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Shorelines: The Feast of Disaster Averted

Is there a holiday that is more fraught with anxiety and potential disaster than Thanksgiving?

One with the noblest of themes, pausing to give thanks for all our blessings. Its position on a weekday entails the largest mass migration in North America in the shortest window, as families seek to reunite with loved ones for one day, for one meal, and the same exact meal, exactingly and lovingly prepared for the third Thursday of November each year. 

Assuming, against all odds, the travel goes smoothly — think of the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” —  adults will get to sleep in their childhood beds and fall into the adversarial roles they’ve played for decades with their parents and siblings.

No, let’s forget that last part. All grown up now, moms and dads will set a good example for their children by being polite to each other and not mentioning that thing that you did to me and got away with and I’ve always blamed you for.

So let’s assume everyone will be on their best behavior and turn our attention to the kitchen.

Here is where I begin to think of Thanksgiving as the Feast of Disaster Averted. The goal of assembling a Norman Rockwell-worthy feast involves diplomatic coordination about each person’s contribution to the meal, which must all arrive simultaneously at the appointed hour, some of it in Grandma’s antique dishes.

What could possibly go wrong?

I can’t speak from experience, because I go to great lengths to avoid the kitchen at Thanksgiving (to be honest, most of the time).

I used to enjoy making the turkey gravy; when we’d go to my in-laws for Thanksgiving, they were partial to the gravy from a jar that my mother-in-law served. So for a few years, we made both and happily coexisted, until the time one guest tried to be helpful and mixed the two gravies together.

We all stared in shock for a moment, then broke into laughter, as it is, after all, only food.

A gathering of my family usually involves a few dozen people, so some cooks try to prepare their dishes ahead of the time when the kitchen’s empty. My brother-in-law was preparing his favorite leeks recipe late one Thanksgiving Eve, long after my father had gone to bed.

Suddenly the patriarch was hollering for someone to investigate why this pungent aroma was coming from the kitchen in the middle of the night: “Who’s cooking onions?!”

My quick-thinking sister promptly answered, giving her husband, Dennis, cover and throwing our brother under the bus.

“Bryan burned some onions, Dad,” she said. Evidently this was her payback for a purloined stuffing recipe, after which she considered the score settled.

The next day, though, the patriarch summoned her to his side to let her know the jig was up. “I know, Marianne — it was the leeks!”

Another year, our daughter tried to do her cooking the night before, volunteering to make mashed potatoes for the crowd.

The next morning, the potatoes were peeled, cooked and mashed, and the peels from 10 pounds of potatoes had ruptured the garbage disposal and clogged the pipes.

Two trips to the hardware store later we were still dealing with the messy situation, when my son remembered that he had a high school friend who was apprenticing to a plumber.

He came, he saw, he fixed.

Getting a plumber to your house on Thanksgiving? I’d call that a miracle.

Our Thanksgiving menu has stuck to the tried-and-true most years, although we did experiment with the deep fryer once — very tasty, but not worth the risk, we decided.

And there was that small, nervous COVID Thanksgiving where we connected with most of the family by Zoom, then gathered with the small pod who we felt safe with — we served socially distant Cornish game hens that year.

With food comes tender memories — the heel of bread we knew as turkey bread because my mother would tuck it into the turkey after the stuffing to soak up Thanksgiving flavor for the baby of the house to enjoy.

The two morsels of meat at the back of the turkey, known as the oysters, were a treat my mother would enjoy and my father would reserve for her, a tradition my husband has thoughtfully continued for me.

Once we’re all finally seated around the table(s), the stress and squabbling of the day will fall away as we share a prayer of thanks, remember those we’ve lost, and think about those who suffer. Over the years, we’d invoke the names of families who we knew were facing challenges.

The list grew until my brother Paul finally rounded it out to simply, “all the families in the world.”

We’ll eat until we’re full, signaling that it’s time to break out the Briermere pies.

The next day, we’ll put our fat pants on, devour the leftovers, and head over to the Havens Store to begin our Christmas shopping.

Then Saturday, we’ll stick turkeys on our heads, strip off half our clothes to show off our newly gained extra girth, plunge into the waters off Crescent Beach to support the library, and another family holiday will go into the albums. Happy Shelter Island Thanksgiving from my family to yours!