The Fire

Thanksgiving; menu with links to recipes appear at the bottom of this post.

On Thanksgiving Day, Luca refused to make the biscuits that were such a huge success the first time around. Compared to past years, we were having a small gathering; my mother-in-law Christine who was visiting us from Cape Cod for the first time in six years, and a family of German/Bolivians; Wolf, Sandra and their two polyglot children who moved here from Berlin last year and are still discovering just how big a deal Thanksgiving is in this country. From the mad scramble to slog through airports across the country in rush-hour crowds to be with family; the obsession with turkey, a bird that leaves most non-Americans scratching their heads; and the almost heroic value we place on eating an obscene amount of food in one sitting, Thanksgiving is more than a little dumbfounding. For my part, I’m in it for the pies.

apple pie

most divine pumpkin/hazelnut pie

With cornbread-sausage stuffing, mashed potatoes and spicy roasted sweet potatoes on the menu, neither we, nor our arteries, actually needed biscuits made with heavy cream and dipped individually in butter. I just thought Luca would enjoy taking part in the creation of the meal. He kept going back and forth. First it was no. Then I reminded him of how delicious they were and how much our guests would enjoy them and he said yes he wanted to make them. But then Grandma turned the TV to the Thanksgiving Day Parade and once again the answer was no.

Until recently, Luca had three living grandparents and no relationship of any substance with any of them. Until he died in February, one grandfather was in a nursing home on Cape Cod and could barely remember the names of his own grown sons. To say that Luca’s other grandfather is estranged is a vast understatement; I have had little contact with my father throughout my life and he has never met Luca or acknowledged him in any way. That leaves Christine, Luca’s only living grandmother whom he visits maybe once a year and usually when his three cousins are there too. The kids have a blast but the chaos makes Grandma jumpy and forces her to turn up the TV volume to deafening levels.

Grandma

Luca has friends whose grandparents pick them up at school and take them for weekend-long sleepovers, and I think I can sense the envy in him when he sees all the love and attention that he is doing without. Or maybe it’s my own envy I am feeling whenever I hear that friends of ours are leaving the kids with the grandparents in order to enjoy a grownup weekend of wine tasting and sleeping late (remember morning sex, anyone?). With no grandparents able or willing to take Luca for a weekend, we take him with us when we go wine tasting, which is not often, and wake to the sounds of droid battles in the next bed.

Jim, Luca and I invent our family as we go, the definition of “family” being by necessity more fluid than it is for people with lots of blood relatives in close proximity. Luca gets as much love as the next kid, even with a fractured and spread out extended family. And yet, he craves loving contact with his grandmother, even if his notion of it is influenced as much by the Bearenstain Bears as by reality.

Having Grandma in our house for a week was an opportunity for Luca to have her all to himself. From the minute she entered the house, he was showing her things he has made, books he likes, even the Cat Piano iPhone app on my phone which she didn’t much like (the meowing made her jumpy).

chorizo and onions

I didn’t expect Luca to last long watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade since for me watching a parade, live or on television, is about as much fun as having hot pokers drilled through my eyeballs. I can’t for the life of me fathom the appeal of watching floats and marching bands move at a glacial pace down the street. When I worked as a waitress on the Upper West Side in New York City, the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving was one of the best nights at the restaurant. The place would be packed and outside, the floats were laid out on the street where people gathered with drinks in hand for a big street party. I figured the parade couldn’t get any better than that.

The only parade that has not left me in tears of boredom is the Carnaval in Sao Paulo. Within hours of arriving from New York and still jet lagged I found myself dressed as a record album, surrounded by three hundred percussionists, dancing in a School of Samba down the avenida. Fueled by terrible cognac and good cafezinho I stayed up for 36 hours straight and then fell down dead in a bed (what bed? I have no idea) for another 14 hours. That was fun.

brussels sprouts with chorizo

While I trimmed the Brussels sprouts, I expected Luca to come out ready to tie on his apron and get to work on the biscuits. Instead, with two ovens at 450 degrees and the heat outside climbing to an absurd 78 degrees (on Thanksgiving! Will I ever get used to Los Angeles?) I kept hearing these little whoops and exclamations of delight from the den. I sautéed chorizo to go with the brussels sprouts. I opened the doors and windows and sautéed the mushrooms for the stuffing. When I went to check on Luca and Grandma he was patiently explaining to her who Dora the Explorer was. And best of all she was listening with interest.

cornbread sausage stuffing

I have always viewed watching television as a solitary and anti-social activity and could never understand the idea of families watching TV together as a form of togetherness. But what do I know, I thought as I put the turkey in the oven. This might prove to be Luca’s happiest memory of his grandmother, the two of them watching the Thanksgiving Day parade with Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus and all.

The previous weekend Jim and I took Luca to the LA Philharmonic to see Gustavo Dudamel conduct. We sat in the best seats in the house, front row center behind the orchestra and facing Dudamel (although I have heard that the view from behind has its charms). Dudamel, who has been given rock star status in a city full of stars, did not disappoint. He was incredibly fun to watch; gently gliding his hands over the air and then pounding his fist skyward sending his curls flying in perfect time to the kettle drum. Other times, he’d appear to be conducting only with his eyebrows and a glint in his eye, giving an occasional nod to the woodwinds and a sexy come-hither motion to the strings. At one point all of us with a frontal view of Dudamel broke into unintended laughter. And the music was sublime; two Mozart symphonies and one by Alban Berg, a composer of twelve-tone music with a decidedly modern and more challenging sense of the melodic. Surprisingly, Luca was ansty during Mozart’s Prague Symphony and liked the Berg better (his non-living grandmother, my mother, was a student of Arnold Schoenberg and would have been thrilled). Luca also like the Jupiter Symphony but mostly he liked watching Dudamel. On the way home he said he wanted to be a conductor.

Dudamel and his curls

Later he said he liked watching Dudamel because he was funny and “kind of crazy” and he made a lot of faces.

“It’s because he has a fire in his mouth,” Luca said and then he ran out of the room.

I stopped what I was doing. I had no idea that he remembered ever making this comment about wanting a fire in his mouth. This was in reference to the desire for fire and spice in his food, a desire he claims not to have anymore though it seems to come and go with a randomness that is maddening even in a seven year old. He has no idea that I have given this blog this title – he is not much aware of the blog at all in fact – and here he was hitting the meaning right on its metaphorical head.

“What does that mean?” I yelled after Luca.

But I knew what he meant; a fire in the mouth is the heat we get from the things we love whether or not they themselves are fiery to begin with. It is the habanero salsa that brought tears to my eyes in Playa Del Carmen; it is twelve-tone music and the Jupiter symphony and the curls on top of Gustavo Dudamel’s head. It is the plain (always plain, no matter what we do with it) turkey bird eaten after a lazy day watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade with Grandma.

Wolf and Sandra arrived with mashed potatoes, wine and plenty of Prosecco to start. They knew enough to be a little apprehensive about the sheer volume of food they were about to consume. But they took a deep breath and jumped in with a game spirit, partaking not only of the uber-American tradition of overeating, but of the even more American one of sitting around afterwards in front of the television. In a slight deviation, instead of football, we watched Pixar’s “Up,” which Grandma pronounced “sad.” She went to bed after a while and the rest of us finished “Up” and then watched scenes from the Marx Brothers’ “Night at the Opera.” Wolf, Sandra and their kids had never seen it and we had to pause the final opera scene in order to explain what “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” is, another staple of Americana. I had seen this movie countless times as a child (it must have been a regular on the Million Dollar Movie) and it was fun watching it through the eyes of our friends for whom it was all new. It occurred to me that going back to the old traditions – parades, Marx Brothers, grandmothers on Thanksgiving – can be a kind of reinvention, and that reinvention is perhaps the most American tradition of all.

The kids were in hysterics watching Harpo hanging from the stage ropes, making a mess of the opera. Here again were the curls on top of the head, the fierce talent, and the unmistakable fire in the mouth.

——————————————————————————————

This is what we ate on Thanksgiving with links to recipes where available (asterisks denote especially delicious dishes):

Dry-brined roasted turkey.

Cornbread-sausage stuffing.

Gravy.

*Cranberry/tangerine relish (with and without jalapeno).

*Brussels sprouts with chorizo.

Mashed potatoes.

*Spicy sweet potato wedges.

Apple pie (from Silver Palate and with Trader Joe’s crust).

*Pumpkin/hazelnut pie – a combination of this and the variation at the end of this.

Whipped cream.

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