Being the designated cook for my family has its rewards and its challenges. My technique is very informal - mostly based upon memories of watching my mom and dad (both excellent cooks) work in the kitchen. I don't use recipes as a rule, preferring to treat meal preparation as a kind of jazz improvisation, but one of my proudest moments was the day that my kids told me to stick to the sheet music.It doesn't seem like it's been that many years since our house became the official family gathering place for Thanksgiving. Holidays play tricks with your sense of time, but I remember well my first year as "chef." I had big shoes to fill after a decade or so of the grand hospitality of my wife's parents. Still, it was fun coming up with my own variations on the classic themes and with counsel from my siblings I was able to reproduce some of my own family's favorite side dishes pretty well.With just one chance to practice each year, it takes a while to get things right. My menu has lots of personal touches, but it's not all that unusual: a big bird oiled and seasoned and roasted until crisp and juicy; cornbread stuffing enriched with whole kernel corn and pecans; real hand-whipped potatoes with butter, salt and pepper; brown gravy made from drippings and sweet potatoes laced with butter, brown sugar and spices topped with toasted marshmallows. Of course, in cooking and comedy, timing is everything. Any Thanksgiving chef will tell you, the real feat is all the preparation and the pacing required to get everything to the table in time for the blessing.After a few years of practice I really had the hang of it and I decided it was time to get creative, unleash my inner Martha Stewart and fancy things up a bit. I remember my first attempt. I mixed some of my garden butternut squash into the sweet potatoes and then, for a bit of zest, added tiny chunks of fresh pineapple. When the dish was served I expected some mixed reactions. What I got was a chorus of wailing from my kids. "You can't change the sweet potatoes!" they cried as though the family pet had been put down. It was soon apparent that they didn't want me to change anything.I'm humble (and sane) enough to know this was not because I had somehow achieved culinary perfection. It was because the dishes they wanted for Thanksgiving were the dishes they had come to expect. It was because Thanksgiving is not a time of experiment and innovation. It's a time of familiarity and constancy.Philosophers like to say that the only real constant in the world is change. Who am I to argue, but every holiday we celebrate seems like a formal protest against that law and a cry for some kind of permanence.I guess it's fitting that America is the birthplace of both jazz and Thanksgiving. As much as we might like to improvise, it's good to have a rhythm and a melody to come back to after the solo. And as much as we love to travel and visit exotic places, we always really look forward to coming home to find that everyone and everything that we love is right there, just as we remember them.
This article appears in the November 2011 issue of New Hampshire Magazine