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Our Memorable Thanksgiving Fails*

Rockwell interpretation by artist Sam Spratt

Let me begin by saying that my wife is a fantastic cook. My daughters, sons-in law, and granddaughters as well as countless friends and casual acquaintances who have dined at our very busy table can attest to Hayden’s culinary talents. As the feeder of the dishwasher after many dinner parties through the years, I can also testify to the fact that plates come back from the table without the need to scrape.

However (this is known in the business as the “sly 180”), her resume is not without blemish in the early years. She credits my mom with teaching her how to cook and I can’t remember whether it was before or after some of those lessons that these Hindenburg moments occurred. And I take full responsibility for my part in some of the high-profile Thanksgiving failures.

Our first Thanksgiving as a married couple was in our little one-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland. With two incomes, we could afford a very nice place to live, and The Manor’s parquet wood floors, convenient layout, and Georgia Avenue location made it a comfortable first nest.

My only recollection of early contretemps at that location was our different standards of kitchen cleanliness.

Hayden’s momma had grown up in a household where “the help” had taken care of cooking, cleaning, and laundry chores. She had neither perfected the culinary arts nor the post meal scouring of the kitchen. So, this was not part of Hayden’s experience growing up.

My momma, on the other hand, had learned directly from her German father that there was clean, then there was Loeber clean. When my mother finished cleaning the kitchen, the bathroom, or any other space in our house, it was ready for open-heart surgery on any horizontal surface.

This was the experience that I had carried into the marriage. I can’t say the world of shared domestic responsibility had been fully embraced, but I had apparently picked up the nasty habit of not being able to walk past a kitchen counter without at least a cursory inspection for crumbs, grease, or a mirrorless shine. Hayden soon noticed that after cleaning the kitchen, I often followed close behind to redo what she had already done. Not good.

(authors note: Hayden would tell you that 51 years has produced a true role reversal in this regard. I mention it so that she doesn’t need to contact you all individually.)

But back to our first Thanksgiving.

We were married on Saturday, November 4, 1972, and after an ever-so-brief honeymoon in Fredericksburg, Charlottesville, and Luray (the big-three must-see cities of the Old Dominion), we settled into domestic tranquility in Silver Spring, Maryland. (Favorite Hayden quote as we emerged from Luray Caverns, “can you imagine that people actually come here on their honeymoons?” To which I pointed out that sadly, we were two of those people. “Yes, but you were driving” was her response)

So, what do you do when you are young and naïve and just learning how to use your first stove and dishwasher? You invite Mom, Dad, and Gran to Thanksgiving Dinner. That’s right, nineteen days after our wedding and fifteen days after our honeymoon, as we are trying to figure out our commutes, our married relationship, our neighbors, and trash days, we invite super cook Mom, super critic Dad, and turkey stuffing aficionado Gran over for the most extensive and stressful meal of the year. What could possibly go wrong?

Two things.

First of all, we found that our brand-new Betty Crocker Cookbook (400th printing) had no definition of giblets or any mention that the body cavity of our first turkey had a paper-packaged surprise fresh from the autopsy at Butterball headquarters. Why this was necessary I’ll never know. Cause of death was clear. We didn’t dare stuff our first turkey with dressing with the stove top variety already available, so we didn’t find the neck, heart, liver, and gizzard (or as we called it, unidentifiable guts) until they had been thoroughly cooked “en le sachet.”

Secondly, while Hayden has matured into an accomplished baker of rolls, her first flight had more in common with the Wright Brothers than Lindberg. One of our wedding gifts was the Williamsburg Cookbook (312th printing) and there, lurking in its pages for inexperienced brides everywhere was the recipe for Sally Lunn. Legend has it that Sally was protestant Huguenot refuge who fled France during the 17th century and found employment with a bakery in Bath, England. Her buns became the talk of the town (insert your own jokes here) and thus was born the “Sally Lunn”. Along with tea, crumpets (whatever they are), and other English items, these buns came to the colonies, and someone put the recipe in the Williamsburg Cookbook (First printing).

Hayden has now learned that careful measurement of ingredients, a sensitivity to timing and temperature in both preparation and baking and other stuff that I have no idea of what I’m talking about, are all important. All I know is that on that first Thanksgiving (where incidentally we all were dressed in our Sunday best even though we were gathered around our humble second-hand table and chairs), the Sally Lunn prompted my quotable dad to utter the words that became family legend. In a hushed tone only intended for my ears, he said, “don’t let these buns roll off the table. They could injure someone.”

Let’s just say that had it been Easter, “They have risen” would not have been the correct description of these yeast-less missiles.

Of course, my sweet Gran said, “delicious, I’ll have another.”

“And a smidge more water, please”

In approximate chronological order, the next Thanksgiving failure that I recall involved decisions in which I fully participated and took my share of the shame. Let’s just call it The Peanut Soup Thanksgiving.

Again, in some heinous colonial cookbook (either Williamsburg or Maryland, both of which are still in the house but I’m too lazy to look for them), Hayden and I had found a recipe for Peanut Soup. Plentiful in Tidewater, Virginia as a staple crop, and with Planters headquartered in Hayden’s hometown of Suffolk (Hayden would proudly tell you that Mr. Peanut was always the grand marshall of the annual July 4th parade) the local peanut cuisine was centuries old. If I’m not mistaken, in one of the colonial taverns in Williamsburg or elsewhere in our travels we sampled Peanut Soup and found it quite tasty. So, why not have it as a first course for Thanksgiving dinner?

All went well in the preparation as I recall. The Cuisinart did the chopping, and the cooking was easy. It was the vessel in which to present the final product where embarrassing failure crept in.

Hayden and I had been collecting some nice pottery in our travels and we both thought that a nice rustic tureen would be a lovely way to bring the Peanut Soup to the table. We poured the soup into the tureen in the kitchen as our guests patiently awaited the first course and I carried it to a small tea cart that sat between our little dining room and our living room. The tea cart backed up to a pretty white love seat that was our newest and most expensive piece of Queen Anne furniture. Yes, read on.

One of our wedding presents was an electric warming tray (which sadly included a card revealing that it was being regifted from a previous wedding). I had prepositioned it on the tea cart and had carefully hidden an extension cord to connect to its plug. I placed the tureen of soup on the tray and turned up the heat so that the contents would remain warm for second helpings.

After serving our guests and seating myself at the head of the table with my back to the tea cart, I settled in to enjoy my soup. It was delicious and richly-deserved kudos were being directed to Hayden.

At a loud moment in our conversation, not unusual at the Constance table, I thought I heard a cracking sound behind me. I was closest to the tureen and no one else seemed to notice. I thought nothing of it and only turned around when one of the guests asked for seconds.

The apparently non-oven-proof pottery had cracked down the middle and while not a catastrophic failure it was sufficiently grave to have allowed a brown greasy flow across the tray, down the back of the white sofa, and into a pool on the floor. An embarrassing ballet of confused movement, napkins, suggestions, and home remedies for stained fabric filled the next 15 minutes of our lives. Conveyed to another vessel, only the bravest of our band asked for seconds. There didn’t appear to being any missing life-ending chards from the pottery, but hey, why take the chance?

Needless to say, though the soup was tasty, the memory of its disastrous presentation added a tension to the remainder of the meal and made this dish a one-year tradition.

In the years after my dad passed away, my Gran, Mom, her sister Aunt Annie, and Uncle Andy Andersen (aka Pooh Bear) were regulars at our Thanksgiving table. Dearly loved by our family, these additions made the day very special indeed. With both of their children living some distance from Maryland, the Andersen’s also clearly enjoyed the day with our little family. And Pooh Bear loved the food.

He was always first in the kitchen to ooh and aah over the turkey and to request (or often just procure) the “Pope’s Nose”, that triangular-shaped protuberance at the posterior end of the bird. The term has English origins and is traced to anti-Catholic sentiments after the reign of James II (1685-88). You can impress your friends by calling this morsel by its proper label, the uropygium and explaining that it contains the bird's uropygial gland that produces preen oil.

All Pooh Bear knew was that it was fat, juicy, and tasted good. I’m sure that my proper ornithological label has him smiling down from heaven. He loved that kind of stuff.

I have one Thanksgiving fail associated with Pooh and one Hayden culinary triumph to share.

The fail I’ll simply describe as the “Thanksgiving Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

One year as we were rushing around to finish the cooking, set the table, and keep the kids occupied, I heard Pooh Bear say, “Johnny, I’d be glad to carve the turkey” to which I responded in the affirmative and directed him to the electric knife.

Now Andy was a skilled artist whose palette included photography, joinery, music, mechanics, and friendships. He documented our lives, built us furniture, fixed our lawnmowers, and filled our homes with happiness. He also schooled me in the dark arts of the yard sale. Yard Sale I & II (A Series)

So, I assumed that carving a bird on Thanksgiving would not be a problem.

Well, it was not a problem if what you were looking for were turkey steaks and shredded dark meat. Whether he was having an off day or just displaying his appetite for more bird-per-bite than is customary, the platter that hit the table was unique to say the least. It would never have made the cover of Southern Living. More likely Popular Mechanics.

Annie, never one to hold back, was the first to comment, which elicited a predictable response from the carver. The rest of us kept our heads down, bisected what we wanted from the platter and enjoyed the feast.

The happy culinary discovery of that year (or another, they all warmly blend together) was Hayden’s secret sauce for the sweet potato casserole. The one color that you would never see on Pooh Bear’s plate was orange. Carrots and sweet potatoes rarely if ever passed his lips and he lived a happy anti-beta-carotene life.

That year Hayden found a recipe that added bourbon to the whipped mixture of sweet potatoes, butter, and brown sugar. She did not “fancy” sweet potatoes herself, so I was never sure whether it was for Pooh, or herself that she decided to color outside the lines on that fateful day.

So, as the casserole of sweet potatoes made the rounds, Pooh passed it up as usual. Hayden stopped the action and asked Andy to just try a little. She knew that the medley of flavors hiding beneath the chapeau of marshmallows and walnuts would be to his liking. When everyone had been served and grace was delivered, Hayden and I watched as Andy predictably first went to the small scoop of sweet potatoes on the outside corner of his plate.

When Pooh Bear liked something, you could detect his reaction from space. His eyes widened, that sunrise smile broke out across his big square face, and he exclaimed a “Wow” as he rose from his seat, circled the table, and gave Hayden a big hug. The casserole was already heading back in his direction as he got back to his chair. It was a breakthrough year for our Thanksgiving table and Andy never let the sweet potato casserole get by him again.

I just love Thanksgiving. It is the most American of all holidays and while steeped in cleansing mythology, it combines love, family, food, and football in a perfect recipe. In the week leading up to that special Thursday, everyone, and I mean everyone wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving as you do your daily rounds of shopping and chores.

If you didn’t add sauerkraut to your table again this year, I will continue to be disappointed with your choices in life. (Please Pass the Sauerkraut) Surely after the Orioles won 101 games this season and claimed the Manager of the Year, the GM of the Year, and the Rookie of the Year, it’s time for you to add some Baltimore cuisine to your holidays. There’s always the Christmas, Kwanza, or Hanukkah tables.

Work on that.

* Yes friends, in informal English, "fail" can be both a noun and a verb. A fail is a mistake or an unsuccessful action.


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