It’s time to celebrate Thanksgiving, and like all families, we have our own traditions, some inherited, some of our own creation.
Shortly after we moved to Seattle in 1990, my parents gave us a roasting pan as a gift. Before we had moved, my cousin Joan in West Caldwell, N.J. had always hosted the family Thanksgiving dinner (as well as the Passover seder).
Now it was my turn.
I was, at age 33, going to cook my first turkey. Demonstrating the value of advertising, I obediently bought a Butterball at the local supermarket. As any devotee of American industrial turkey farming knows, the name is apt, as the bird is indeed completely spherical. Faced with the prospect of cooking this bird for the first time, and completely by accident, I put the fowl into the pan upside down. Cooking turkey is a challenge, as anyone who has tried to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner knows, because it’s difficult to roast the entire bird thoroughly without drying out the white meat. Like the accidental discovery of penicillin from mold by Alexander Fleming in the 19th century, my confusion over which part of the turkey was the top resulted in the fortunate coincidence of allowing the breast to cook sitting in the juices at the bottom of the pan.
By sheer dumb beginner’s luck, my first attempt at preparing what Ben Franklin wanted to make the American national bird resulted in a delicious meal, and for the next few years, my signature dish was “upside down turkey.” (As a cook, I have a total repertoire of about four meals, one of which is pasta and another ordering takeout.)
One year, as we entertained friends for the holiday, before sitting down to eat I brought the freshly roasted turkey out to the living room to show off to our guests. I knew it would elicit oohs and aahs, which indeed it did. Unfortunately, my carving skills were not commensurate with my cooking. The mouth-watering bird, which resembled the one set down on the table in the famous Norman Rockwell painting that celebrated American prosperity, was transformed into a platter of hacked chunks. My wife Anne remarked that it looked like I’d put a hand grenade in the middle and pulled the pin.
Thanks. The great thing about wives is their ability to restore one’s ego to appropriately modest proportions; she once told me that a new haircut looked like “it had been done with a lawnmower.”
At another family Thanksgiving dinner, when our middle son Sam was 6 years old, he promptly got up and walked out of the kitchen the moment we put the turkey on the table. He simply refused to sit in a room with a dead bird and participate in a celebration while its carcass sat in front of us. He repeated his exit of protest again the following year, when he was 7.
Thinking about it from a child’s perspective, I realized that in his innocence he simply decided he did not want an animal to be killed so he could eat it. Sometimes there are moments of moral clarity that are so succinct they change your perspective forever, like Dr. Martin Luther King saying, “I have a dream.”
For years, I was surrounded by vegetarians. Anne had been one for most of our marriage, and ate meat only sparingly and with great reluctance, but I simply chalked it up to differences between husbands and wives. Some people like Garth Brooks while others like Bach.
But there is a power to wisdom of a child that cannot be rationalized away. Shortly after the second consecutive year Sam turned our Thanksgiving dinner into his own personal Vietnam protest, I became a card-carrying vegetarian. The presence of our beloved dog Max (may his memory be a blessing) just added to the strength of my conviction. How could I love some animals and eat others?
Not everyone has quietly gone along with the program, however. Our youngest, Izzy, is a dedicated carnivore who enjoys steak on the grill as much as your average ranch hand. And we’ve been keeping kosher for years, so there would be no more Butterballs regardless. Nowadays the Harris family Thanksgiving is a Tofurkey, along with some sliced turkey from the kosher deli at Albertsons, served on a paper plate for one particular individualist. This is the freedom we celebrate on Thanksgiving, although perhaps a little differently than envisioned by Norman Rockwell in his iconic painting of the holiday.
But our family also reflects the spirit of another particular individualist, Henry David Thoreau. If we appear to be a bit out of step, perhaps it’s because we march to the beat of a different drummer. One thing I know for sure: The kid with the turkey slices on his plate does. But I’ll pass him the gravy anyway.