My mom was a single mom, raising my brother and me with no help. She worked as an Art Director at department stores back when there were lots of ‘em, with in-house Art Departments, and then later she worked at Advertising Agencies. It was a lot like “Mad Men” still, in the Nineteen Hundred and Seventies, except there was no justice like on “Mad Men,” where the ladies win one every once in a while. My mom worked early, late and weekends.
So she didn’t have the time or the inclination to cook in the kitchen like Betty fucking Crocker, and she had never really learned to cook Home Made Food because she was too busy drawing pictures and reading books when she was growing up, not learning to cook from her mom.
We had lots of cook books around, but my mom bought ‘em because she liked the layouts, and she watched the Julia Child’s French Chef show on Public Television because it was entertaining. The idea of actually doing any of the wacky shit that Julia Child was doing didn’t occur to us. It would be like deciding to build a space ship because we watched the Moon landing.
My mom depended on Convenience Foods, and this was back before we all found out That Shit Will Kill You. If there was an Instant anything, my mom would buy it, and all that stuff was and still is designed to go straight to the TASTES GOOD part of your brain, so we never complained about mashed potatoes out of a box, or powdered milk, or TV Dinners, or pizza kits, or powdered Instant Breakfast that you added to the powdered milk. My brother was seven years older than me, so I was mostly a latchkey kid on my own schedule, and convenience foods insured that somehow we would eat if my mom was late coming home or too wiped out to do anything but go to bed. I never went hungry.
Thanksgiving meant everything it still means to me now: Watch the Macy’s Parade, glom lots of food, and then we all lie around on the floor in front of the Boob Tube like a pride of lions after The Kill.
We had no experience with Home Made anything, so here is a breakdown of what I remember as a Classic Thanksgiving meal my mom made one year.
There would be a salad made outta iceberg lettuce with shredded carrot and some other vegetables I would push around, like maybe green peppers. We had an awesome big wooden salad bowl and these little wooden bowls for serving, so that always looked festive. Thanksgiving was always when my mom got out the cloth napkins and put ‘em inside these big colored bracelets for even more Festive. She found out about Bac~Os® and those went on the salad on top of the French salad dressing, or sometimes “Russian,” even though we had a theory it was just mayo with ketchup mixed into it. Sometimes I would eat like half a jar of Bac~Os® as a snack, so she stopped buying ‘em. Anyway.
The frozen rolls out of a tube were always perfect. My mom bought this tabletop Electric oven called a “Turbo Oven” (Convection Oven) because it was supposed to cook shit super fast. Not Microwave fast, (Microwaves were still new and way expensive) but faster-enough that there was a special chart for figuring out the adjusted times for cooking stuff because it didn’t really match up with whatever was on the Instructions. Sometimes we’d burn stuff, but not often. The oven had a fan inside of it, to, I dunno, speed up the hot air. I guess the thing was basically like a Toaster Oven with a fan, or a super powerful hot-air hair dryer inside a metal box to trap the heat. I remember it made a comforting whirring sound, very Domestic Tranquility to hear the oven on, because it meant Food, you know?
My mom knew a few recipes, like for Green Bean Casserole, and we dug it because it had French-Fried Onions on top of it, and that, along with Candied Sweet Potatoes pretty much rounded out the Vegetables Department of Thanksgiving since even I knew Instant Mashed Potatoes were just infrastructure for the Gravy, which came out of an envelope.
For dessert a lot of times we would have some sorta Frozen Pie like a Boston Cream or Lemon Meringue, so we had to remember to get that out of the freezer and thawing out way before the turkey got done. My mom bought a lotta Morton’s brand frozen food (they don’t make it anymore) I think because she liked the Art Direction on the packaging. It was very clean and 70s-Future-Modern, none of that homey earth-toned settings with warm wood-grained kitchens crap, nope, all the Morton’s product photos had the food item in black space with sans serif type. You didn’t bake the cream pies like you would with an apple pie, but you were supposed to thaw ‘em out, so timing was Critical, however, if you get it right before it’s completely unfrozen, it tastes pretty good.
So OK, if you do Turkey, Thanksgiving = the Turkey, and we had the Cranberry Sauce out of a can and some kinda Stuffing just like you’re supposed to have on The Big Day, and my mom found the perfect Convenience Bird, a Frozen Turkey Loaf. No giblets, no bones, no nothing but open the package and stick it in the oven. It’s kinda like that Neopolitan ice cream that only has chocolate and vanilla, only it’s Turkey, with dark meant and light meat, and I still remember what that thing smelled like when it came out of the Turbo Oven, all crackling with the juices coming out. It smelled like Thanksgiving.
Illustration by Susie Cagle.