Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Creamed Corn and the Brown Bag Turkey

I am ambivalent about Thanksgiving. It should be my favorite holiday. After all, I was born on Thanksgiving, and next year, I will turn fifty on Thanksgiving, but therein lies the dilemma. When your birthday falls on or near a holiday, especially on a holiday with no specific date, i.e., the fourth Thursday of November, you feel gypped. “We’ll celebrate your birthday on Thanksgiving, even though it falls on the Tuesday before.”
Maybe this is why I don’t make a big deal out of my birthday since we were always celebrating it not on my birthday.

I wonder if this happens to people who are born on President’s Day. “Oh, we’ll celebrate your birthday on Monday, even though it falls on Saturday.” I imagine Christmas babies have it worse than anyone. Everybody gets presents, and they probably do not get any extra ones for having their birthday under the tree (but I'll bet they take inventory). Then again, January 1 babies must have it bad. After the initial excitement of being born on New Year’s Day, for every year after that, your family is hung over at your birthday party. Leap Year babies have it worse – they have quadrennial birthdays, but they are always younger than everyone by multiples of four.

That is the first time I have used quadrennial in a sentence.

Now, I don’t dislike Thanksgiving, and as I have gotten older, I have begun to enjoy it. However, there is one thing about Thanksgiving that can make it a painful experience: You usually spend it with your extended family. Your own family is fine, but those cousins … don’t get me started. Fortunately, our extended family consisted of five people.

Growing up, we spent Thanksgiving with my dad’s family. Uncle Stanley married a Catholic, so it was Thanksgiving at our house and Christmas at theirs. No matter where we went, we would spend ten minutes at the beginning of the meal discussing food ingredients because of Wendy’s allergies, cringe at Jeff’s crude jokes, and make sure Carole-Sue was the center of attention, or she would run crying from the table. My mother would undoubtedly say something to someone to set him or her off, and a good time would be had by all.

Mother once put a ham on the table and told my grandmother it was rare roast beef.

When I moved to Florida, I would come home for Thanksgiving, and by then, it was just the immediate family and my mother’s brown bag turkey.

Growing up, we were convinced my mother was a great cook. Once I experienced properly prepared foods, I soon realized my mother’s cooking was ok at best. Some things were great, but others were … how shall I put this … inedible. Her chopped liver and chicken cacciatore were phenomenal. However, her chuck roast on the grill was disgusting. It was burnt on the outside and raw on the inside. They call this Pittsburgh style. I have never wanted to visit Pittsburgh.

On one visit home, my mother asked if I would like for her to grill a chuck roast. I said, “I would rather you not make a burnt offering on my behalf.” She laughed.   

I still do not like steak because she would buy these lousy steaks full of gristle and fat and make me chew them. My napkin would be full of chewed up but unswallowed meat.

Then, there was her kugel. I was in my thirties when I finally learned that kugel is not supposed to be crunchy. I had made my first one and followed the recipe to the letter. I also learned that kugel is delicious when prepared properly.

And, don’t get me started on the oily cakes. I am known for my baking, and I have never been able to replicate my mother’s oily cakes. I think this had something to do with the fact that she would substitute Sweet-n-Low for sugar. It is a wonder I am still alive.

However, her pièce de résistance was her brown bag turkey. A gentile co-worker of my mother’s gave her a recipe for roasting a turkey in a brown grocery bag, which is why I never get recipes from gentile co-workers.

Seriously, this is what it involves. You take your turkey and coated it in vegetable oil. Then you stick it in a brown grocery bag, staple the bag shut, and roast it for twenty minutes per pound. There are two good reasons for doing it this way. One, you don’t have to baste it. Two, you can throw away the entire bird because it is already in its own garbage bag.

As a matter of fact, if you adopt this method, skip the middle man and put your turkey out with the trash.

But, here is the best part. After my father would attempt to carve this dry bird, which would have the consistency of drywall, my mother would make the same declaration after chewing her first bite. “I bought a bad bird this year. This is awful. I will never buy that brand again.”

Get this. She used this method for twenty-two years and said the same thing every year, including the first time she did this. Are there twenty-two brands of turkeys? The last holiday I spent with my mother was Passover. Her health had been failing, so I came down knowing this would be our last holiday together, and she had actually rallied a bit and was driving again. It turned out to be a nice visit.

The conversation before preparing the turkey, our Passover meat of choice, went like this:

“We have to put the turkey in the bag by ten o’clock …”


“What do you mean no?”

“I am making a decision. If you cook one more turkey in a grocery bag, I will never eat in your house again.”

Laughter heard from my father between his farts while he sits in his easy chair with my dog, Serena, in his lap.

“That is the way I am making it …”


“Then you can eat a bologna sandwich.”

“I will. In the meantime, we are roasting the turkey my way with no brown bag. Every year, you make it in the brown bag, and every year you declare you bought a bad bird. It is not the bird, it’s the bag. I cannot eat another drivy fertz turkey. I don’t know what goy-friend of yours gave you that recipe, but we are not doing it that way as long as I am here.”

“He’s right,” my father said between farts.

“Who asked you?” my mother said with a smile. “But if yours is dry, you can take the whole thing home with you.”

“I will … and it won’t be dry.”

We roasted it my way. No bag, perfectly seasoned. The part that drove her nuts was my not letting her open the oven to baste it. It took everything to convince her that opening the oven and basting it only created wet skin and a dry bird.

Needless to say, I inherited my stubbornness and insistence that I am always right from my mother. Lately, I fart as much as my father.

The turkey was perfect, and she even said my chopped liver was as good as hers. That was the ultimate compliment.

That Passover was the nicest holiday our family spent together.

Less than two months later, my mother died, but at least she got to eat one good turkey before she left this earth to help God run things in heaven – or Boca – or wherever Jews go when they die.

I also inherited my need to be in charge from her.

After my mother died, I took over Thanksgiving duties. For the first few years, my father would come up for a visit with my friends for the holiday, giving my brother, who lived near him, a break.

My father was always a pleasure, especially when he would comment on my guests’ weight or other physical attributes, and soon, I realized this combination was not working.

Then, we held the first Stern Family Thanksgiving since my mother died. My brother, sister-in-law, nephew and father came up. Dad stayed with me, while the others stayed in a hotel. This gave me the pleasure of witnessing my father doing his morning exercises in his briefs with his man boobs flapping about.

I have seen my future, and it is not pretty.

For that Thanksgiving, I decided to go all out. My delicious roast turkey, mushroom bordelaise gravy, cornbread stuffing from homemade cornbread (no bag of croutons crap), cranberry apple relish, pumpkin-sweet potato-carrot mash with molasses and brown sugar, and homemade biscuits.

I asked my brother if my nephew had any favorite food. He said, “Yes, creamed corn.”

I hate creamed corn. Creamed corn looks like predigested food. I don’t want to know how they cream it. I really don’t want to know. But, I wanted him to be happy, so I bought two cans of that dreck.

We sat down to dinner, and I put everything out so beautifully. If I do say so, myself, I set a beautiful table. I have few talents when it comes to entertaining, and working in a five-star restaurant taught me how to set a table. I always take a picture of the table before anyone sits down and messes it up. Everything is color coordinated. I have more table cloths than the Marriot and matching napkins for all of them, enough to make Martha Stewart jealous.

The food looked wonderful, and I thought I had outdone myself. Then someone said it, “Pass the creamed corn.” And another, “Yes, pass the creamed corn.”

Then, “Oh this creamed corn is delicious.” Followed by, “Do you have any more of the creamed corn?”

Seriously? This is your favorite dish on the table? Creamed fucking corn? I should have made Stove Top Stuffing, French’s gravy, and opened a can of jellied cranberry sauce!

I thought it; I didn’t say it.

If I were suicidal and owned a gun – and knew how to use one – I would have blown my brains out right there at the dining room table, which would have been followed by, “Oh, I hope he didn’t get any brains in the creamed corn.”

“Yes, let me open another can of creamed corn,” I said with my best Donna Reed smile. It wasn’t even brand name creamed corn!

While I love my family dearly, we are just trash.

I never cooked another Thanksgiving dinner again.

My father died of a heart attack after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease a couple of years ago. Now for Thanksgiving, my family comes up to visit, and we go out to eat. Going out was my brother’s idea because he doesn’t want to bother with dishes. No offense, Alex, but when did you ever wash a dish in my home? Wait a minute. Was he commenting on my cooking?

Last year, we had a lovely meal at an upscale restaurant.

But, I now live in a town that allows trailer parks, so our choices are limited. I think I’ll make a reservation at Wing’s Liquor, Sports Bar and Grill. I hear they have their own special recipe for creamed corn! We should fit right in.

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