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Americans hold several customs sacred. The 4th of July barbecue, trick-or-treating on Halloween, and Mother’s Day brunches are all hallmarks of American culture. However, none of these are as significant, or as quintessentially American, as Thanksgiving dinner, with its emphasis on food, family, and fun.

When I first moved to the United States, I knew nothing about Thanksgiving traditions beyond the requisite turkey. Since I am a vegetarian, I figured that it wasn’t my kind of holiday and ignored it. Except for the fact that Thanksgiving meant a four-day weekend, it held nothing for me. Then I married a man who is non-vegetarian by nature, nurture, and choice. On our first Thanksgiving together, he bought turkey bologna. His excuse?

“It is the tradition, you know!” This from a man who thinks that giving gifts on Valentine’s Day is “too commercial.”

A few Novembers later, he came home with a 15-pound hunk of bird. “I joined a free turkey club at the local grocery store,” he said sheepishly. “We qualified for the free bird, and I thought, ‘what the heck.’”

I thought, “What the heck?” too, but for a different reason. I wasn’t against cooking meat in my kitchen, so that wasn’t the problem. But did the man know what to do with this … this thing?

At the time, our older daughter was three years old. She stared with fascinated glee at the pale, pink-colored cold piece of creation. “Wow, Mommy, look! It’s a real turkey! And daddy and I are going to eat it!”

It was a real turkey all right, but how was it ever going to get to the table? I baked only what my dear friend Betty Crocker put on the store shelves, and I didn’t cook meat at all. My husband could cook meat curries passably, but didn’t have a clue about turkeys or ovens. But the critter had come to us free and, let’s faces it, the situation had intrinsic entertainment value.

So I merely said, “Isn’t that special?”

My husband scoured the internet to find a good recipe. The turkey slept in the kitchen sink all day and all night long, and was pronounced thawed and ready to cook the next morning.

“It had better be,” I thought. I needed to prepare the side dishes, also known as my own dinner, and needed the sink to be free. I, too, had to work with new recipes, but I had a much easier road to travel. Mashed potatoes with butter was a no-brainer, and every bag of frozen beans carried the recipe for green bean casserole. As for the stuffing, it ended up a little like bread uppuma, so it was okay. I have to confess however, that the pecan pie and cranberry sauce were the easiest items, since the grocery store took care of both of them. I also cooked rice and made rasam from MTR powder, once again with my own dinner in mind.

The tamasha started in the afternoon. Our daughter was napping, and I was enjoying a quiet moment, when the turkey chef came out of the kitchen.

“I can’t find a single thing,” he complained.

“But everything is right here,” I said, taking out the seasoning salt and chili powder, which were in bottles marked “parsley” and “paprika” respectively. My husband looked dazed but kept quiet. He is a firm believer in picking battles carefully, and there was still half the day to go.

The spice coating was made with many modifications on the recipe that had been downloaded from the internet, such as more pepper and less salt, issues that the man was passionate about. Then came the rub, literally.

“You have to massage it into the skin for quite some time, like half an hour. Only then will the flavor get in,” I pontificated, having watched so many cooking shows that I felt qualified to offer my expert opinion.

“Do it, Daddy! ’ssage it!” chanted our daughter, who had woken up in time to see the main show hit the stage.

“Daddy” looked at me in disbelief. “When there is a Cowboys game on TV?” he asked. “Not a chance.” The poor bird had the spices slapped on it and was shoved in the oven.

I will not go into the minutiae of what ensued. Suffice that I report there were a lot of “Hmm, I wonder ifs …” and “You know what I think?s” The little one was in a perfect tizzy, cheering whenever the turkey got basted or had an “izza,” which is what she called a bath, and watching for the little thingy to pop when we would know that the bird was cooked. As for my participation in the whole operation, I stayed on the leeward side of the oven. I was four months along with my second daughter, and the smell of thanksgiving nauseated me.

Finally, at about 8:30 p.m., the button popped. We sat down to dinner at 9 dressed in “good” clothes, and gave thanks for all that we had. When asked what she was thankful for, our little girl said, “The tokee!” Of course, the true tradition of Thanksgiving is eating the leftovers for the rest of the weekend, and as I scraped up the last of the green bean casserole on Sunday, I felt as American as an original Pilgrim on Plymouth Rock.

It set the tone for our Thanksgivings to come. Now, every year, we celebrate Thanksgiving with a dinner of “tokee” and trimmings. The list of side-dishes continues to grow as I experiment with more items off the grocery shelf. One year, I made deadly baked sweet potatoes swimming in butter and karo syrup (I now make only enough for Thanksgiving day, because all the fat and calories will truly kill us if we keep eating it all weekend). Another time, I thawed and baked frozen rolls that were wonderful even for breakfast the next morning. The store still supplies our pies; I see no point in reinventing the wheel, or messing with a good thing. However, I slop ice-cream on them personally before serving, so they also have that home-made air.

The process of cooking the turkey has also evolved, and my husband has become expert at roasting it. At least, he says so, and the kids agree, and since the whole process gives me some down time, I agree, too. His recipe for the spice coating is so secret that he forgets it every year, and then pretty much wings it.

Interesting variations to the actual process have been tried that hold even me in thrall. One in particular comes to mind. A female colleague at the pharmaceutical company where my husband is a scientist told him that injecting the spices under the skin would give the turkey a better flavor. When this happened in our home, our younger daughter, who was two at the time, cried because the “tokee” was getting its shots. It didn’t really improve the bird, and hasn’t been tried since.

We have, however, stuck to the custom of dressing formally for dinner, and we invariably have rice and rasam on the side.

Now, if only my husband would cotton to that other great Thanksgiving custom … shopping!

Lakshmi Palecanda is a biology research technician turned freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana. Email: palecanda [at] msn [dot] com
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