They came from all over the mainland and descended on us. What made this a first was that the Island was the setting. Over 30 years of Thanksgivings, including 25 with a house we had in Menemsha, family members had never joined us to celebrate here. This time, 10 of them decided to come — because we now live here.
It was a day of easy access — our Vineyard Haven home is walking distance from the ferry terminal. It was a day of easy excess — our small crowd gathered, prepared the meal, devoured the meal, savored and chatted and drank to distraction and then negotiated a comfortable walking distance for the rest of their weekend. A good time was certainly had by all.
A time to catch up on our lives. A time to share memories, particularly of past Thanksgivings and misgivings. A time to renew harmony and humor. A time to renew quirks and differences.
My wife’s family is large. Those who have married into this Irish phylum of in-laws are lovingly referred to as outlaws. And with the in-laws and outlaws come holiday traditions. One is talking up a storm. There’s a longstanding joke with my in-laws. Why is there no authentic Irish cuisine? Because the Irish care a lot more about what comes out of their mouths than what goes in.
As usual, Thanksgiving this year was no different. The soundtrack resembled the overlapping dialogue among Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. In our family, silence is only golden when everyone else has left. One Thanksgiving, my brother in law Rick, pediatrician and outlaw, was sitting at the table, ticking off his fingers, one at a time. I asked what he was doing. He looked at his family and said, “Tim is talking and no one’s listening. Nance is talking and no one’s listening. Patty’s talking, no one’s listening. Richard’s talking, no one’s listening . . .”
On this day, a day that’s all about the food, this behavior leads to another tradition — squabbling over the menu and recipes. Each food preparation is seasoned and laced with the histories and histrionics of sibling rivalry. Is that a fresh or frozen turkey? Is it commercial or local? How do you plan to cook it? In the oven or gas grill? How about the microwave? Don’t put stuffing in it — you’ll have to cook it longer or we’ll all get food poisoning. To keep it moist, stick lemons inside. Make that an orange. All you need are butter and garlic in there. How about a water balloon filled with vermouth?
What’s in the stuffing? I love chestnuts. I hate chestnuts. No dried apricots, please — makes me think I’ve bitten into a pencil eraser. Wait a minute, is that gluten? Great, we’re having stuffing with baked potatoes and yams: would you like some starch with your starch?
A haiku reverberated through the kitchen.
The way they give thanks
Knock the stuffing out of you,
Spoon it right back in
Sometimes a vegetable choice stirs more steam than any cookbook requires. An in-law reminded me: Nothing green cooked, please, unless it’s green beans. This prompted an image of my late mother who always bought frozen green beans because “you can’t trust fresh produce. They’re all full of dirt.”
Eventually it was time for the feast, after we settled the other pressing issues: How would you like your cranberries? Whole? Jellied? Or helplessly suspended in a mold? How would you like your gravy? Wavy? With or without giblets? Are five pies really necessary? One for each sense?
So we all gathered round the table. Time to relax and switch gears — keep all intensities from reaching biblical proportions while we eat food in biblical portions. The family dynamic was exhaling. It was time for gnashed teeth to open, recant and chew heartily. Smiles all around.
On this day food becomes a super sensual experience. An aphrodisiac of aromas and rich, tempting tastes. If what we eat now were served back at the first Thanksgiving, it would have been an opportunity for the Pilgrims to release and immediately redirect their un-Puritan urges. “Sex! No! Oh . . . okay . . . Food!! And lots of it!” Because of sexual repression, the concept of second helpings was born.
Your taste buds give thanks, but your metabolism won’t. Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan famously referred to an overvalued dot-com market as “irrational exuberance.” That term also comes to mind with the convergence of family, food and festivities.
When you think about it, the turkey is a perfect symbol for the holiday and what we do with it. We squawk with our relatives, gobble our food and waddle back to the rest of November.
Every morning when I walk Floyd, our yellow lab, I am reminded of Thanksgiving. I take a deep breath and thank my lucky stars we moved to the Vineyard and Floyd thanks his furry fortune that around every corner is a gaggle of turkeys he can chase into December.
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.