Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What's Cooking?

Here today, dinner tomorrow. Turkeys on death row at Dawn Farm in Ypsilanti. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

Thanksgiving always held a special place in my heart, but not so much anymore.

For years it easily was my favorite holiday – even better than Christmas. Memories of that special day still make me smile when I think back on them, even though not all were exactly “shining” moments. The three or four Thanksgivings spent suffering on the couch with the stomach flu come to mind. Oddly, watching the Thanksgiving Day parades on television between bouts of vomiting seemed rather joyous. At the very least, I suppose those Thanksgivings were memorable!

Better memories were the days when I wasn’t puking and actually enjoying the day with my family. I remember quite vividly our family trading off hosting Thanksgiving Day duties with my aunt and uncle down the street. I really didn’t care where it was held; I just loved hanging out with my cousins, feeling cozy all day.

At some point during those years, another tradition sprang forth – the tradition of playing football every Thanksgiving Day. To me, this was on par with, or maybe even better than the turkey.

Every year, anywhere from 8 to 20 kids, and sometimes grown-ups, would play a game of touch football in my cousin’s yard. This went on throughout my childhood, and then, when I went to college, the tradition took on epic proportions. The years I was away at college, the game got so big it had to be moved uptown to an actual football field.

I’ll always remember with great fondness the four-hour drive home from college. The anticipation of seeing my family and playing football with my friends would grow with each mile. The last stretch of the drive was the best, nearly an hour of country roads winding up and down hills, through dormant corn fields chopped down to foot-high nubs, with skies as gray as stone swallowing up the landscape. “Perfectly gloomy” I always called it - and it was perfect.

The years of driving home from college didn’t last all that long, but the tradition of coming home for Thanksgiving and playing football went on for nearly 15 more years until eventually we all got too old, or moved away and started celebrating Thanksgiving with other in-laws.

Soon I found myself immersed in my wife’s family traditions that didn’t include football in any fashion – watching or playing. The years that followed saw my family growing bigger, first one kid, then another, and then a third. Some years I’d take my family back to Ohio to see my folks at Thanksgiving, but usually we stayed put. And then, as if Thanksgiving meant nothing to me anymore, I began volunteering to work on that day. The extra pay was always nice, but the empty feeling over a holiday I once cherished was not.

This is my first Thanksgiving without my mom. She died in March. I don’t even remember the last time I was home for Thanksgiving, but I find myself missing it more this year.

It’s harder still because my family has no tradition in place. My kids could care less about the Thanksgiving Day parades on TV. There is no annual football game with their cousins. I don’t even know if they like turkey. I long for that drive home on country roads through foot-high corn, under slate gray skies. I miss the turkey, the gravy, the mashed potatoes and the homemade pies.

Life is different now. It’s supposedly simpler, but really it’s a helluva lot more complex. So what if you can drive up to a machine to get money, pull up to a window to get food, or push a button on a remote to change a channel. With all of these timesaving measures you’d think there would be plenty of time to make dinner every night. But there just isn’t.

With kids going this way and that, playing this sport and that, most of our meals come via Subway, or Wendy’s or anything else that isn’t home. At one point I knew how to make several different dishes, in fact, I was a pretty good cook. But cooking isn’t like riding a bike, it’s more like a foreign language, the less you use it, the more you forget. Cooking was my mom’s tradition. It is not mine.

Now it’s Thanksgiving eve and I’ve come to the realization that there are several dishes I can no longer make because I’ve forgotten how, and I can’t call my mother to get the recipe. I get the strange feeling I’m not alone – I’m guessing there are legions of folks my age who are just like me.

My mother was an excellent cook. She learned the craft from her mother, and when her mother died when my mom was just 13, it suddenly became my mother’s job to cook for her family. When she had kids of her own, my mother continued being the family cook while my dad did his part as the breadwinner.

Every night when my dad got home from work, we all sat down as a family and ate a full course dinner. There were six of us, but for as long as I can remember; we somehow managed to squeeze around our little kitchen table every single night.

It was the way it was supposed to be, the way it had been for generations, but it also was the end of that generation. My mother never bothered teaching me to cook. Why would she? How was she to know that future generations would require two salaries to survive?

The question is: What happens to the next generation?  Will we slowly lose the ability to cook for ourselves?  Will my grandkids eat anything that’s not prepackaged or processed? The family dinner already seems to be a thing of the past. I can’t remember the last time my family all sat down at the same table to eat dinner, so it’s not that far-fetched to think of a country that actually forgets how to cook.

It’s a sad thought, especially on the eve of what once was my favorite holiday.

Tomorrow I’m working again, and then later in the day I’ll be going to my mother in laws for dinner. I’m sure it will be nice, it usually is, but in between bites of turkey, I’ll be thinking fondly of Thanksgivings past when I was puking into a bucket by the side of the couch between parade floats, or driving home through endless fields of dead corn under a blanket of November’s finest gray.

Those were the days. And for that, I’m truly thankful.

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