November 19, 2020 | Arts and Culture
polishing off the thanksgiving plate
not the perfect day, not just another thursday
If you asked me a year ago what my perfect Thanksgiving was, I’d have immediately shown you one thing: Bon Appétit’s Making Perfect: Thanksgiving. The holiday follow-up to their breakout series Making Perfect: Pizza, these videos had everything I wanted. Decadent shots of burnished turkey skin, tournament-style brackets pitting pumpkin against pecan pie (they settled on mixing the two together), and a coterie of funny, knowledgeable, freakishly charming coworkers. Four-plus hours of USDA-prime food content.
I cannot stress how much the people behind the food—Claire, Christina, Molly, Carla, Andy—played into my adoration. They weren’t nameless chefs, mise en place already set out in front of them, cooking a whole meal in ten minutes. No, I watched Claire and Christina struggle to make the best brussels sprouts for half an hour, and I cherished every minute. The visible toil left me in awe of another feature of the series—its congeniality. The chefs quibbled, but they never fought. Initial disagreements always mellowed into consensus. It was assured that by the end of each episode, they would prevail, snacking on their final product with satisfaction. For the last episode of the series, they all gathered in Claire’s cozy Cape Cod cottage to make the big family feast. That’s what made it seem so perfect. Not just the baking bread, but the breaking bread. Not just coworkers, but family.
Growing up, Thanksgiving carried an air of unappeased appetite. Like Peppermint Patty in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving: “Where’s the turkey, Chuck? Where’s the mashed potatoes? Where’s the pumpkin pie?” Every year, I expected a certain magic to fall over my family on that fourth Thursday. I expected the smell of golden-brown to waft all day as my dad basted the bird and my mom whisked the gravy. I’d jump in to mash the potatoes, or I’d try (and fail) at carving the turkey. I’ve loved cooking since I was young, so Thanksgiving was supposed to be bliss for me.
But this bliss was just ignorance. Thanksgiving is not celebrated in China, and as such, my parents’ conception of the holiday (at least in its stereotypically American sense) was null. They had never heard of green bean casserole (and still probably haven’t) and they lacked all desire to consume chalky, flavor-avoidant breast meat for the sake of “tradition.” Still, like the good parents they are, my mom and dad attempted to provide my sister and I with as normal a Thanksgiving as they could manage. This meant honey baked ham (for the flavor), mashed potatoes and gravy from Boston Market, and 年糕 with raisins for dessert. Ever the mule, by middle school, I started planning the Thanksgiving menu. Self-satisfaction came from smelling sage, resinous, as it baked in my stuffing. But it never amounted to all the stuff of my dreams. At thirteen, I attempted roasting a chicken (turkey’s too big for just the four of us), tragically overlooking the unequivocal truth that any thirteen year old will fail at this task. I felt a deep shame as I forced my family to nibble at their pieces of chicken, coppery skin belying the fact that the meat was literally raw. I could’ve put it back in the oven, but at that point, we were already an hour past the planned dinnertime, and so I spouted lies about how “it’s supposed to be pink” and left it at that. The last thing I wanted to do was to leave my family hungry.
After that devastating experience, I pulled back from cooking the main protein (much to my family’s relief), but by the next Thanksgiving, my sister had moved to college, and my dad’s company in China started gaining momentum. Thanksgiving 2014 was marked by the wistful absence of my dad, his replacement by my sister’s college roommate (lovely, but lacking my dad’s affability), and a meek, quiet dinner once again devoid of poultry. The food was satisfactory but wanting, and there was a collective understanding that this would not be the last time my dad’s seat would be empty. The past six years have seen my family drift further and further apart: my sister moved permanently to New York, my dad began spending more than half the year in China, and I started college here in Providence. We would always try to make it back for Thanksgiving, but even when we accomplished that, it was probably one of only three or four times a year that we were all at home together. Otherwise, we were the ones being consumed—by our duties, our schedules, our real priorities.
Bon Appétit’s YouTube heyday coincided with a moment of personal tumult. I was just starting to reconsider my long-term career plans, feeling stuck between my original intent to pursue academia, my burgeoning interest in tech, and my cautious dream of food writing. Bon Appétit represented a fantasy life, a holy grail: show up at work, eat delicious food, chat with my coworkers-turned-family, write thinkpieces about my lunch, and then go home satisfied with my eight hours of labor. I knew it was nearly impossible to attain, but if Claire and Christina could do it, why couldn’t I? Making Perfect: Thanksgiving and the rest of Bon Appétit’s video content soothed my worries. It could all work out like this. I could find family in The Industry; I could work with food for money; I could make the meal, and everyone would just gather.
And then the news broke: Bon Appétit was toxic. Unfair wages, catty employee culture, a racist editor-in-chief—the whole nine yards. The chefs’ interactions were genuine, but whatever else I had projected onto them—the sense of one big happy family—was not. I had not reckoned with the fact that I was worshipping a cabal of mostly white faces, that the few POC on screen weren’t being paid as much as their counterparts, and that their perfect Thanksgiving played right into the aspirations I had for my own perfect Thanksgiving, putting my disappointment on repeat.
For many, Thanksgiving is a bitter time of familial conflict, or it’s spent alone eating a cold turkey sandwich with wine, or it represents a history of exploiting the labor of Indigenous peoples, colonialism sanitized and glorified. For me, it was a narrative iterated by white voices telling me who I was not, by way of what I ate. So, while it is a time for breaking bread, Thanksgiving also breaks other things—families, individuals, nations—apart into crumbs. It’s about gratitude, yes, but it’s not necessarily what we should be grateful for.
So if you ask me what my perfect Thanksgiving is now, it would be the Thanksgiving I actually had last year. It was the largest table we’d set in years—me, my parents, my sister and her husband, and our four closest family friends. The spread was impressively diverse; I brought squash agrodolce and broccolini in goma-ae sauce, and my family friends, knowing my sister’s husband was Brazilian, made moqueca along with their usual 东坡肉 and 凉粉. Funnily enough, the least interesting plates of the dinner were the mashed potatoes, stuffing, and turkey—the best part of which was just carving it, finally.
As I contend with this year’s holiday season, I realize how special that Thanksgiving was. My dad has been stuck in China since February, and by a stroke of luck, he has secured my mom a visa to visit him. She leaves the 30th; she won’t be back until next year. So Thanksgiving is all the more important this year, as my mom, my sister, and I get together for the last time in the foreseeable future. Our gathering will be decidedly cautious, uneasy like all other pandemic gatherings, and further tinged by the fragility of my parents’ reunion plans. Still, I’ll be grateful for the time we spend together because it’s rare enough already. The table will be set once more. I’m thinking I’ll try for that roast chicken again to celebrate.