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My Yiddeshe Thanksgivings

Until I was sixteen, Thanksgiving was spent at my maternal grandparents’ house in Ashtabula, Ohio. Often prefaced by a blizzard, and by my father worrying about making the five hour drive with 5% visibility and black ice on the Interstate, these holidays really began when we arrived, cold and tired, to find a House Full O’ Jews at 5105 Chestnut Street. We put our bags in our assigned bedrooms (I preferred the front bedroom, with its partially removed, politically incorrect and leering 1940s  Cleveland Indian stuck to the mirror), and found our way to the living room, where there was always chopped liver with crackers.

My grandmother’s chopped liver, a miracle never repeated in my lifetime, was smooth, addictive and so delicious that I could completely disregard the fact that it was made largely of chicken livers and rendered chicken fat, along with some egg and onion. If you have never had good chopped liver, I fully understand that you may find the idea repellant, and that you are possibly imagining liver and fried onions, raw liver, or some other equally unredeemable and noxious substance. This was not that; this was intoxicatingly rich, bore no resemblance to liver in its original state, and could have been classified by the DEA as Hungarian Crack. The fact that my brother and I loved it from the time we were small (notwithstanding the fact that we both hated liver) and would have eaten until we foundered, should give you an idea of its universal and supernatural appeal. Now, of course, no one has my grandmother’s  recipe and we are all doomed to wander the kosher delis of the universe, trying in vain to get just one more bite of what we can only have in our dreams. (There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, about “wandering jews,” but it’s just too easy).

The arrival snacks and Wednesday night dinner being only the warm-ups,  Thanksgiving day started early with turkey(s)  in the oven, and every surface in the kitchen covered with bowls, bags of potatoes, stand mixers, thawing bundt cakes and cans of chicken broth.  My two great aunts (the other two “Gabor Sisters”) were at their own homes in Youngstown and Warren,  packing up their contributions to the dinner, and then putting on beautiful suits, silky blouses, and Ferragamo shoes with a one-inch heel and a bow  before being driven to Ashtabula. (Neither of them ever drove, and they were astonished when I could not only drive a car, but fill it with gas into it without the assistance of my father or brother).

We were not a family that came to a holiday table “comfortable;” men wore suits and ties, women wore skirts or dresses, and I liked it that way, even though it was complicated to get ten people clean and dressed in a house with only one bathroom. When the group expanded to include my paternal grandmother, a petite and quiet Catholic woman of pure New England stock, she fit right in among the Hebrew Herd with her customary pleated plaid skirt and sweater set. Years later, I was first shocked, and then disappointed to find myself a Thanksgiving guest in a home where sweats and jeans were the order of the day.

My brother says that if you think of Barry Levinson’s “Avalon,” make the Jews Hungarian and Russian, rather than Polish, remove the heavy Eastern European accents, and situate them in Ohio instead of Baltimore, you have our Thanksgivings. With as many as 30 people in attendance some years, there were card tables added to the long table in the dining room, and run through the living room,  nearly to the front door. All of the tables were covered with starched white linen cloths, the china, silver and crystal were real, and the food seemed endless. There were always the American classics: turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, gravy and pie, but The Tribe cannot be limited to the pallid and the Puritanical. In addition to the Anglo classics, there was always a magyar culinary presence, including a kuchen or two filled with chopped nuts, cinnamon and sugar, and at least one noodle pudding (Dorothy’s without apricots, or Harriet’s, with). Any remaining Puritanical influences were obliterated by the noise level, the bursts of laughter, and the annual photographing of my mother’s fastidious, slender and elegant Aunt Anne captured mid-bite, one hand raised to ward off the camera. Squanto and company might have felt at home around our table, but I am fairly certain that Governor Bradford and his austere and God-fearing  colleagues would have run as fast as their buckled shoes would allow.

After dinner, there were hours spent just sitting at the table, talking, and picking at leftovers. When I was very young, my grandmother would pat the seat next to her, and I would sit with her sipping “kashi” (a tablespoon of coffee, a cup of cream and five spoons full of sugar) and listening to what was, actually, the oral history of my mother’s family. As my grandmother and her sisters ate “slivers” of the cakes and pies on the table (all three of them earnestly believed that 10 “slivers” added up to less caloric damage than one actual “slice”), I heard about Great Uncle Allen making the sandwich with peanut butter and petroleum jelly for my mother and uncle, about my paternal great-grandfather keeping kosher upstairs but cooking bacon for himself in the basement, and about kind-to-a-fault Sam, the other Great Grandfather who was a lawyer and represented the downtrodden in exchange for chickens and kindling. Eventually, the out of town relatives would pack up and leave in a cloud of Jungle Gardenia and hot pink lipstick kisses, and my grandmother would collapse on the couch as her housekeeper Mildred cleaned up the kitchen.

There was, of course, football on TV (although Jews do not, as a rule, play football, they do watch football), and over the course of the evening, dress clothes would be put away in favor of casual (and loose) clothing. Often, we would walk the short distance to Ashtabula’s main drag to watch the Thanksgiving Parade, including (in a cultural twist that made perfect sense in the context of my immediate family) the arrival of Santa in his sleigh.In later years, my father and I would take long walks after dinner, both of us quiet types who were a little jangled after the hours of sound, high-intensity interaction and rich food. We talked about all kinds of things on those walks, and for an adolescent girl there is no better thing than a private hour with an intelligent, attentive father in the cold air and solitude of a winter walk. We returned to the crowded house refreshed, calmed, and ready to rejoin the political arguments, the football watching, or the debate about what really happened to Frieda’s samovar.

Eventually, we would get hungry again and make a plate of whatever we liked best, arriving at and departing from the dining room table alone or in groups like some time-lapse documentary about The Life of a Table. Only my grandfather was exempt from the traditional post-potlatch culinary diaspora; my grandmother always made him a Nice Brisket Sandwich from some mysterious and never-ending source of perfectly cooked brisket. He was not a fan of turkey.

Those Thanksgivings were the celebrations of a family with real immigrants only a generation away from them, demonstrating their gratitude for this country in ways unimagined by the Pilgrims. They were big, warm and delicious celebrations  in every possible way, and there is not a Thanksgiving that I don’t remember those people, most of them gone, and that house, still standing but no longer open to me. Our group is much smaller these days, and the party has moved to my parents’ house; I am now the cook, and Rob has largely replaced Mildred as the clean-up crew. I’m thinking that this year we need a noodle pudding on the table, and to tell some of the old stories after dinner, so that Sam can learn them osmotically, as we did. I am thankful for all of those people, living and dead, who made me what I am, and who live on in vivid memory.  I think they’d all agree that a rugged band of Hungarians and Russians whose children and grandchildren have married every possible variety of Not Jewish can permit a little Chinese Ancestor Worship.

I take that back; they wouldn’t “all agree” about anything. It was against their religion.

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About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

22 responses »

  1. Ann…crying…thank you!

    Reply
  2. Just recently started reading your blog and thoroughly enjoy your writing. It’s precise, descriptive style has the ability to tansport a person to where you go. Compact and just enough in these fast times to stop, take a break, and enjoy the ride. Great work you’re doing!

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    • Well thank you, ma’am! i am enjoying this a lot, and nobody ever makes me write about anything serious like where Mike Rogers gets his money. 🙂

      Reply
  3. I loved this post – everything not really that far removed from my in-laws’ big Irish family and their get-togethers.

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    • Thanks! I have always believed that most ethnic families have more in common than they know; my dad comes from a big Irish Catholic family and they are just as warm and loud in their own way…..

      Reply
  4. Wow, Ann, I felt like I was there with you. I’m hungry now, too. And you thought you were leaving the food themes behind. Nostalgia is very powerful and I couldn’t help but think of all those Thanksgivings at my maternal grandmother’s house in Grand Rapids–standing at her side as she boiled the turkey neck just for her (her “reward” for doing all the cooking)–she would always give me-her favorite grandson– a little taste. Oh, such poignant memories. Gone too soon.

    Reply
    • Thank you! Would you try the chopped liver? I’m telling you, it’s a force of nature.

      It’s great that you have those memories; you should really write them down somewhere for future generations. We’re all so scattered these days, we just don’t “tell” the stories to the younger generation….

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      • You had me for this entire post at “chopped liver”. Of course I would try it, devour it, steal yours. The most delicious thing I have ever eaten IN MY LIFE was a lightly sauteed foie gras(at a very famous SF restaurant)–though I could never eat another*, I’ll never forget it. I’m salivating, even now–sorry-TMI.

        *at the time, I had no idea what was involved with foie gras. I boycott this item and the restaurant that serves it now, except if I’m invited somewhere.

  5. Being an immigrant myself, this is so very similar to my Thanksgivings, full of foods, traditional of American Thanksgivings and some of our French and South African heritage…mostly loud boisterous laughing, talking in electrifying high decibels. We ALWAYS to this day, now that the tradition is mine, come to the table DRESSED!!!! Ann, once again thank you!

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    • Dressed is big for me. It’s irrational, but I don’t care. As for your Thanksgiving, it sounds like a wonderful thing!

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  6. Felt like i was there with you, the younger teenaged Ann. Well done.

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  7. Another fantastic one…

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  8. When will I learn not to read your writing at 5 o’clock in the morning when I’ve consumed nothing but strong black coffee? My emotional state is precarious at best during daylight hours but when the sky is still black and only the cat is about, your recollections of times past cause an ocular malfunction everytime.

    As a member of your Michigan holiday family (we must have started having Thanksgiving with you after your 16th birthday), I still remember trudging through the neighbor’s backyard abutting your house and the thin blanket of snow that inevitable would fall whenever I drove up from Chicago with whatever dessert or side dish your mother and mine would agree would be prepared off site.

    The fact that I would be wearing what I still call “dress shoes” and that the snow and salt could ruin the leather uppers was not germain. It is still my belief (and before that, not my belief, but my parent’s, your parent’s and beyond that our ancestor’s) that one dresses for holiday feasts – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, Easter and any other event that celebrates mysteries and happenings outside of our daily existence).

    To this day, in remembrance of our holidays together, I will still put on a tie and “dress” shoes for Thanksgiving, even if dinner is being held just fifty yards from a horse barn on an island in Puget Sound with all the attendant sounds and smells. And when asked why I’m so “dressed up”, I’ve no answer; it’s simply how I’ve always done it. What I don’t say is how much I miss the “real” Thanksgiving held in modest 1960’s Colonial in a small college town in Michigan with a polygot of Jews, Catholics and maybe a itinerant Protestant or two at the table. Now that was something to be thankful for.

    Reply
    • Will, I like to make you cry – and I mean that in the nicest way possible. I cry all the time when I write these things.

      We did start having Thanksgiving in Michigan around 1978, after my grandfather died. i know we had at least a couple of dinners at your house because I recall the “japery” conversation with my uncles present, and at least one other occasion on which we all contributed to the mortification of one of Boo’s boyfriends. Tough crowd, that.

      You know, we still have Thanksgiving at the house you remember, every year. You are always invited back, in your dress shoes and with a tie on; I think I’d like you to bring roasted Brussels Sprouts and some of your mother’s cranberry relish.

      Reply
  9. I’m playing catch up with your posts. You had me at chopped chicken liver. My quest for years, my means by which to judge any establishment that deigns use the word “deli” in its name is chopped chicken liver. First, is it on the menu? In most cases, no. Second, does it chopped chicken scratch the chopped chicken itch? There is, at present, no place I can go which offers what I seek. Any suggestions? Are you certain your mother does not know your grandmother’s recipe? Do you get the same glances askance when you refer to chopped chicken liver as a delicacy? Any time you are of a mind to experiment, I will be your guinea pig. Oops, reading thru the comments, I see that I am not alone in my passion…We could form a group.

    Reply
    • There is none in this town. I have not yet investigated Zingerman’s. I have had a decent approximation at a deli in Columbus, Ohio, that my uncle likes. My mother now says she does have her mother’s recipe – if she comes through. you will be the first to know. Eric doesn’t get any; he lives in San Francisco. It’s you and me and the liver, baby.

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  10. Beautifully written! Brings back a lot of memories, mixed with smiles and an occasionally choked heart.

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  11. I remember when I saw this the first time, Ann–it’s a beautiful piece, and I’m right there with you. I’ve never enjoyed liver in my life, and yet I’m oddly fascinated with it, you write it so well. Good luck to you this year, you are in my heart.

    Reply

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