It is Thanksgiving morning and I am lazing on the couch. At nine in the morning, I have given up on exercise for the day. It is in the seventies outside. I had anticipated cooler weather and the rise in temperature and humidity has wrung the run right out of me.
My son, rising at ten-thirty, informs us he has been invited to Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house. A bandmate, a former student of mine, and we are delighted. The house will be quiet and calm and he will be with friends, happy, well fed, while we are here. Where I am right now is where I plan on being the remainder of this day. Rocky I through V will be on TV. What better is there to be doing?
Apparently, what better there is to do is eat. Then eat some more. Then still more. I am supposed to stuff, gorge, cram and glut myself on any and all available comestibles in honour of the season, the Pilgrims, the Indians, Corn, Turkeys, Ben Franklin, George Washington, The President, Squanto, Tonto, The Lone Ranger, My Friend Flika and Rin Tin Tin. I am supposed to eat birds and beasts and breads and then, for some reason I fully fail to fathom, watch football.
Yes, this is the season of the curmudgeon coming into full colour and plume. But I come by my cynicism honestly and it is a family tradition. Nor do I chase people down to tell them just how I feel. No, they search me out and then I tell them just how I feel. I get to tell them just how well I like the season and all the accoutrements. You are reading this by choice, yes?
We have been invited to friends’ houses too. This late afternoon. We have, for the first year, declined, choosing not to choose. You might think I don’t get many invitations to holiday dinners but, despite the sentiments of the previous paragraph, I am apparently sparkling company. Go figure.
We were also invited to a Thanksgiving dinner, starting around noon, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship hosted by Rev Ann Fuller, a crazy-smart, fun to be with, great-to-talk-with lady and her chef husband, Jamie. We’re not going to that either. We’re staying home. I’m not making Thanksgiving dinner. I’m not making a turkey. I have veggies in the crock, a filet of salmon defrosted and a flank steak for my wife which I will grill later. No rolls, no potatoes, no sauce, gravy, pies, ambrosia, wines, cakes or casseroles.
I attribute this to laziness. As high-achieving as I am, as active as I normally manage to be, sometimes I just want to lay and read, lay and watch, lay and snooze, lay and stare at my wife as she watches, reads, snoozes. I just want to be. Today is that day. I have chosen to be lazy and I am not procrastinating. When I am lazy, I mean it and I do it well and efficiently with the utmost diligence. When it comes to being lazy, I spare no effort.
The day moves, it cools as the sun rises. I have always liked days that get cooler as they age. To me, these days seem backward, magical, mysterious and amazing. I revel in them, in awe and wonderment. I walk outside every hour or so to feel how the temperature has dropped. By one in the afternoon the air is cool and the sun is hot and this too is a tactile combination which has always felt like the paradox of the world – cold wind through hot sun.
I dress and go for a walk. I know, no matter how lazy, I will get my exercise in. I will walk because, if I don’t, I won’t feel I can eat today. And so three miles it is. Out of habit, I take my phone. Everyone is busy and no-one will call. I take it anyway.
Don’t tell anyone.
While I am walking, taking the long trail through the Turkey Creek Sanctuary near my home, my daughter calls. Sef is twenty-one, smart, stunning, funny, independent and calls either Lee or myself several times each day. I take odd days and Lee gets evens.
It is from her I received the best compliment I have ever, from anyone, been given. Even better than when Valerie told me her friend said I needed to be cloned twice. Even better than when Craig told me I was a god. Even better than when an old woman called me a mensch. Seffy told me she wanted me to live forever.
My brother is going to the home of his in-laws. My parents to their neighbour’s home. Alek to a friend’s house. She is going to her boyfriend’s home for Thanksgiving dinner. What am I doing is what she wants to know.
Staying home. The vegetables are nearly done. The fish is ready for the grill. Don’t you eat those things most of the time? Yes. Nothing special today? No.
Of course you don’t want to go to anyone’s house for Thanksgiving. She has figured it out. It’s a food holiday, she says to me. Too much pressure.
Indeed. It is a trial. Holidays can be a trial. Food can be a trial. Too many times hosts are insulted if I don’t try everything, take a taste but not a plateful, eschew certain delicacies, sweets, cakes, breads.
I have lied on occasion saying I was allergic to whatever it was or they were. Allergic to all these things? Yes, poor me! I once told a host I was diabetic and was watching my sugar carefully. But say you are simply watching what you eat and suddenly they are expert and assuring you can take a day or ten off. Oh, a diet, yes? But it’s a holiday so calories don’t count. It’s shabbas and there is no fat in anything the brucha is said over. Relax, it’s a holiday. If I were an alcoholic, they’d be inviting me into the bar and offering me Long Island iced teas and gin slammers. That would be insane. But insist on cake for someone who has worked tirelessly to lose a person’s worth of weight and you are a good host.
I insist I am there for the company and camaraderie, not the food. The reply?
“Have some donut holes.”
This is an event of recent.
Several minutes later, the same lady. “Just one or two.”
A minute or two later, “You can have some you know. It’s ok.”
“No really. It’s ok not to have some as well. No thank you.”
A few minutes later, “Just a few.” Shoving them in my face, chocolate in my nose.
“No thank you “
“Because I don’t want to die fat and young like you are going to.”
There was applause.
A party for a guest at school. A long line at the trough. I am taking vegetables, greens, some beans. Skipping over the double-tray of grocery store fried chicken, I move on to the green beans. Behind me, the track coach, six foot, over three hundred pounds, half a person extra hanging over his belt, taking three pieces of chicken as he says to me. “You can take some Mr. Tritt.” He wasn’t even supposed to be there. He came for the food.
“Of course I could.”
“So take a piece.”
“Nope. Don’t need it.”
“Come on Mr. Tritt. It won’t kill you.”
“Mr. K… I am heartened you are so well acquainted with my physiology as to know what is and what is not good for me. Now, if you will excuse me, unlike you, I wish to live.” He has since lost quite a bit of weight.
My daughter doesn’t force food. Bless her. Craig does not. Bless him. Evanne does not allow such at her house from anyone and I gladly attend festivities there. One party a guest insisted I eat pizza. Once, twice, thrice I refused and finally the offending guest, who later, in an unrelated incident, hit me in the back of the head with a hardcover edition of War and Peace, was taken aside and spoken with about leaving the guests to do as they liked. After that, while generally skittish about accepting party invitations, I happily accept invitations there. No forcing or stuffing allowed. That, and I get to play Brit Ekland when we watch “The Burning Man”
My grandmother taught me the joys of stuffing myself and eating what I neither wanted nor needed. This is not among the things for which I am thankful. She would put double portions on my plate. Just eat what you want, she would say.
If I ate it all, more would be put on it. If I didn’t, “just one more bite,” she would insist. Just one more. Now one more. Just another. One more. No? Why? Don’t you like it? Didn’t I cook it good? What’s wrong? Nothing. Then why not eat? Fine, children starve but you, you don’t want. Fine, I’ll throw it out.
My grandmother boiled chickens. Made Minute Rice. It’s a shame she didn’t at least use the chicken water for the rice. When the chicken was boiled, she would taste it and, if she could find any detectable flavour, she would boil it some more. When finally the last dribbings of chickeness had been dissolved into the water, Grandma would pour the water down the drain. Then she would make Minute Rice. This is what I would be given double helpings of.
Family events didn’t mean different food. Holidays didn’t mean something delicious or unique, it simply meant there would be even more of the food we normally ate. How much boiled chicken can one kid stand?
Of course, sometimes my father would choose the holiday meal and we would bring in cold-cuts or Long John Silvers or KFC. Later he got fancy and would bring home Popeye’s Chicken. How festive. At least it wasn’t boiled.
To be fair, my wife tells me my Grandmother made kuggle incredibly well. Kugle, kigle, kichel, not kegle, all of which are different names for a noodle pudding which was baked, sort of solid and my Grandmother would put pineapple into it and pop it upside down when done. How this came to be traditional Yiddish food I still can’t grasp. The last word is a pelvic floor exercise. Of the four, I prefer the last. I goes better with pineapple.
The world is full of my grandmother. It seems she is everywhere and she loves parties. People have glopped food onto my plate out of courtesy, I imagine, or duty or habit and then were upset it was not eaten. Grandmas like mine are legion.
So I have tended to stay away from food oriented gatherings.
It’s not like supermarket fried chicken or even a roasted turkey is something I have never had before. It isn’t like I have traveled to a foreign land and have told my hosts I’d have no part of their hospitality, do not wish to sample the local cuisine, don’t want to be part of the common culture while I am a guest in their land. At the local Thai Buddhist temple, if the ladies put something in front of me, I’m going to try it. There is no stopping me. Delicacies of a new nature, fresh experiences for body and soul. An enrichment of life. It is not that I avoid gustatory delights and taking part in life. No. I do not avoid all things savory and palatable. A Transylvanian restaurant? Choose for me and let me at it. Yes, that one too. And I’ll try that as well. It was soaked in lye and buried underground for six months? Yes, please, I’ll take some of that. Beanie Weenies? No, I don’t think so.
And if hamburgers and hot dogs truly brought me joy, maybe I’d indulge in those as well but, if not, why?
It has been suggested my counting what I eat causes me to pay more careful attention to what is within and what is without. It is a practice. It is mindfulness.
As I am mindful of how I treat myself and feed myself, it is a meditation on experience and needs versus illusion and desire. Such mindfulness makes the act of eating sacred. It moves my body slightly more in that direction.
One does not, after all, poison the well. One does not throw stones in the temple. One, at least, isn’t supposed to, that is. We humans poison our wells all the time but as a good idea it certainly needs some work.
I understand food is part of our culture. That is part of the joy and festiveness. But in our time of plenty, feasting is becoming more and more a norm. Birthday parties, office events, holidays, dinner-parties. If our ancestors feasted this much, I don’t think the words feast and fast would look so much alike.
Sometimes it isn’t as much fun, or as tasty, but I do my best to remember such gatherings and festivals are not about the food, but the event and the people, the family, friends and love. Not the hotdogs or cake or beer, turkey, pudding or pie. Certainly not the kuggle. But sometimes it is hard to do and, just sometimes, it is easier, kinder to myself, to stay clear.
And now, back from my walk, I am sitting quietly at home, writing, watching Rocky beat the crap of a Russian. I realize I missed my favorite part; the training scenes in the Siberian snow. While Rocky was out, so was I. We were both paying attention to what we needed to do.
In this time, quiet, I feel I can sit here and think about what this holiday means. What I am thankful for. Right now, I am thankful I’m not at a party. I have fish ready to go on the grill. But first, I can hear the sound of boiling water in the kitchen and, in the pot, there is a chicken leg-quarter calling my name.
Maybe later there will be some kegle.