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The Halloween decorations are barely down, but the glossy magazines already scream from the checkout stands: Get Ready for a Hassle-Free Thanksgiving! 34 Steps to a No-Panic Holiday! How to Cook for 16 Relatives AND Relax! Hah, I think. You’ve never spent Thanksgiving with my family in New York. Most people who know me will assume that I am referring to my own gastronomic predilection: vegetarianism. And true, when I first gave up flesh over twenty years ago, there was quite a bit of kvetching. “I don’t know how to feed her,” my mom would throw up her hands. “She’s going to make us all eat tofu turkey,” my brother would mutter. But eventually we all adjusted, and as grains and legumes climbed up the food pyramid, I found myself promoted from dietary outcast to trailblazer. Which is a good thing, because even though I grew up in New York City, I no longer live there and often worry about appearing provincial to my Big Apple family and friends. So you can imagine how relieved I felt knowing that I was considered cutting edge. Until last year, that is. Thanksgiving day, my brother and I were squeezed with my mother in her tiny Brooklyn kitchen, chopping garlic and onions when the buzzer rang. Hadiyah, her friend and neighbor, came puffing into the apartment toting a bag of Russet potatoes. “What are these for?” I asked. “I can’t eat sweet potatoes,” she replied, heaving the bag up on the kitchen counter. “They’re prohibited by FAA.”
My mother nodded while I pondered for a minute. As far as I knew, the evening’s plans did not include Hadiya imbibing fermented sweet potatoes and taking us all for a cruise up Flatbush Avenue in the family 747. But not wanting to appear ignorant, I kept quiet. Thank goodness for my brother, who goes right to the point. “FAA?” He asked. “Food Addicts Anonymous,” replied Hadiyah. My mother nodded again, as if this was supposed to clear everything up. “Sweet potatoes are addictive?” “Oh, it’s not just sweet potatoes,” she sighed. “It’s anything with flour or sugar and I also have to limit dairy and fruit. If I volumize on my metabolic I feel just awful.” My mother, who has belonged to so many different 12 step groups that she considered starting a new one to help her break free of them, understood exactly what had been said. She patted Hadiyah on the shoulder. “No problem. I’ll make you a separate dish.” Hadiya nodded appreciatively and waved goodbye. “Volumize on your metabolic?” I whispered. “Oh that,” said my mom, with a shrug. “Overeating at snack time. Members of FAA believe that food addiction is biochemical, as opposed to members of OA-Overeaters Anonymous--who believe that food addiction is behavioral. It’s a very important distinction.” Clearly. Except I was still considering what a sweet potato addiction might look like. Would you awaken in a cold sweat in the middle of the night craving one? Would
you find yourself breaking into cars for spare change to purchase your tuber? Or would you just be so desperate you would head directly to the supermarket with a crowbar? I was about to ask my mother if this was the distinction between biochemical and behavioral, when the buzzer rang again. This time it was Jonathan, an old family friend who lives near my mom. He gave me a kiss hello. “Here Sande” he said handing my mother a bag. “This is for the stuffing. I gotta run and finish my errands. I’ll see you all later.” I picked up the bag casually and felt my arm pull out of the socket. The label said rice bread but the contents appeared more like a loaf of paving bricks. “Is Jonathan FAA, too?” I asked. “Oh no,” said my mom, washing the potatoes. “Celiac Sprue.” A new species of Boreal evergreen? Or were we in for a surprise visit by a Gaelic folk band who, instead of M and M’s, required unleavened rice bread after their performance? I waited for my mom to elaborate but she was busy washing the potatoes. Thank goodness for my brother who goes right to the point. “Celiac Sprue?” he asked “You know,” said my mom, with that tone of voice we used to hear when we hadn’t studied hard enough for a test. “Gluten intolerance.” Oh. Just like Hadiyah. I was getting it. “No wheat,” I said confidently. “No, not just wheat, gluten,” corrected my mom sharply. “No rye, no oats, no barley.”
“Well what’s the big deal?” I asked. “How many oats and barley does one person need? It’s not like he’s a horse.” I giggled, but she turned off the water and faced me. “Oh no. It’s far worse than you can imagine. He can’t have bread, cereal, cookies or cakes. And since barley is used as a natural sweetener, that eliminates wheat-free snacks and certain types of herbal teas. And he gets quite sick--bad gas, intestinal bleeding, cramps.” I picked up the rice bread, my face turning crimson. “Well, let’s be sure to use this then.” But no sooner had I dumped it into the stuffing mix and thrown away the bag when I heard my mom cry out. “Oh Christ, I don’t believe this.” She was standing over the trash reading the label. “I can’t have this. It has 22 grams of carbohydrate per serving. That’s way too high. If I have more than 14 grams my blood sugar goes through the roof.” My mother is a diabetic and diligently studies every gram of food that she ingests. I looked back into the kitchen. We were running out of pots. Along with two potato dishes we were now going to need two different stuffings—one with the rice bread, and one with regular bread, which I immediately realized was going to have to be further subdivided: cooked-inside-turkey for the carnivores and cooked-outside-turkey for the vegetarians. So we chopped up some more onions and carrots and got a second batch of stuffing going. My mother went to the fridge and pulled out the turkey. “Well,” she said, relieved to be approaching the end of this marathon prep session. “At least we know where we stand on the turkey. Either people will eat it or they won’t.”
Thank goodness for my brother, who goes right to the point. He glanced at the wrapper and then at her. “Mom. This isn’t a free range turkey.” She stopped, chopping knife mid-air. “It’s probably packed with antibiotics, and raised on GMO feed. Why didn’t you get an organic, hormone-free turkey? I can’t eat this.” She started to answer, but then looked the plates and pans stacked halfway to the ceiling, the piles of onion skins and potato peels splayed across the floor, and instead, thrust the turkey baster at my brother, the sponge at me, and clomped down the stairs to shower. By time we sat down hours later, the table was so packed with food I couldn’t see the tablecloth. Not just because of the usual Thanksgiving panoply, but because there were enough variations on each dish that would make even Glatt Kosher Jews look lax. There were four stuffing dishes (we had added a regular bread, cooked-outside-turkeywalnut-free version for my nine-month-old son who was not supposed to have nuts because of potential peanut allergies), sweet and regular potatoes, green beans with and without butter (for another guest who had reminded us that he had high cholesterol) salad with and without dressing, one batch of regular and one batch of rice bread croutons, (on the side of course), sweetened and unsweetened cranberry sauce, and oh yes, a small plate of turkey, loaded with hormones and antibiotics. Ravenous, we sorted wildly and then attacked. My four year old daughter was also famished so I filled her plate with green beans, sweet potatoes, stuffing and French bread, and handed her a fork. But I had barely picked up my own when I heard her burst into tears.
“Yuck Mom,” she cried. “Where’s my macaroni and cheese?”
So, as the holiday approaches this year, excited as I am to be with my favorite group of people, I can’t help wonder how I’m going to survive. But then I tell myself, oh, just relax. Since we’ll be in New York, if we can’t accommodate everyone, we’ll just do what the locals do when they’re in a pinch: Pick up the phone and order in. So what if the only thing we can agree on is raw spinach? (Organic and triple rinsed of course). At least we’ll all be able to eat it, together. And for that, I will truly give thanks!