I always knew that there was something different about the way my family did Thanksgiving. At the age of 10, I had never had a Thanksgiving turkey--I’m not even sure that I knew what it was in the real sense of the holiday. Sure, I had the “Thanksgiving dinner” at school lunch, you know the one, with the little pie and the pile of instant mashed potatoes slathered in questionable turkey and loaded with sodium. A whole turkey had never crossed my table.
I distinctly remember the first holiday I saw a turkey on my family’s table. My mother had remarried to a wonderful man, and we were about to spend our very first holiday as a newly blended family. I was in for the shock of my life.
A girl of 10 or 11 doesn’t think to ask if tradition would change as a result of the new union, of course, and so I just assumed that we would be having the traditional Italian-American spread I had become accustomed to over the years. I expected meatballs, lasagna, perhaps some asparagus, and certainly the “kitchen sink salad” (named such because my mom puts in everything but the kitchen sink!)
Enter the big holiday and the even bigger bird that was sitting, beautifully cooked, on the kitchen table. This was supposed to be our very first “normal” Thanksgiving holiday, but when I beheld this site, I believe I cried. Why was this happening to me? I couldn’t comprehend what in the world had happened to my Italian-American holiday staples!
My stepfather stood agape at the musings of an 11-year-old who had never had a Thanksgiving turkey. I am sure he, with his very classic American upbringing, couldn’t comprehend what in the world I was experiencing. This is much the same reaction he had when he learned that my brother and I had never had a donut and promptly took us out to Dunkin’ Donuts to sample the sugary, moist cakes topped with even more sugar.
Nonetheless, there I was, practically traumatized by the turkey on the table in place of the traditional lasagna. Instead of meatballs and gravy boats of homemade marinara sauce, there was mashed potatoes and brown gravy. This, my mother informed me while she simultaneously tried to hide her own amusement, was an American Thanksgiving dinner. I was incredulous, but I sat down to give it a try, sucking up whatever disappointment I was feeling.
To my surprise, I loved the traditional turkey, gravy, and mashed potatoes. They tasted great--and nothing like that gook I had eaten in school lunch. The flavors were homey and altogether different than they type of comfort derived from Italian-American food. From that moment on, mashed potatoes and I were practically inseparable. I would ask my mother repeatedly to make mashed potatoes and gravy. I just couldn’t get enough of the stuff, preferably with tons of butter, pepper, and salt.
All of that fuss seemed over a lot of “nothing” when it came to a change in tradition and taste. Though we didn’t always have turkey on Thanksgiving (sometimes we had ham, and sometimes we had a revival of the old days of lasagna and meatballs) I will never quite forget that feeling of my first traditional Thanksgiving. I suddenly felt like I had a double food life. There was the Italian-American food that I had grown up with, and then there was the rest of America that had traditions unique to that identity. I still crave the pasta that I grew up with; perhaps even a little too much. But now my palette has extended beyond the basics.