Thanksgiving is designed with such assembly-line precision — turkey, cranberries, that odd little green-beans-and-mushroom-soup mix — that it’s hard to imagine any single occasion going awry. But it happens, and those become the fodder for tales we carry forward for all the Thanksgivings of the future. Here are a few gathered from friends, with a final doozy of my own.
Albert Fischer of West Tisbury — hunter, gatherer, photographer and arguably the most popular good old boy on Martha’s Vineyard, when asked if he had any one stand-out Thanksgiving memory, said, “Not really,” then followed that up with an immediate, “Although . . .” Typical somehow of Albert’s field-and-stream way of life, this Thanksgiving started out behind a duck blind. “While waiting for some ducks to fly into the decoys, I passed the time away by opening fresh oysters to eat. My cell phone rang, and my wife in a tizzy informed me that our oven, with a 25-pound stuffed turkey in it had [expletive deleted] the bed.”
Albert headed home wondering how in the blue blazes he could render this roasting, and now, not-roasting bird edible for his 20-plus guests. A legendarily resourceful guy, he phoned an off-Island friend with a summer house nearby, and received permission to finish browning his turkey in her oven. But man cannot live by turkey alone. “I cooked a squash and apple pie on my outdoor grill, and they came out not so bad.”
Barbecued apple pie? Everyone should try it at least once.
If Albert’s tale summons up a rural “All In The Family,” then Rebecca Dopp of Valparaiso, Indiana, who first visited the Island in the early 2000s because she loved the mysteries of Philip Craig and Cynthia Riggs, has a story that’s “Frazier” on steroids — canine steroids.
Rebecca says, “I think of Thanksgiving 2009 [spent in Indiana] as the doggie debacle. When my group gets together it’s always chaotic and, try as I might, I haven’t found a solution, but this one time was off-the-charts crazy.”
Rebecca’s circle consists of seven adults, all of them gathered for the holiday in Rebecca’s 1970s bi-level house with small rooms and no dining area, only an eat-in kitchen. “It’s very claustrophobic,” she admits. “Now, add to that my golden retriever, plus my daughter brought over her Australian shepherd who’s high-strung, always barking, always herding everybody, and a yippy Pomeranian. My son contributed his American bulldog which his veterinarian calls ‘one chromosome away from a pit bull.’”
If this were not enough dogs to round out the very definition of disaster, friends of Rebecca’s heading out of town finagled the favor of accommodating their elderly, arthritic yellow Lab and a black Lab puppy.
Hieronymus Bosch, if asked to paint a canine version of The Last Judgment could not have invented more frenetic visuals. The Lab puppy scored some chicken and dumplings and barfed them up all over the house. A tremendous pile of doggy doo, as if by magic, materialized on the living room carpet. And as the night follows the day, dog fights broke out, one of them with horrific sounds effects coming from the kitchen. “The bulldog had the geriatric Lab pinned to the floor with her massive jaws clamped around her neck.”
Rebecca straddled the attacker. The Lab was unscathed; it was just one of those, you know, doggy rumbles.
And so the Thanksgiving of 2009 progressed. More vomiting, more barks and growls and at one point, during an outdoor bathroom break, the old limping Lab had the good sense to flee. “We found her blocks away. It was a day of doggy mayhem, and every year someone brings it up as ‘The Thanksgiving that literally went to the dogs.’”
And then my friends Ted and Alice McCormack* (names changed to protect the tender feelings of others involved in this story) of Oak Bluffs and Maryland, had a Turkey Day straight out of a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode. A couple whose company they enjoyed on MV invited them to trek up from Maryland to spend Thanksgiving on the Island. “We loved the idea!” reports Ted.
Ted, a culinary maestro, offered to bring the turkey. “It was a free ranger already mortgaged from Whole Foods. I brined it and lovingly slow-smoked it. “By a pure stroke of good luck, last-minute ferry reservations had been secured. “We and the turkey were in the car and off to the Vineyard full of joyous anticipation.”
Ensconced in their Island house on Thanksgiving eve, Alice and Ted prepped side dishes to accompany their prized turkey. A phone call came in from the other couple: There would be no Thanksgiving. Something better had come up, a trip to New York to see a grandkid, hey fun, huh? Aren’t you delighted for us? And just so we can still enjoy a catch up visit, come with us tonight to a buddy’s house mid-Island for a pre-Thanksgiving, ‘kay?!
Deflated, Ted and Alice tagged along. The friend, who seemed deflated himself to have extra, unknown company, served luke-warm turkey chili, no side dishes. After the meal was finished Ted reported, “Our host picked up a book and announced decisively that he was going upstairs to read.” And up he went.
And here’s the clincher: The next day the other couple called and “Cheerily asked, since we wouldn’t be needing the whole turkey, could they buy half for their trip to New York?”
The only piece missing from this “Curb”-inflected story is a final gotcha! from the master Larry David himself. How’s this for a final plot twist: From the get-go, Ted and Alice had been aware they may have accidentally left out a key ingredient in brining the turkey, the lack of which could cause severe intestinal disorders in the diners (remember this is purely fictional). They’ve had a call in to a chem lab, but the answer doesn’t arrive until after the friends leave with their 50 percent of the gourmet bird. Ted turns to the camera with a look of “Oops!” that turns to a wicked grin.
My own Thanksgiving story has a certain Rhodaje ne sais quoi to it with everything but Carlton The Doorman. Back in 1980 Marty Nadler (my then future ex-husband) and I lived in a tiny condo on Malibu Beach, and my parents dwelled some 15 minutes up the road in a condo overlooking Zuma Beach. Thanksgiving was organized at my folks for an extended family of 20-plus people.
My mother had started a diet and, being possessed in those days of a bit of a Draconian personality, she sent word to the cooks, namely me and my dad, to eliminate the much-beloved and traditional mashed potatoes. (Hello! Could she simply have eliminated them from her own plate?)
The night before, there came a knock at my door. My dad, dressed in a trench coat and a fedora hat, handed me a bag of potatoes. I was to peel ‘em and slice ‘em and have ‘em ready to go on the morrow.
Well, of course, on Thanksgiving day at their Zuma pad, my mother spied the boiling potatoes on her stove: She’d been darting in and out of the kitchen to make the martinis that only Greatest Generation guys and gals know how to stir. She blew her stack, her coifed red-headed stack, loudly enough that, in the living room, all conversation ceased. My dad grabbed potholders. He picked up the pot of boiling potatoes and headed for the back door.
“I’m dumping these in the ivy!”
Immediately Marty Nadler swooped up the silver platter of turkey which earlier my dad had laboriously sliced and artfully arranged. Marty carried the tray into the living room, to the amazement of all, shouting over his shoulder, “Larry, if those potatoes go out the back door, the turkey sails over the balcony!”
My mother laughed, breaking the evil spell. The day was saved. And my mom’s vow to embark on a diet was vindicated when my half-blind great-uncle Boris (he saw colors and shapes) took his empty glass directly into the kitchen, held it out to the big golden-rod-yellow refrigerator, and asked it if he could have another martini.
My mother was wearing a golden-rod-yellow dress.
Got a great holiday story? A memorable family picture around the table from this Thanksgiving or another winter holiday? Share them with us: firstname.lastname@example.org.