It was around 4:30 when the first sugar-glazed carrot hit my Aunt Chris square in the shoulder. She retaliated with a flying carrot of her own, aimed right at the offender—my mother—who was on her second glass of white Zinfandel. A few shrieks and scrunched-up faces later, the skirmish subsided into giggles. This little food fight between the two petite, put-together women has become a tradition at our Thanksgiving, probably a result of too many pours of Sutter Home. Hey—at least the artillery of choice wasn’t a spoonful of creamy green-bean casserole.
I grew up in Weymouth, 25 minutes south of the Zakim Bridge and seven minutes, if you drive fast, from the nearest Red Line stop. And boy, did my family love going out to eat. The Ground Round was a favorite (remember that free, delightfully stale popcorn?), and we ate soggy chicken fingers drowned with ketchup at the Ninety Nine. The fanciest meal I can remember from my childhood was a post-Nutcracker reservation at Bennigan’s in the Theater District—that night, I nearly choked to death on a mozzarella stick. (I managed to get it down, but it was a scary 15 seconds.) It wasn’t until I went to college in New York City that I decided to get adventurous in my eating: I ventured into the land of spicy Thai food, realized anchovies are great on everything, had a short stint as a vegan, ate calf brains, and decided to major in food as it related to the construction of femininity (yup) at NYU.
Fast-forward to 2011, and my first Thanksgiving as an honest-to-goodness young professional. I was working at Bon Appétit and spending most of my disposable income on restaurants, so I could talk knowledgeably with my colleagues. I prided myself on my salad dressings, my velvety vichyssoise, and my adept use of fish sauce, then the magazine’s darling ingredient.
For Thanksgiving, I wanted to put my new culinary skills to use, so I asked my mom if I could contribute a side or salad to the holiday spread. The salad was vetoed—immediately. Roasted Brussels sprouts? Nope, she said, nobody would eat them. Green beans with soy sauce, lemon, and sesame? Too “funky,’’ my mom’s word for food that isn’t Italian, French, or American. Anything skewing from the usual Turkey Day flavor profile was out of the question. I shelved the glazed Harukei turnips before even suggesting them. Ultimately, we went with a butternut squash risotto with bacon—still a stretch, but at least it had no “funky’’ flavors.
This curtailing of my culinary creativity frustrated me. I was 22, and hosting dinner parties was my favorite way to spend a Saturday: prepping all day, cleaning my apartment, arranging pillows and pictures just so, lighting candles, and impressing friends by serving soup in mugs and chicken braised in red wine. I loved the act of hosting: It was a performance, a service, and, most important, a validation. I relished my guests’ groans of pleasure when they sunk their teeth into a dreamy macaroni and cheese or a homemade orange-scented madeleine—the same way I relished landing the lead in a high-school play or a coveted spot on my school’s magazine staff. (This craving for validation is probably why I love Instagram so much, but that’s another story for another time, or maybe a therapist.)
On that final Thursday of November 2011, we gathered at my aunt and uncle’s delightfully New England house in Stoneham—the kind that was built before the Red Sox ever won the World Series, with a big hearth that makes the kitchen the warmest room in the otherwise drafty house. It’s a Thanksgiving-y setting, which is probably why my aunt and uncle have been saddled with hosting duties for more than 15 years. It’s one of those places you feel like you’ve never left. The men sit in the living room, Bud Lights in hand, watching football, while the ladies busy themselves in the kitchen or go to the library for a more engaging conversation. Dinner is served around 3; we eat, have dessert, my dad naps on the floor, then we go home with pounds of leftovers in gallon Ziploc bags. Every year.
An hour before dinner, I looked at the appetizer spread: Boursin cheese, Lipton onion dip, nacho dip, and some crudités with ranch. If only I’d made an appetizer, I thought. Maybe there would have been more flexibility. A glass of Pinot Noir in one hand, I took a frilly potato chip, dunked it into the onion dip, and chewed. My brain went haywire over the salty, tangy, cool, crunchy mess. I kept dipping. And dipping. And then I was on to the nacho dip. If my Bon Appétit colleagues could see me now! I stopped when my sister made a sassy comment about how I was “really enjoying those dips, huh?’’ and composed myself.
At dinner, I sat next to my siblings and across from my parents, at the usual table in the usual spots. We said grace, then took our plates to the buffet. I brought up the rear of the line, unconcerned: I knew my favorite parts of the meal—the dark meat and my uncle’s “special’’ stuffing packed with giblets—would be plentiful. I scooped up plenty of green-bean casserole, glazed carrots that would later double as missiles, and mashed potatoes, crispy with browned bits from being reheated in the oven. I nervously eyed my risotto, being kept warm in a crockpot, and sighed with relief: It was already half gone, and each family member had tiny golden piles on their plates. We chatted about politics (one of my uncles was particularly displeased with how liberal I’d become since going to NYU), poured more wine, and praised my uncle for his masterful roasting of the bird.
It was, I’ll say, pretty damn good. As was the green-bean casserole. And the canned cranberry. I sipped my wine and relaxed, savoring the fact that these people—my people—were talking about things other than the food. They congratulated me about being able to survive in New York without my parents’ support, and the cool job I’d landed right out of college. They praised my butternut-squash risotto. They were genuinely proud of me and the woman I’d started to become, and I was beaming—a feeling of fulfillment and peace that no roasted Brussels sprouts, no fish-sauced green beans, no glazed turnips could have ever come close to giving me. I sank deeper into my chair, thankful for my decidedly unfunky family, and smiled—until a carrot zapped into my neck. I took another gulp of wine, grabbed a carrot, and partook in another tradition only my family could love.
This year, I’m happy to say, I’ll be bringing a raw kale and Brussels-sprout salad to Thanksgiving. I introduced it at a casual get-together a couple years back, and it immediately captured the hearts of everyone in my family, aside from the most die-hard veggie haters (Uncle Steven, I’m looking at you). Granted, it’s covered in pecorino cheese and fried almonds—but it’s now requested more than my previous signature dish, deviled eggs. I knew the family would come around to salad at Thanksgiving one day.