TAMPA - My mother Margaret has always been a skilled if not groundbreaking Thanksgiving cook. Her stuffing recipe came right off the Pepperidge Farm bag and was embellished only with a little extra celery and pepper.
For 30 years, I took that stuffing for granted. It wasn’t until my first Thanksgiving dinner away from home that I realized how emotionally charged a little side dish could be.
In August of 1988, my wife and I packed up our babies and moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Austin, Texas for my first on-air job in television news. By the time Thanksgiving arrived, we’d become well acquainted with our new next door neighbors and agreed to bring our three families together for Thanksgiving dinner.
As the day approached, it occurred to me that this would be my first major holiday away from the home I’d always known. Thanksgiving was always my favorite. With five brothers and sisters, numerous cousins, aunts, uncles and significant others, Thanksgiving dinner at my parent’s house was always loud and chaotic- more like a stationary St. Patrick’s Day parade than a reverent homage to our pilgrim founders.
I knew I’d miss my crazy Irish tribe, but tried to dismiss any anxiety by remembering that I had my own family now. We’d just start a new holiday tradition. Between our family of four and the other two families we’d be a party of 12. Being in the heart of Texas, Pinot Noir might not play as big a role as it did in San Francisco, but sweet tea isn’t bad. We’ll be fine.
It all began pleasantly enough. Caught up in the cooking and conversation, our Texas turkey day was shaping up nicely. The guys talked football. The ladies talked football too. The kids played Nerf football. But when it came time for the blessing, I could feel an astringency rise up in my sinuses like when you take a little chlorinated pool water into your nose. Emotion or allergies? Too soon to tell.
As the host, the job of offering the blessing before the meal fell on me. Because I wasn’t sure if my new neighbors were Baptist or Branch Dividian, I delivered a brief, non-denominational benediction and we started dinner. Only then did I realize that the cooking responsibilities had been divvied up in a most unfortunate manner.
My wife, Sandy with two decades of restaurant experience took charge of the turkey. It was perfect. Blake and Lois Justice were on pie patrol. There’s no such thing as bad pie. Bill Garrett brought some Lone Star beer and his wife, Margie made the stuffing.
Now Margie Garrett is a perfectly lovely person -- a school teacher and devoted mother. She knocked on our door with an armload of housewarming gifts the very day we moved into the neighborhood. But at that moment in my own dining room, those qualities did nothing to excuse her decision to put ground beef in the stuffing! To my palate, it was a culinary abomination. Not as bad as crème de menthe drizzled on an Irish coffee, but deeply wrong.
The great thing about kids is that they meet every experience on its own terms. To our two-year-old daughter and one-year-old son, food either tasted good or it didn’t. Butterbeans have no back story. There are no mincemeat memories. Sweet potatoes are just sweet -- not bittersweet. But for adults, certain dishes are inextricably linked to the past experiences and attachments. I didn’t fully realize it until that moment, but for me turkey stuffing packed an emotional wallop.
I may have stopped chewing. I may have gone bug-eyed with the shock of it. I do remember looking down at the heaping portion of beefy stuffing on my plate and discretely emptying the contents of my mouth into a napkin.
Without a word, I stood up and made my way to the bedroom, shut the door and started weeping. That’s right. Face all scrunched up, shoulders heaving, sniveling, crying. It was ridiculous and I knew it, but all the homesickness and nostalgia I had bottled up in the three months since leaving San Francisco was pouring out. Margie’s stuffing was just the catalyst.
Assuming I had just gone to the bathroom, no one came back to check on me. It took a good ten minutes to pull myself together, so they must have thought I was having a different kind of problem. When I returned to the table, Sandy and the kids looked at me quizzically, but no one commented on my red eyes or unusually long absence. I poured another glass of tea and joined the party.
In retrospect, I realize that my condemnation of Margie Garrett’s ground beef stuffing was unfair. Rick Perry would probably come unglued with a spoonful of my mother’s version. And in any case, the stuffing was merely a symbol for the loss of a family life that would never be quite the same again. I was a self supporting 30-year-old father, but in some ways, I never felt fully grown up until that Thanksgiving Day.
What I know now is that food is tradition and tradition is family. The hereditary quirks and habits that make each family unique reinforce our family