety of tofu, rosemary garlic mashed potatoes, and Beth’s turkey leg.
Then one year, my friend Mary called to say she wasn’t taking her normal out-of-town trip to spend Thanksgiving with her family. She wanted to stay home and have a more relaxing time with a few close friends.
When I invited her to join my usual gathering, she offered her apartment, a new spacious co-op she had recently purchased.
Beth and I were thrilled. Mary had real furniture, a couch, comfortable seating and a big table. This would be a welcome departure from the previous elbow-to-elbow gatherings sitting on mismatched chairs.
Then the flurry of emails and phone calls started from Beth to Mary. Would Mary cook a turkey? No. Would Mary let Beth come over and cook a turkey? Yes? Great! Beth was, however, going to be a little busy on Thanksgiving day before we all met. Could she come over to Mary’s apartment early in the morning, get the turkey started, and take off to run errands while Mary basted the turkey?
Mary called me, “If I get one more email from Beth, I’m going to have a nervous breakdown. My in-box is filled with message after message with the subject: TURKEY. I don’t really want a turkey for Thanksgiving and my oven isn’t even big enough to hold a turkey. Frankly, I don’t want a turkey in my home!” she said crying.
“Mary, I’m so sorry.” I said. We processed about our unpleasant Thanksgiving pasts with our families of origin. There was a lot of turkey anxiety and “have to’s.” The turkey had to be cooked to perfection. The ritual surrounding the preparation of the turkey was accompanied an exhausting 48 hours of no sleep and non-stop kitchen prep – which had to happen the exact same way each year. And if anything was out of place, there had to be a family meltdown because – OMG – our entire Thanksgiving was under the threat of being completely RUINED.
Us gals who moved to the big city wanted our lives to be different. We wanted a free-wheeling, uncensored Thanksgiving, where we could leave the “have to’s” behind and talk about pussy.
Beth was gracious about Mary’s boundaries and proposed an alternative idea the night before Thanksgiving, “What about a turkey leg? Would you mind if I cooked a turkey leg in your oven?”
“Ok, you can cook a turkey leg,” Mary conceded.
The next day I arrived at Mary’s on time. Beth was running an hour late. Why? It turned out she found the very last turkey leg in Brooklyn and started cooking it in her own oven.
When Beth finally showed up, she burst through the door with a huge smile on her face lugging her sweet potatoes and half cooked turkey leg. Mary and I waited patiently while Beth bustled about the kitchen and popped the turkey leg into the oven for its final 30 minutes.
The following fall, in early September, I got the call. “What are you doing for Thanksgiving this year?” During the next 30 days there were intense discussions, which concluded that I’d have Thanksgiving at my apartment. This was followed by a month of brainstorming about who to invite. Mary had decided to return to her family, so we definitely needed to find others. And of course, there was the never ending debate of who would cook the turkey.
Then, something strange happened. In a moment of generosity, or weakness, I announced, “I will cook a turkey!”
“And you’ll make your rosemary garlic mashed potatoes too?!” exclaimed the over-joyed Beth.
Feeling suddenly overwhelmed I yelled “Beth, I can’t do both – FOR GOD’S SAKE, I SAID I’D COOK A TURKEY!”
“But your rosemary garlic mashed potatoes are so delicious – I can’t imagine Thanksgiving without them, it’s like our family tradition!”
“I HATE FAMILY TRADITIONS!?” I screamed uncontrollably. There was a long silence. And with a very hurt and quiet voice, Beth said, “I’ve made you angry.”
“Beth, I feel frustrated.”
I finally confessed how emotionally taxed I was each year with our negotiations surrounding this particular event. And we both processed about our unpleasant Thanksgiving experiences as children. Beth felt abandoned. I felt smothered. Had we unconsciously come together to work out our shit? It did feel very healing each year when I let loose with the electric mixer into the three gallon pan of spuds fill with cream and butter.
After our two-hour long impromptu psychoanalysis, I wiped away my tears and agreed to host Thanksgiving, cook a turkey, and, make rosemary garlic mashed potatoes.
I did not however, expect the experience that was to follow. I started to casually mention to co-workers that I decided to cook a turkey. Their response was as if I had announced I was expecting my first baby.
“WOW!” Congratulations! That’s such a big deal!!” said my supervisor giving me a hug.
“Oh my goodness yes!”
All my female friends swarmed around me offering emotional support as my responsibilities were steep. I had committed to getting (an ideally free-range) turkey, carrying it home on a subway, and, buying a roasting pan.
I wondered how my mother would react. We had an estranged relationship ever since I moved from Colorado to New York City. She had a permanent wrinkle on her forehead from the thought of her daughter leading a life of debauchery in a mecca for sexual deviancy.
One Saturday night the phone rang. I got up from scrubbing the toilet, and turned the T.V. down, which was blasting America’s Most Wanted to take the call.
It was my mom. Our conversation started out strained, as it always did. We spoke in a detached fashion of the usual benign things such as the local weather, the national weather and the price of gas. Finally tiring of such pleasantries I blurted out, “Mom, I’m cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving.”
Suddenly, my mother came alive. It was as if a wall had come down and we commenced having the most intimate conversation we had ever had in the last ten years. You’d think I’d said, “Mom, I’m getting married! To a man! Won’t you join us in planning our wedding?”
And during the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving there was no end to the advice I received regarding how to cook a turkey, unsolicited and from everyone.
My roommate, who was going out of town for Thanksgiving, had extensive experience cooking and told me on no uncertain terms step-by-step what I was going to do to that turkey. The night before Thanksgiving she sat in the middle of the kitchen, her arms folded, her overnight bag by her side as she was about to leave for the holiday, supervising my every move.
“Rub salt into its skin. Rub harder. You will be marinating this, so I suggest you chop some garlic, onion and parsley into olive oil and start slopping it onto the turkey, and make sure it sticks. What time are you serving dinner? Ok, I want this in the oven NO later than 10:00 a.m. and I want you to put an apple inside the cavity while it cooks.”
The next day, I put the turkey in at 10:00 a.m. sharp and prepared for my guests. That afternoon, all three lesbians arrived. Beth, came with a smile on her face followed by Paula and Cindy. They were all bearing delicious Thanksgiving delights, but nothing caused as much excitement as the turkey.
Paula, who was Beth’s current girlfriend said, “Really? This is your first turkey? That’s amazing! Aren’t you overwhelmed? I’d have no idea how to cook a turkey. God! Thank you!” Cindy, who was the only lost-soul vegetarian I could find that year, brought tofu with vegan mushroom gravy and was completely silent as she struggled with emotions of shock and joy.
The thought occurred to me that perhaps the population of none-meat eating lesbians was due to their lack of cooking knowledge, rather than from a deep-seated political viewpoint or health reasons.
When the time came to take the turkey out of the oven, the kitchen transformed into a delivery room of sorts with a make-shift medical staff stationed around the oven door, waiting for the birth of the perfectly browned bird.
Beth was undoubtedly the most ecstatic person in the room. Donned with oven mitts she single handedly pulled the turkey from the oven. “Ooohs” and “aaaahs” and “wow’s” pervaded the buzz of excitement as we situated the turkey on a platter to be carved.
“Wait! We have to photograph it first!” said Beth as she whipped out a camera. Beth moved in on the turkey, photographing it from many angles, and then me with the turkey looking like a hero. Then she took a group shot with the turkey.
I asked Beth to do the honors of carving the turkey. “Really?” Beth said, starting to get teary-eyed. “Me? But you’re the host. I couldn’t!”
“Beth, the thought of cutting up a turkey repulses me.”
“Well in that case I’d be honored.” And with a look of serenity, Beth ceremoniously began slicing. And we photographed that too.
It was indeed an exceptionally fun Thanksgiving, all the guests having a marvelous time, and Beth, chowing down on turkey while everyone else enjoyed the tofu, vegetable dishes and rosemary garlic mashed potatoes.
Long after the dairy-free desert, as the guests were getting ready to leave, I was dividing up the food and said, “Beth please take the turkey home – let me wrap it for you.”
“Oh my God, I can’t. You cooked the turkey you should keep it!”
“Well, I don’t really eat meat.” And I could tell by the anemic looking complexions on the other guests’ faces they didn’t either.
“Please take the turkey. I would love it if you took the turkey.”
“Oh my God, thank you, thank you SO MUCH. Thank you for cooking me a turkey!!”
So off went the guests with Beth bringing up the rear and hugging the bag filled with turkey.
In the coming year life went on as usual. One day I received a call from Beth at an unseasonable time. She had to go out of town to deal with an urgent matter and asked if I could house-sit and take care of Sammy. I said yes, as I loved her dog and looked forward to playing in the park with him.
The weekend I stayed with Sammy it rained. The whole time. Sammy hated the rain and I could hardly get him to go outside for his potty breaks. Finally, on Sunday afternoon when Sammy refused a potty break, I thought I’d give myself a break and go out for coffee. Around the corner was a new little café where I hoped to find a brownie and some conversation. Unfortunately, the café was empty and the sister cashier disinterested in anything but her magazine.
Feeling gloomy I walked back to Beth’s apartment with my coffee and sat in her kitchen taking tiny sips from the to-go cup. I heard a big canine yawn of someone waking from their nap, followed by Sammy strolling into the kitchen to say hi. Sammy was a sweet dog and gazed longingly into my eyes as I rubbed his ear. I spotted a puppy photo of Sammy on the refrigerator door. “You were even a big puppy!” I said. And Sammy, a very sensitive soul joined me in looking at the fridge. There were lots of pictures of Sammy. Sammy in a Halloween costume, Sammy in a parade, Sammy at the beach. It was clear that Beth reserved her refrigerator door as the depository for things most precious to her. There were pictures of her nieces and nephews, a blue ribbon she had won, and some tattered overseas postcards from dear friends of long ago. As we continued to examine the collage, I saw a photo of me, from our last Thanksgiving, poising with the turkey.
I felt a rush of embarrassment remembering the years of complaining, and refusing to cook a turkey when this gesture had obviously touched Beth so deeply. I had landed the highest honor, being placed in the very center of the door. Possibly, because I was standing next to a turkey.