“Is there a way for the skin to be crispier?” asked Connor, one of my 15-year-old twins. His brother, Daniel, grunted in agreement as he hunched his bony shoulders over his plate. It was a fair question. I had taken the time and effort to brown and crisp the skin-on chicken thighs for a one-pot chicken and farro dish, but then when I braised them, covered, with the rest of the ingredients, the skin turned limp. I made notes to try again without covering the pot and adjusting the liquid as needed to account for evaporation. We would all try this one again, soon.
This type of scenario happens a lot in our house. I’m a food writer and recipe developer, with the latter eating up 90 percent of my work life. That means that I’m in my kitchen four or five days per week creating recipes for all kinds of different clients and projects. Many nights, we enjoy the fruits of my labor as dinner. It’s both a perk of the job and a critical component of it: I need an audience of tasters with opinions.
Some days, I bomb and end up scraping round after round of “tries” into the garbage before anyone else can taste them. I have curdled custards, dried roasts to slow-cooker sawdust, misjudged the compatibility of certain spices, and conjured up bizarre reactions that fizzed, spewed, turned purple, liquefied, seized up, or scorched.
Even before 2020 showed its true colors, I would have my share of bad cooking days. Still, though they hit a little harder now, instead of throwing in the towel and ordering takeout, I’ll usually cook something simple for dinner—because I need a win. And, of course, sometimes on those days, I’ll receive unsolicited comments, both positive and critical, from my twins—like they’re either the gentle and encouraging hosts on The Great British Baking Show or those two grumpy old Muppets in the balcony seats. “This is NOT a recipe! It’s just a freaking meatloaf, and I’m not asking for opinions,” I’ll brusquely explain.
This year, especially, I’m quick to spiral down internally, imagining that I’m being treated like a short-order cook, being taken for granted. (I’m not.) As I look around the table and notice that my husband and I are the only ones with beverages—I put the food on the table but just ask that everyone make their own drinks, for heaven’s sake—I’ll ready myself to unleash a tirade about laziness, commensurate effort, and personal responsibility. I mean, are my kids really so lazy that they’ll just go through the meal parched instead of pouring a glass of water? Just about the time that I inhale deeply for my big rant, the boys will have hoovered their food and started clearing their plates. They’ll come over to me, pat me on the shoulder, and say, “Thanks for dinner, Mom.” And I melt. It’s become so rote that they’re not even aware they’re saying it. But I certainly hear it, every single time.
Cooking is my profession, but it has also always been an act of love for my family. These things haven’t changed this year when so much else has. In fact, they’ve become more powerful: As we’ve hunkered down and away from the rest of our family, the simplest expressions of gratitude mean everything.
And so, after distancing and isolating through most of the year, Thanksgiving 2020 has become THE holiday we’ve been anticipating. To celebrate, we’re gathering with my brother’s family and our parents in Navarre Beach, Florida, a trip we planned in the calm of last Christmas, the last time we all saw each other.
Undoubtedly, there will be testing, sanitizing, precautions, masks, and some distancing. But just as surely, grandchildren and grandparents will embrace in hugs that mean more this year. The living room will crackle with college football on TV, and our crazy playoff speculations will offer a respite of normalcy. Jigsaw puzzles will lazily sharpen into completion, assembled in fits and spurts. Together and alone, we’ll amble on long walks on a chilly beach. And young eyes will roll and perhaps grow heavy as old black-and-white movies take forever to get to the credits, despite the fact that they all loved watching the original King Kong last year.
And then there’s food: My brother married my best friend, Becky, who is also the person I most enjoy cooking with, and we’ll be making up for lost time. Even though our family typically eschews tradition in favor of cooking up something fun and new for Turkey Day, this year we all could use a good, cozy dose of nostalgia. We’ll indulge in the classics, with some necessary personalized tweaks.
See, my dad—Big Dan to the boys (and now us)—has celiac disease and severe MSG sensitivities, as well as a love for old detective shows. He combines these into searching out hidden sources, sinister synonyms, and suspect menu items that we’re only too happy to creatively work around. For our time together, it’s important to me that we all share the same good food. The thought of a conciliatory substitute meal for Big Dan just will not do; the table should be inclusive and a happy, safe place for all of us.
We’ll accent the turkey, a given, with cornbread dressing and gravy, incorporating some gluten-free flour into both. We will make sweet potato casserole topped with thick meringue because—who knew?—the gelatin in marshmallows contains a little MSG, and we’ll forego green bean casserole in favor of browned butter green beans almondine. We’ll bake the pies in store-bought gluten-free crusts (they’re better than what I could attempt myself), and there will be crackly-topped chocolate chess, with a little cornstarch in the filling, and cinnamon-scented apple, with an oat-pine nut streusel on top.
There will be other meals, too, of course. Becky and I are now well versed on where to get the best gluten-free bagels (Walmart) for a smoked fish breakfast, and our lunch fallback, nachos, is both universally loved and naturally devoid of wheat. Part of our fun is planning these meals through e-mails and calls, building the anticipation of gathering, keeping some special surprises secret. It’s a delight beyond words to make something for my dad that he thought he’d never be able to enjoy again. We’ll also design unexpected bourbon cocktails for the puzzlers, uncap craft (and root) beer for the ball games, and be sure to remove any fear that we’ll run low on snacks.
Through it all, through all that 2020 has been, I’ve been lucky, dejected, privileged, discouraged, frustrated, satisfied, and all the other things not at all unique to me. I’ve worked to participate, emulate, protect, and promote, but, truthfully, it’s been my kids, my cooking, the promise of seeing my extended family, and that tiny sliver of gratitude after a meal that’s nourished me. To pay this gift forward, I will give my mom plenty of real hugs—not just side squeezes—and hold onto her a little longer and harder each time. I will have my kids (and Patrick and myself) dress up for the family feast as a show of respect. I will linger in conversation with my dad and my brother late into the night as we sip bourbon. And I will say to everyone, often and sincerely, “Thank you. I love you.”