Over the years, my family has changed multiple times. We are born into a family whose selection we have no control over. As we take charge of our life, we begin to collect the family we choose for ourselves. Unlike our birth family, which remains for the duration, the family of our choice grows and transforms. Members are added or disappear due to geography, happenstance, marriage, evolution and, (dare I say it), plain old FATE. There is family who mysteriously drifts away, or sometimes just takes a time-out. Then there are those who hang on, despite it all. Thus the faces at my Thanksgiving table may morph from year to year, just like the menu and the location.
After moving to New York, I kept close with my Kent State cronies who’d also laid down roots there. Because of theatre, many of us had lived together nearly 24/7 during the four years we spent doing college shows. I even added some KSU friends who came both before and after me. While all of us forged new friendships in the city, we came to value the comfort our warm safety net afforded. There were literally dozens of us spread out all over the five boroughs. During the holidays many went back to Ohio, but Thanksgiving being only a one-day thing and so close to Christmas, a good number often stayed to celebrate. And so, a new Kent tradition was born by the people who so loved a party–a pot-luck sort of Thanksgiving meal.
Those with bigger apartments each year volunteered to host. Out of necessity, they were also responsible for cooking the turkey. The thought of transporting a piping hot, twenty-plus pound roasted bird on the subway would be more ridiculous than the lamest Rhoda episode. This particular Thanksgiving memory took place in Chelsea, only two blocks from my apartment. Four Kent friends were sharing a small two-bedroom walk-up. There were going to be so many of us staying in town this year that we split the group into two sections–Manhattan and Brooklyn party venues. There were about twelve of us, far more than the apartment could comfortably accommodate. And Noreen, a joyfully neurotic woman, would be the one cooking our turkey. She was a Kent State alumni I’d met in The City who’d come after I’d left.
I called her Sissy and she called me Bubba. We became instantly close-knit that year, and adopted one another as the brother and sister both of us had lacked. There are only two things you need to know about Noreeny: (1) the woman was totally nuts, and (2) she was one of the worst cooks I have ever known. Correction, she was the worst cook I have ever known. I loved her to pieces anyway.
Early on in our friendship, she called one grey and gloomy New York Saturday afternoon. She told me an evil elf had bewitched her during the night, so she couldn’t leave her bed. She begged me to come because neither of the boys (two of her roommates) was able to release her from the spell. She was certain her Bubba had magic powers. There was humor in her silly plea, but more than a hint of real anxiety and fear in her voice. Sissy coaxed me relentlessly over the phone. I caved and hurried over to rescue her. After spending another hour or so in her cramped room, plying her with several joints, I attempted to cajole her into joining the rest of the household. Stoned enough to medicate her loony state, she eventually danced out of her room in a sun dress and floppy hat, after the rest of us ignored her and began a munchie feast without her.
Bobbino was one of the guys who shared the apartment with Noreeny. He was a great cook, and ended up providing most meals for the household. Even though Sissy recognized her domestic talents were nil, there was an obvious jealousy festering whenever he’d hand her a plate of food. Of course I was amazed the night she phoned to invite me to supper. “I’m cooking Swiss Steak!”, she proudly chirped in my ear. I told her it was one of my favorite childhood dishes. When I asked if I should bring a salad or something, she said not to worry, cause she was even making hors d’oeuvres.
Those hors d’oeuvres ended up being peanut butter on Ritz crackers or Cheese Whiz piped cherry tomatoes, or some such nonsense. But when stoned enough, they disappeared quickly. Sissy was in party-mode, checking in the kitchen only once in a while, obviously not tied to her stove. Bobbino and I several times volunteered our help. She assured us everything was under control. After who knows how long and many, many joints later, she disappeared into the kitchen announcing food was on the way.
Out she came with our plates, upon which sat a small, very dark brown object, which I can only liken to a deformed and severely warped hockey puck. A silence fell over the room as we stared at our food.
“Noreeny, what happened?”, Bobbino questioned for us all.
“Oh, I got bored and lost interest halfway through”, she grunted as she sat down at her place, “so I decided–why the fuck bother with makin’ gravy?”
Cut to Thanksgiving Eve about 8:00 p.m. I have already finished putting together my contribution: Sweet Potatoes with Apricots and Pecans in a Sherry/Brown Sugar/Butter Glaze. I’d gotten the recipe the year before from GOURMET magazine for a gala all-gay-boys-Thanksgiving-extravaganza. It was the richest, fussiest food ever collected onto a single buffet table, with guests even more over-the-top.
I promised Bobbino I would stop by the apartment to help figure out where we would all sit the following day. He was busy preparing Italian Wedding soup for our first course. Noreeny was working late and then shopping for the turkey and fixings for bread stuffing. I couldn’t believe these guys were going ahead and entrusting our turkey, center piece and symbol of this sacrosanct holiday, to this madwoman without a culinary clue. She was hell-bent on doing it herself, and there was no stopping Sissy once she’d decided on something.
She came in the door huffing and puffing with a shopping bag stuffed underneath each arm pit. As exhausted as she looked, I sensed Sissy was already hyper-pumped about her holiday meal. She put the food away in the eensy kitchen, and said she would deal with everything in the morning. No one was arriving until after 3:oo p.m. tomorrow, and she needed to chill tonight. Eventually somebody went to get some soda, only to discover the twenty-five pounder, now wedged into the small refrigerator–a plastic sheathed solid mass of frozen turkey-sicle. “You bought a frozen turkey?!?”, we began shrieking from every direction. All the while she looked blankly from face to face as though we were speaking in tongues.
“It will never thaw”, Bobbino and I almost sang-out in unison. We jumped to our feet and were in the kitchen in seconds. He attempted to release it from its plastic casing while I searched the cupboards for a receptacle large enough to immerse the iceberg into hot water. Sissy barged into the kitchen, pissed that we’d trespassed into her domain. She realized we might be right–that she’d possibly blown Thanksgiving a day before it had even begun. I stayed well into the early a.m. hours, each of us taking turns dumping the frigid water every fifteen minutes or so, turning the fowl, then dousing it again in a hot sitz bath.
I called after 10:00 Thanksgiving morning for a turkey update. They’d managed to pry the pouch holding the neck, gizzard and other organs out of the cavity. The skin was now flexible, but the bird was pretty much still frozen. They decided to start it early at a very low temperature, in hopes that it would eventually thaw enough to actually begin cooking. Noreeny was confident it was going to be great, and kept madly basting it with endless sticks of butter, as though that would do any good. Bobbino showed a modicum of hope. I could smell disaster from two blocks away. They would bake the stuffing separately. That was her only contribution I felt there might still be hope for.
People arrived, and began smoking or drinking or both-ing. We were all waiting for the turkey to be done. Kinda’ like waiting for Godot. It looked brown and beautiful on the outside, but nobody had a clue to its inner done-ness. This was long before built in, pop-up thermometers. Noreeny knew, with everyone assembled and hungry, and side dishes getting cold, it was time to take the turkey out of the oven and begin carving. This task she passed on to Bobbino. I watched in the kitchen as he sliced into the bird to remove the drumsticks. As he pulled the joint to release it from the thigh, juicy red trickled from the area. It was cooked just right if the turkey were a filet of beef–medium rare perfection. “Look, it’s still nice and moist. See guys, I knew it would be fine!”, Noreeny boasted with pride. I walked into the dining area silently, refusing to utter a word of what I’d just witnessed.
So you might guess, this was the only Thanksgiving in my lifetime that I didn’t eat turkey–how could I? I barely was able to watch the stoned morons as they chewed the nearly raw poultry, then asked for seconds. I ate more mashed potatoes and veggie sides than I was comfortable consuming, just to keep my mouth filled, hoping no one would notice what I hadn’t eaten. I think even Bobbino ate a wing, or maybe just some skin which was the only part of the bird we were certain had been fully cooked. I kept waiting for the first person to show signs of poisoning–confident I would be the one responsible for calling the caravan of ambulances sirening guests on their way to St. Vincent’s Emergency Room. Thankfully, not one person even got indigestion. (The following year, when I did not attend, almost everyone suffered a nasty bout of food poisoning and Noreeny hadn’t cooked a thing.)
Not a Thanksgiving goes by that I don’t reminisce about the turkey-less 1976 celebration. It didn’t mar Sissy’s and my relationship a bit. I loved her even more because of it. Not two years later, she went weird on me–really psycho–and cut me out of her life completely. I’d fallen in love with a guy she helped introduce me to, who ended up being my partner of nearly thirteen years. You’d think that would make her closer, right? Not my Noreeny. We spoke civilly if a situation brought us together; she treated me coldly otherwise. We became as detached as we were once conjoined.
A few years later she met a guy. They had a child. My Sissy became somebody’s Mom. She no longer speaks with any of the old crowd, severing all ties. She could easily be somebody’s grandma now. I often wonder if there’s a kid or two out there, who goes over the river and through the woods. Oh Gawd, for their sake, I hope she doesn’t cook the friggin’ turkey.