Her mom was roasting a brined turkey, Nana had baked pumpkin and apple pies, and we had traveled with a carful of side dishes: a New York cheesecake, potatoes, asparagus, and construction kits for Waldorf salad and the cornbread dressing I’d make that she assured everyone they’d love. Drinks were served upon arrival, and while everybody chatted happily we set to work unpacking the cooler and assembling our bits and pieces.
“Does this look right to you?” she asked. I had to admit, the salad dressing looked watery and grey; it tasted like dill and vinegar and not much else. She wanted to try this version for my benefit, since I’m no fan of gloppy salads. She headed for the sink. “I’m going to start over.” I suggested instead that she whisk in a little mayonnaise. She did; the dressing wasn’t quite where she wanted it, but it was closer. A little more mayo, and a sprinkling of sugar, and the dressing held together nicely and tasted great.
Dinner was served and enjoyed. Family stories were told and political conversations defused. Many hands made the clean-up light, and the afternoon was a success. There were plenty of leftovers–particularly the cornbread dressing, which had sadly not lived up to its reputation. “The stuffing wasn’t as good as last year’s,” she said softly to me. Leaving aside that it was dressing, not stuffing, since it had been cooked alongside the turkey rather than in it, I had to agree, but neither of us was sure why. Her mom had baked the cornbread, so we weren’t sure what was in it; I’d used pork sausage, which always seems like a good idea; the spices, such that I recalled, were the same, but the result was different. Not terrible, but not as we’d remembered.
The problem with improvising is that, unless you have an extremely accurate memory or are meticulous about documentation, it’s nearly impossible to recreate what you’ve done. Whether creating a piece of music or a Thanksgiving side dish, the pleasure of success is ephemeral.
The problem with following recipes, on the other hand, is that, unless you have a trusted source, it’s nearly impossible to guarantee that what you’ll end up with is what you intend. Whether cooking or knitting, when the result is different than you expect, the temptation may be to chuck it in the waste bin and start over.
The problem with Thanksgiving–or any big holiday dinner, for that matter–is that a lot of pressure can be put on every component. Far more than needs to be. If the salad had been a total bust, there still would have been plenty of food. If no one had touched the cornbread dressing, there would still have been laughter and joy. If I had put the cheesecake in the cooler along with the sealed bags of chopped vegetables and it turned out they weren’t as well-sealed as I thought and the cheesecake tasted a little of onion, no one would mention it.
Her parents have accepted an offer to sell their house before beginning a grand retirement adventure, so this will be the last Thanksgiving in the house she grew up in. She was a little melancholy, but it was as joyful a celebration as I could want. I don’t know where we’ll be next November, but wherever it is, if the dressing is perfect or if we burn the turkey and end up with grilled cheese sandwiches, there will be plenty to be thankful for.
I did, by the way, put the cheesecake in the cooler, and it did taste funky. Nobody teased me about it more than I did. But I’ve never enjoyed a Waldorf salad so much. There was a pleasantly chilly late evening walk, and the first holiday lights of the season. And, seriously, Nana’s pies are better than any store-bought cheesecake.