Collecting Strays at the Thanksgiving Table

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I was so homesick my freshman year of college that my cousins bought me a plane ticket to come home to Nashville for Halloween.

Halloween! It was a fantastic extravagance, the unintended consequence of which was that I really couldn’t come home three weeks later for Thanksgiving and then turn right back around and come home for Christmas. I would have to spend Thanksgiving at school.

Though I had some budding college friendships, none of them were close enough that first semester to rate an invitation to someone else’s house for the holidays. I went to Sarah Lawrence College, a half-hour north of Manhattan. I lived in a nice dorm that had once been someone’s house. There was a kitchen downstairs. I figured I could sit tight and wait out the long weekend.

Were I to put a pin in the map of my life and say, here, this is where adulthood began, I would place it on that Thanksgiving weekend in 1981. I was 17 years old.

While my roommate packed her bag to take the train home to Boston on Wednesday, I walked to the A&P in Bronxville with a shopping list. I had checked a copy of “The Joy of Cooking” out of the library weeks before when I realized I would have to stay. I made a list: butter and sugar, onions and celery, various potatoes, a turkey. There was money from babysitting and my weekly shift in the dean’s office.

I had found five other kids who lived in other dorms who also had no way of getting home and I invited them to dinner. When I went to the college dining hall for Wednesday lunch, I put a lot of silverware in my purse. There were plates and cups in the house where I lived, a few basic pans, but there was very little silverware.

It had never occurred to me to ask someone if I could stay in my room. It was my room, after all. But on Wednesday night when the radiators in the house were turned down to whatever temperature was needed to keep water from freezing in the pipes, I wondered if maybe I had been expected to vacate along with all the other girls in the dorm. Too late now. Buildings and Grounds was closed until Monday morning.

In those happy Dark Ages before cellphones and the internet, such miscalculations were solved not by changing the situation, but by changing yourself. I put on another sweater and my coat.

I suppose before I went to college I had been very modestly helpful to my mother on Thanksgiving. When she asked me to peel something, I peeled it, then went away to watch the Macy’s parade on television until she called me back to peel something else.

I showed no initiative and made no effort until 1981 when the Thanksgiving dinner that people were coming to was mine. That was when I started cutting frozen butter into pea-size chunks with a frozen knife in my frozen hands to make a pie crust.

There are many aspects of this story that seem mildly shocking in retrospect: the haphazard aloneness of it all, the wrongheaded decision masquerading as moxie.

But what blows my mind is the unquestioned belief that every single thing I cooked had to be made from scratch. I made yeast rolls, for heaven’s sake! I cooked down fresh cranberries into sauce! I, who had never touched a raw turkey, washed out the cavity and patted it dry. I cooked the neck and the giblets (along with a little chicken broth) and made a stock from which I would later make the gravy.

Why would someone who didn’t know how to cook think that this was what Thanksgiving required? I didn’t know any better.

All those years my mother had made a beautiful dinner I hadn’t been paying attention, and now that I needed her guidance, I had only enough quarters to call home from the pay phone once. I wanted to call when dinner was over. I wanted to tell her how well it had all turned out.

What I had that day was self-reliance and a book, which, as I would later learn, was all I really needed. When you look up dressing in “The Joy of Cooking” you will not find a footnote that says “Pepperidge Farm is perfectly fine if you’re tight on time.” No, you will get a recipe for dressing, and if you follow it, step by step, you’ll wind up with something delicious.

On that freezing holiday weekend when my adult life began, I not only learned to cook, I learned to read. There was no improvisation. If the recipe said two teaspoons of chopped fresh sage, that’s what went into the pot. Beat the egg whites for seven minutes? I looked at my watch and went to work.

I did not glance at those instructions, I followed them, so that even now when someone claims they don’t know how to cook, I find myself snapping, “Do you know how to read?” Paying close attention to the text, and realizing that books can save you: Those were the lessons I learned my freshman year of college when school was closed. I then went on to use this newfound understanding to great advantage for the rest of my life.

And dinner? It was O.K. The baking sheets were cheap and I should have moved up the racks in the oven. I burned the rolls. The mashed potatoes were cold by the time we sat down, and the green beans were crunchy little twigs.

Or to put it another way, dinner was brilliant, the other kids brought wine and we left the oven door open and the gas burners on and treated the stove as a fireplace. They thought I was amazing because I knew how to make a Thanksgiving dinner, and I thought I was amazing because I had pulled it off.

We were all such grown-ups that night! A bunch of strays mimicking the patterns we had brought from home. We laughed and drank and stuffed ourselves in fulfillment of the tradition.

I wish I could remember if we had the sense to be grateful then, for food, for the comfort of one another, for the luxury of our education. We were (we are) so insanely fortunate, and much too cool to bow our heads to anything, but in our hearts I hope we saw the bounty that lay before us.

The next year, my friend Erica Buchsbaum invited me to come home with her for Thanksgiving. Her parents then invited me for the next two Thanksgivings as well, and they invited me long after we had graduated because I made excellent gravy and they had never learned how.

And I never taught them because, well, I loved them. I wanted to be invited back.