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.