Friday, November 20, 2009

That first pumpkin pie

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I've been thinking about how our family traditions have evolved. My husband, who is several generations removed from his European ancestry, brought to our marriage the assumption that you eat turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and pumpkin pie for dinner, and also that the afternoon and evening are spent in front of the television set, eyes glued to a slippery football and hands glued to snacks. "Sounds like the American Dream to me," says John.

As a first-generation American whose parents were born in Germany, however, my family treated Thanksgiving very differently. First of all, Thanksgiving is known as Erntedankfest (a thankful celebration of a successful harvest) in Germany, and is not really a family holiday at all. It is typically celebrated at the end of September (when it is celebrated at all) with a church service, possibly a daytime procession ending with a coronation (Erntekrone, or harvest crown), and maybe a musical gathering at church, accompanied by dancing and food. There might also be a lantern procession (Laternenumzug), and perhaps another evening church service, followed by fireworks. Football? Sports? They pretty much don't enter into the picture.

The above picture of my paternal grandmother (visiting from Germany), my younger brother and I will give you an idea how Thanksgiving in my family was celebrated. We dressed in our Sunday best, and while the Thanksgiving Day parade marched on the black-and-white streets of Television Land, we piled into the family car to attend Mass at the local church. My mother, meanwhile, stayed home to prepare a noon dinner. We ate egg drop soup, turkey, dumplings and a vegetable. Instead of pumpkin pie, we had Jello or Kuchen (cake). No football games for us . . . we played board games when we were younger, and Canasta as we grew older. Midway through the afternoon, we took a Kaffeeklatsch break, which consisted of coffee and cake for my parents, and milk and cake for the children. And when evening came around, we all enjoyed open-faced sandwiches on thin, dark slices of Pumpernickelbrot.

When John and I first married and he learned that I had never baked a pie, in fact never ate pie at my parents' house on Thanksgiving or any other day, he volunteered his baking expertise. That first Thanksgiving (and his pumpkin pie) were memorable. He floured his rolling pin and shaped the dough for the pie crust, added a pumpkin filling and slid the pie tin into the oven. A little while later, however, instead of the sweet smell of a much-awaited dessert, the smoke alarm went off and the stink of burnt sugar wafted through the house. It turns out that John had unknowingly substituted powdered sugar for flour, with disastrous results. These days we buy our pumpkin pie at the local grocery store, mostly for John's sake, since I have still never baked a pie, and mostly, I don't eat it. So much for meshing customs from two families!

In the early years of our marriage, my husband enjoyed the typical Thanksgiving football fanfare, but apparently this is a game that is better appreciated when you watch it with someone who understands the rules. That wasn't and still isn't me. I certainly don't mind if John watches football, but I'm more likely to have my nose buried in a book while sitting in the same room. In a word, I'm not a very good cheerleader. As the years passed, John began seeking an afternoon Thanksgiving activity we both could enjoy. So, gradually, Thanksgiving afternoons instead became times when we played board games or watched movies. And in the evening, we enjoyed open-faced sandwiches on baked rolls.

To be sure, we spent our share of Thanksgivings at both of our parents' homes. When we lived too far away on the West coast to visit--and before our son was born--we celebrated with friends who were just as inept in the kitchen as we were. But as empty nesters today, we have gained a few cooking skills and can serve decent Thanksgiving fare to our son and his fiancee. We eat too much food, watch movies and play games, and eat some more. That eating part, at least, is like the typical American Thanksgiving. And it turns out that our son's fiancee likes pumpkin pie, so these days John is learning a new skill: how to share. "Sounds like the American Dream to me," I say.

© 2009 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.