Sunday, October 08, 2006

Mashed Potato Gravy Time

The first time I ever cooked a turkey, I was 19 years old. It was a gift from work, and it rode the bus home with me, a chilly companion who rolled gently between my legs.

I rather bravely dealt with the giblets, and my knees only buckled once or twice trying to heft it into the oven. I'm pretty sure that damn bird outweighed me, and it certainly had a nicer complexion once I got done slow-cooking it to a goldeny-brown perfection. I'm pretty sure I over-basted that first year, but the over-basting produced such an incredibly moist and delectable turkey that I have adopted it as my new (and only) turkey tradition.

I don't know how many equally perfect turkeys I've turned out since (last Christmas alone I cooked 5 - I for us, and 4 for a homeless shelter), especially considering that I refuse to regard turkey as sacred holiday fare. I have often made turkey and all the trimmings just for the sheer extravagance of it. I mean, there's something about shopping for this meal that makes me a little punch-drunk: 1 heaving grocery cart, 300 dollars, 2 bellies, 1 day. Where else do you get those kinds of logistics?

But as much as I adore delighting Jason with more food than our modest dining table can support, my fondness for preparing the traditional fare is often compromised by the itch to always try something new.

I remember the first time I interrupted my Nanny's impressive holiday spread with the dreaded "something new." I brought dessert, or rather, a dessert selection. I do damn good desserts, or so anyone who'd ever eaten them had been telling me for months, so I thought I had a sure thing going. But when my Nanny's tried and true dinner was over and my desserts presented, I heard grumblings to the tune of "Where is Nanny's apple pie?"

Now, I will be the first to admit that Nanny's apple pie is very good. Maybe even the best. But the fact remains that we have had this pie at every Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving since time immemorial. And not just at holidays, but at any given Sunday dinner, any casual visit, or any time she visits you. In fact, I would wager that right now, every single one of my relatives, including my uncle out in Vancouver, has no fewer than 4 of my Nanny's frozen apple pies sitting in their chest freezers right now. So it's not like there's an apple pie shortage.

But that was the year I learned that there is a very fine line between tradition and boring.

Nanny's 'traditional' holiday meal includes, and does not deviate from: turkey, ham, meatballs, tourtiere (meat pie), mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, carrots, and dinner rolls. She usually has a platter with her homemade pickles and beets, and of course, cheese. There is usually one "grab bag" item - a chicken dish made expressly for my finicky sister - to Jason's amusement, it has often been a bucket of KFC, but can also be chicken pot pie or "crowd pleasing" dish.

Nanny is a cook of the variety of "plain but good." And I mean that in a flattering way. Plain, but good. But plain. But still good. But still plain. I don't even think she seasons things.

So, I brought "Nanny alternatives" to family functions and learned that to them, variety was the same as family tension. Oh sure, they ate my "hip" frozen desserts, the kids loved my beautifully iced cakes, people cried over the cream cheese frosting on my incredible carrot cake, and they inhaled my sumptuous cheesecakes like they hadn't just collectively eaten 24 pounds of turkey. And then they divided up the leftovers to take home and enjoy all over again. But they didn't like it.

Oh no, they didn't like it.

So it wasn't until I moved away from the family thing and started putting on the whole holiday myself that I really got to play around with things. Not only do I mix up the menu, but some holidays I stray from it completely. Last Easter I made a Greek feast, complete with rack of lamb. I'd never had lamb before, neither had Jason (he comes from similar non-imaginative white bread stock). It was to die for. This Thanksgiving (that is, Monday), I was going to eschew the whole turkey thing and make ribs and lasagna instead (these being Jason's favourite foods, Thanksgiving doubling as Jason's birthday this year). But Jason mulled it over, looked deep inside his heart, and decided that turkey would hit the spot.

So turkey it is. But not with mashed, we dare to make sweet potatoes. Now, if this sounds less than shocking to you, congratulations. But up until 9 months ago, neither Jason nor I had so much as laid eyes on such a thing. Imagine our surprise when they were...well, good! And get this: instead of the ubiquitous corn, we're having asparagus (in bacon-cheese sauce, at Jason's request). Asparagus is among my favourite veggies, but again, no asparagus had ever passed through my lips until I moved away and started cooking for myself.

I guess what I'm getting at is this: what is tradition anyway? To me, tradition is not just the thing that you always do. That's called a habit. To me, tradition needs to have some sort of significance, or meaning.

But now that I have my own family and my own holidays, I realize that we have no real traditions to carry forth - we have no culture, no religion. Maybe all we ever had was Nanny's apple pie, and maybe we only had that because it's all she knew how to make.

But who needs tradition, anyway? Is it an antiquated concept? Is it mandatory for successful holidays? And if so, how do you go about making traditions, anyway? Is simply liking something enough to call it a tradition?

Last Christmas Jason and I drank champagne in bed all morning. It was good. I can see doing it again. If we do, is that a tradition? Do 2 consecutive years qualify for instant tradition status? Or do we have to wait 20? And what if next year we decide we'd rather have coffee spiked with Godet white chocolate? What happens then? It's not really tradition unless you commit to doing in the same way over and over - and to tell the truth, "same" is not really a concept I'm comfortable with.

But if we have no tradition, are we really celebrating? Are we doing it wrong? Are we being disrespectful? Is having turkey enough to call it Thanksgiving, or do we have to make horn-of-plenty centrepieces and watch football to call it a holiday?

Everyone who breaks off and starts a family faces this same problem: follow old traditions? make new ones? scrap it all and go to Chuck E Cheese? Are traditions even still relevant, or do you have to know someone from "the old country" for them to mean anything? But are these celebrations just shallow and perfunctory without tradition? Can our generation even tell the difference? And if the turkey is good enough, does it even matter?

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