Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Holiday in a Strange Land... Home : Tale of a Nomadic Feaster

by Ilana Shabanov
I am a nomadic holiday attendee.  It’s true.  Over the last decade or so, I have relied on the kindness of relatives and friends to have me over to celebrate and gorge.  I’m like the Blanche DuBois of stuffing and jello-mold.

I think this random existence began when I stopped cooking in restaurants for a living.  During the short time I worked behind blazing ovens for embarrassing wages, I didn’t even celebrate the holidays because I was working them, and so was my husband. It was understood that we gave up weekends and holidays to live in that world, and so we enjoyed the few quiet moments we got together, sitting on the couch in a stupor, eating Mr. Submarine and watching the old Japanese versions of Iron Chef. Yes, dear doe-eyed aspiring chefs, this is what awaits you - not your own show or line of cookware, but cold french fries and the inability to get the smell of browning meat out of your pants.  But I digress.

When I left that life behind, I gained weekends and holidays back.  But Jose is a chef through and through and so from November to February, he was a ghost and I was, for the most part, left to fend for myself.  My options were slim, since I am an only child and my mother stopped cooking in the early 90’s.  So, I had to wait for invites or for someone to take pity on me.  Luckily, the people I love the most in this world like having me around, and the idea of me, sitting alone watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade with a bottle of bourbon and Jimmy John’s didn’t sit well with them. There is some grace left in this world.

The last several Thanksgivings I’ve split my time between two families, one of which I am related to by blood, and the other who took me in over twenty years ago as an adopted daughter/sister.  The first is my Great Aunt Joanie of the Silvern clan, who is this tiny little powerhouse of a woman who always invites me over to sit at her gracious dining room table with her kids and grandkids - my cousins - to catch up and eat turkey.  It is one of my favorite places to be, with lots of storytelling and the inevitable heated political banter.  You can’t get a Jewish family together at one table and not expect someone to bring up the situation in the Middle East.  This is why we always have a few different pies or cakes - to jolt everyone full of sugar and fuel the flames.  Always an excellent time, if only to be able to sit next to Joanie so she can lean over and whisper to me, without fail, “Bubbie, I have no idea what the hell these people are talking about.”  She is the best lady in the history of ever.

Next, is my adopted Mexican family - the Carmona’s.  Louie and I have been friends for over twenty years and almost from the start, his mom and her entire family took me in.  Louie is my other Mexican life-partner, after my husband.  He was my Best Man at our wedding and is the one person who will tell me with brutal honesty if I’m acting like a crazy person, or if my handbag is overkill.  At the Carmona’s, Thanksgiving will probably last well past midnight and there will be dancing in the living room. There is an excellent chance that tequila will make an appearance and that his grandfather, the lovely Max, will come around and kiss each of us on the cheek, and perhaps, sing us a song.  Also, the Carmona’s have ham, which is not happening so much at the Silvern table in Evanston.  In both cases, it’s a win/win and Thanksgiving without them, wouldn’t be possible and most certainly, not as much fun.

Things change though - sometimes in great sweeping gestures, and other times, quite simply and without notice.  My Aunt Joanie had to sell the house she lived in for over forty years this spring, and moved into a smaller, easier to manage townhouse in a retirement community. When we had finished clearing the dining room table last Thanksgiving and were all sitting in the living room to visit, I put my head on her shoulder and she whispered to me “I know Bubbie.  This is the last time we’ll all be here like this.”  It was the end of an era, all of us congregating in one place.  Her large, birch wood dining table, made a pilgrimage to California, to her son Paul’s house.  This year, Joanie is heading to Madison to spend the holiday with her other son, Matt, and his family, and it will be the beginning of a new tradition.  We move forward.  We adapt.

Jose started a new job this August, working as a chef for a small company making organic lunches for schools and the most exciting element - besides helping the youth of America not bloat - was that he got to live by a public school calendar.  Holidays and weekends off!  Holy crackers, what do we even do with that?  For the first time in almost a decade, he’ll be around.  Sometimes I see him wandering around the house on a Saturday afternoon and think “Who are you and what are you doing in my kitchen?”  It’s been an adjustment most married people probably don’t have to make, but it’s been pretty amazing. 

So this Thanksgiving, things are a little different.  Okay, a lot different.  For the first time in a long while, I won’t have to Oliver Twist my way into a holiday meal. (Yes, two weird literary references in one essay.  I’m not usually this erudite.)  This year, Jose and I are going it alone, making an attempt to begin our own tradition.  What that is exactly, we’re not sure.  There is the possibility of attempting a tandoori turkey.  Bad movies are a definite, and we aren’t ruling out making a tub of mashed potatoes and eating it on the couch with serving spoons.  We’ll see. Whatever we decide to do, we won’t have to travel far to do it.   

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