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The Thanksgiving Matriarchs

They're shopping for Thanksgiving dinner, so don't get in their way

You see them at the grocery store around this time every year: Gray-haired and wobbly, they nonetheless wield their shopping carts like weapons, gripping the handles tightly, determinedly combing the aisles for dozens of obscure ingredients like condensed milk and breadcrumbs. They may have bought nothing but cat food and coffee at the grocery store all year long, but their carts are filled to the brim now. Why? They are the family matriarchs. They are shopping for Thanksgiving dinner, so don't get in their way. And don't you dare take that last can of pumpkin pie filling.

I like to talk to these women when I shop for my own Thanksgiving dinner. "Do you think this turkey will be big enough?" I might ask the gray-haired lady next to me. Or, "What's the difference between a yam and a sweet potato anyway?" These women know the answers, every time. ("Figure 1½ pounds of turkey per person; there's really no difference between sweet potatoes and yams.") They know the answers, because they are experts in their field, just like my own mother. And my own grandmother, for that matter.

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I live 3,000 miles away from my mother now, and have for almost 30 years. So I guess you could say I'm the family matriarch at Thanksgiving. But I've always felt like an imposter. I don't really have the knowledge. It's all word of mouth, nothing written down. Every year, I think back and try to remember how it's done.

My mother could cook a turkey and all the fixings with her eyes closed. She got up early and bought the turkey in from the garage where it soaked in a cold water bath. Sometimes the old bird still felt frozen, so my mom unwrapped it and ran more water over it. Once in awhile she even resorted to using a hairdryer to melt the ice. It wasn't unusual to see my mom, singing a happy tune, leaning over the sink and blowing hot air from the hairdryer into the inner cavities of the turkey. It's a wonder she didn't get electrocuted. Then she took all those little bits from inside the turkey—giblets and liver and neck, I think—and put them in a pan filled with water. This pan simmered all day, and the scent of boiling turkey parts filled the house long before the aroma from the turkey itself began to seep out of the oven.

When my grandmother arrived, sometime later in the morning, she joined my mother in the kitchen and sat at the table snapping green beans. My grandmother's green beans were Southern-style, and legendary. After snapping and rinsing, she brought them to a rapid boil on the top of the stove. Then she added several slices of bacon and a handful of whole peppercorns. A little salt to taste, turn down the heat, simmer all day and wait for the smell of bacony green beans to join the scent of turkey. That's the smell of Thanksgiving to me.

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My mother's turkeys always came out wonderfully—crisp on the outside, tender and juicy within. Of course, she never used any of those happy-life, free-to-run-around turkeys. Hers were the old-school kind, pumped full of fake butter and chemicals to ensure a tasty finished product. She stuffed them with Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix to which she added a couple of jars of oysters, some celery, onions and lots of butter. Yum. Her gravy was to die for, just the right combination of salt and fat and smoky goodness. She and my grandmother peeled potatoes, boiled them and mashed them up with a little warm milk and again, lots of butter. Cranberry sauce came out of a can, was sliced into rounds and presented prettily on a platter. For dessert, the pièce de résistance: a pie, usually apple, maybe pumpkin, lovingly made by my grandmother, the queen of Crisco. Her crusts had a delicate flakiness never repeated on this Earth after her death.

As matriarch of my own family, I have a hard act to follow. That's why I stalk old ladies in the grocery store and ask for cooking advice. But I don't really have to do that. I just like to give a nod to their expertise. No, I am truly fortunate because my own mother, at age 91, is still around. I call her every Thanksgiving morning for her own special tips. She's like my own private Butterball help line. "How did Bobo (my grandmother) cook her green beans, Mom? Lid on or lid off?" Or "What do you do with all these little giblet things after you boil them?" My mother knows the answers to these questions (for the beans, "lid off," and for the giblets, "cut them up and add them to the gravy, of course"). My mother knows these things because her own mother taught her. Now I know too.

But this year, for the first time ever, I'm abdicating my role as matriarch and traveling, by bus, to my daughter's home some four hours from here. We plan on cooking the Thanksgiving meal together. I want to show her everything I learned from my mother and grandmother. We'll roast a turkey, snap beans, mash potatoes and try to copy everything from my past. And you know what? We'll be calling my mom for advice. That's what I'm truly grateful for this Thanksgiving.

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HOW TO MAKE MOM'S GIBLET GRAVY

Take four tablespoons of fat from the turkey roasting pan. In stove top pot, combine the fat 4 TB fat with 4 TB flour, whisking until a thick paste forms. Slowly add water from giblet pan to paste (remember, giblets have been simmering in water most of the day). Whisk until it's a nice gravy consistency. Chop up giblets and add to gravy.

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