Many holidays have their story-telling traditions, although it's the "Big Three" we remember best.
At Christmas, it's the story of the birth of Jesus, read from the New Testament in churches around the world. The Fourth of July is always accompanied by the reading of the Declaration of Independence. The story of Thanksgiving usually begins in elementary classrooms with "The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock..." and ends with "...broke bread with the Indians, and lived happily ever after."
In my family, the story of Thanksgiving goes something like this...
Thanksgiving Day, 2002,
just hours before my family’s traditional celebration
It is 8:13am in Huxley, Iowa (and a lot of other places).
At this particular moment in time, a dozen family members, a handful of their friends, and a few reluctant tagalongs who were guilted into going (“You can’t be alone on Thanksgiving!”) are standing in their assorted kitchens, preparing nourishment for the yearly ritualistic holiday carnage known as Thanksgiving at my Aunt Candy’s house.
The participants rummage through refrigerators and cupboards with differing degrees of enthusiasm - grabbing containers, popping lids, sniffing contents, measuring ingredients, frantically stirring, patiently baking, and eventually preparing enough food for a large Somalian air drop.
They stuff the fruit of their labors into jam-packed Tupperware bowls, overflowing pans, barely covered plates and Reynolds wrapped trays. They place these securely in laps, and haphazardly tossed in back seats. They travel on baby skin-smooth four lane interstates and gravel roads unnavigatible by Martian land rovers. They chit-chat as they go and clam up in ambivalent silence as they ride, all wondering if they’ll be home in time for Must See TV!
Upon arriving, they will quickly remove lids, pop tops and peel back foil to reveal: everybody brought potatoes.
My aunt's husband's sister made regular mashed taters, right out of the Ore-ida box. So did her brother, but he used real spuds, boiled until tender, added milk and butter, and mashed with a fork. The brother's brother mixed garlic and chives into his batch, then pureed it with a blender. A fourth potato prepare-er, a friend of the second brother, haphazardly smashed taters into large pieces and left the skins on, then added a layer of cheddar cheese, and baked. The second brother's cousin went with mashed potatoes with ham chunks. His wife cooked sweet potatoes, the night before. Her sister brought whole boiled potatoes, mashing not included. Their invited neighbor carried in a large bowl of potato corn mash. Three others have three versions of potato salad.
And I've got a stale, half-eaten bag of Ruffles in my trunk.
I’m not at my aunt's house. I’m hiding.
At 11:04am, I peer out from under my bed, admit to myself that Thanksgiving is going on as scheduled, and prepare for it as I have for the past 17: thinking of a way to injure myself and avoid participating.
I consider slicing my leg open, but then remember that I used that excuse to miss last year’s Christmas festivities. How many times can I claim to have cut my leg shaving? Besides, family members will likely suggest I come anyway, and have the wound packed with au gratin potatoes.
No more excuses. It’s time to take my holiday like a man.
Once, when I was 14, my mother set our oven on fire, trying to cook steaks. Not a small grease flare-up. I'm talking about an oven engulfed in flames. I remember it lighting up the kitchen, not at all unpleasantly, in the middle of the afternoon. My shadow was burned into the wall. As for Mom - what she lacked in culinary talent, she made up for in her ability to put out appliance fires. And we ate the steaks, straight up, without ketchup.
I now bring everything I learned from that horrible tragedy, to this moment.
I begin working on my contribution to our family's Thanksgiving pot-luck stuff-a-thon by:
1. Popping open three boxes of my old traditional holiday favorite, Kraft Family-Sized Macaroni and Cheese Dinner.
2. Carefully pouring the contents of all three boxes - 12 cups of uncooked elbow macaroni, into a saucepan designed to hold 6.
3. Placing the pan on a gas burner…then deciding that water might aid the cooking process.
4. Flooding the pan to the brim with tap water.
5. Watching the pasta elbows lay submerged, cleverly waiting for their moment to escape, as water boils in the pan, then evaporates, getting the heck out of there before something bad happens.
The expanding macaroni moves vertically up the sides of the pan (like a really cool Brady Bunch chemistry experiment) except for the shells at the bottom, which stick to it like bubble gum on hot pavement.
Eventually, the remaining water boils up and over the side of the saucepan, taking the macaroni elbows with it, which then stick to the electric burner, creating flames that lick up the saucepan sides.
This is fun when cooking over a campfire, less so when ruining a four burner stove in a rented apartment.
I'm on top of the developing situation, watching ESPN in the living room.
They're showing a game-winning TD from the night before. The crowd is going insane. Sirens are blaring. They cut to a commercial for Right Guard. The sirens continue. Don’t remember that in the ad.
That's when I realize that the burning smell I smelled 10 minutes ago was, indeed, something burning, which has now set off my smoke alarm.
I (very calmly) sprint to the kitchen, to find culinary chaos: fire, a bubbling cauldron, charred elbows.
Big deal. I've seen steaks explode.
Using a nearby pair of dirty underwear as a potholder, I calmly lift the 47-pound saucepan (hot noodles spilling on my feet) off the burner and into the sink (which is full of pans with stuff burnt on them), where the steaming mess sits while I survey the carnage, and collect my thoughts.
Burnt, smoldering elbows litter the burner. The catch plate underneath looks like the surface of Mercury. The counter is dotted with a half serving of raw noodles that never made the saucepan. And I'm missing Sportscenter.
I contemplate testing the pasta to see if it’s ready - by tossing the entire pan against the wall and seeing if it sticks.
Instead, using a fork, I discover that, out of 7,258 macaroni shells, 3 aren't crunchy. To finish the cooking process with a Betty Crocker flourish, I Kraft-ily scoop the still scalding-hot macaroni by hand into 2, non-microwave-able storage bowls, then microwave them until the plastic begins to melt.
Then -- are you writing this down? Then, using a huge bowl originally designed for mixing concrete at construction sites, I thoroughly stir three packets of Kraft sharp imitation cheddar cheese ooze into the shells, until each and every elbow is coated with an equal amount of artery-clogging goo.
Even using the king-size container, the ready-to-eat macaroni and cheese level is ready-to-spill-on-the-floor. Wanting to avoid any more pasta calamities, I grab a fork, stab it into the bowl and stuff prong-fulls of mac and cheese into my mouth. I ditch the fork and use my hands (time is of the essence).
Three inches of macaroni and cheese down later, the bowl isn’t so top-heavy. I wipe away the cheese ring and fork-scrape evidence with a paper towel.
All ready for the family to enjoy.
1:13 pm: With one hand I grab the bowl, my car keys, and a Baker's Square pecan pie I'd purchased the day before. With the other I pick up my cell phone, and Wally, my weinerdog, then head for the car.
Wally is a robust 23-pound “miniature” daschund of good German design, twice the size of a bowling ball (but should never be gripped like one).
Wally is a much-beloved pet. He will challenge that designation in the next 21 minutes.
The car is started. Wally puts on his seat belt. We hit the road, towards Aunt Candy's house.
On the way - with Wally sitting comfortably in my 99’ Chrysler Sebring Convertible’s leather passenger seat, the boxed pie sitting securely on the passenger side floor, and the top-heavy bowl of Mac and cheese sitting precariously on the dash - I pull into a local convenience store to grab a Pepsi. All that starch has coated my throat, plus I want to disguise my "cheesy" breath from suspicious relatives.
I open my door and begin to get out of the car, then turn back around.
"Wally?" I address the living organism beside me, as I move the pie from the floor and tuck it up on the dash, next to its friend, the macaroni and cheese.
His tail wags three times, then stops, tired from the exercise. He looks at me through glazed-over cataract dog eyes, but appears to be listening. It’s a look I’ve seen before, on the faces of friends after reading something I’ve written, like this story.
"Do NOT eat that pie,” I say to him, looking over the top of my glasses, as if he understands this gesture.
I point at the pie, to illustrate my point(ing). “DON'T eat that. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. It is not for you. Just sit and be good. Stay! STAY!" I say it 26 more times, as if he heard the first 25. Then I close the car door, trusting Wally's good instinct and self-control.
This is the same dog that once urinated on my shoe while I was wearing it.
Historians, laughing, will look back years from now at written records from this day, and wonder:
a) Why did I leave the pie in the car with a pie-eating dog?
b) Why would I trust an animal that eats his own poop, to not eat a pie?
c) Why didn’t I roll the dice with “Sorry! Can’t make it - cut my leg shaving again!”
d) Why didn't I go with a cat from the ARL?
143 seconds later, I return to the car and open the door, Pepsi in hand.
Wally is not in his seat. The pie is not on the dash.
My mind begins to leave my brain. Maybe I forgot both of them at home.
“Hello?" I call out, hoping only the pie will answer, because the dog has been kidnapped.
No such luck. The latter is hunkered down on the floor – where the fox I hired to guard the chickens, is now eating them.
Wally – a dog so inactive that a friend once mistook him for a stuffed animal - has managed to a) pull the pie down from the dash and land it right-side up, b) butt the once-secure pie box open with his head, and c) carefully begin licking each and every square inch of the surface, like a mother cat tenderly licking her newborn kitten, right before she eats it.
Frankly, I'm initially too mesmerized by the fact that the pie landed bottom down (like cats are supposed to) to halt the damage being inflicted on the pie.
Then, suddenly, it hit me: you pie licking Nazi.
"STOOOOOOOOP!" I beller, at a dog normally impervious to bellering.
Wally, surprisingly, jumps up, startled, like he just saw Chet Culver wearing a thong.
I snap. "(expletive deleted) DOG!” I yell loud enough to startle a nearby elderly man, who just wants to fill his Ford F-150 and head to the VFW. Wally braces for the poop storm. I raise my hand up.
I beat the seat into submission. It will never try to eat a pie again.
Wally, meanwhile, licks his lips, searching for extra pie goo while he glances sideways at me, concerned that Daddy has finally gone to "the dark place.”
I compose myself – three days later. Then and there, I’m still freaking out. I look down at the pie, expecting the worst...
$7.24 of the $8.95 pecan pie appears to be intact - the victim of a bite or two and a lick and run. I move a dislodged pecan here, push some pie goo there, trying to cover teeth marks. Wally begins panting, filling the car interior with "stinky breath." Considering the state of Wally’s oral hygiene, the pie should immediately be quarantined. It’s Thanksgiving - getting hazardous waste disposal experts flown in from Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control at this late hour seems unlikely.
Pie first-aid applied, and dessert re-secured, "baaaaaad dog" and I get back on the road and head down it, not saying a word to each other.
We eventually arrive at my Aunt’s house, where my pie, mac and cheese and dog are welcomed with fawning, and high praise. You can have all three of them, people.
The pie is placed on dessert row. Dead pie walking!
Lines are formed. Hot food is served. Conversation is exchanged. Interest is feigned. Pants are unzipped. Naps are taken - none more soundly than Wally’s.
Later, I hear the clink-clink of plates being removed from a shelf.
“Who wants pie?”
I jump up. “I’m beat!" (Battle fatigue, no doubt.) "We’re gonna head out.”
“Don’t you want some pecan pie?” Candy asks, as I head (walk, don’t run, Jonnie…walk don’t run) toward the door, quipping, “A merry Thanksgiving to all, and to all, a good pie…uh, night!”
I heard the pecan pie was the hit of the afternoon.
As for The Thanksgiving Pie Incident? I would eventually have my revenge (which is a dish best served cold, but no doubt, licked).
Wally (who passed away in 2006) and I (who still miss the silliest pie-licking weinerdog in the world) wish you a wonderfully sweet Thanksgiving. :)
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT.
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