Celery and onions

The official start of Thanksgiving every year was not picking up the turkey and Libby’s pumpkin pie filling and canned cranberry sauce from Farmer Jack’s (as we called it back home). It was not the raucous bus ride home from school on Wednesday, the freedom of a four-day weekend spread out before us like a feast. It wasn’t even the America’s Thanksgiving Parade broadcast from downtown Detroit.

The official start of Thanksgiving was always the aroma of celery and onions sautéing in butter as my dad started cooking the stuffing for the turkey. It was better than an alarm clock or a nudge to the shoulder to draw me, groggy and pajamaed and rubbing my eyes, from my bedroom.

A lot of recipes start out that way, sautéing onions, celery, some herbs. But no matter what we’re making, no matter the time of year it is, that scent — heavy, sweet and ambrosial — always means Thanksgiving.

Today is a good day to think about my dad. Thanksgiving was one day, every year, when he was at his happiest.

My dad took immense pride in his turkey stuffing. It was flawless. Even then, I never thought it was particularly unusual or remarkable. (Now that I’m older, I know that it wasn’t.) But it was damn good, and that was the point. That’s all that mattered. It wasn’t just for stuffing the turkey, it was for stuffing me.

Dad never was one for simply following a recipe. He always made it his own somehow with a phalanx of stout, little shakers of herbs and seasonings — what is arrowroot? what is allspice? — maybe to guarantee it could never be duplicated by anyone. He always made extra, praise Jesus, so whatever didn’t fit inside the bird cooked in a separate casserole dish on another oven rack.

After dinner, I would pick at that slowly cooling lump of bread and drippings and herbs with a fork every time I passed it between the table and the dish washer. Just one more bite. Just one more bite. OK, really, just one more bite.

I continued to pick at it for days and days after Thanksgiving, as it sat in the fridge, slowly waning like a cold, savory moon.

He managed the turkey, boiled the potatoes, microwaved the corn and green beans, too. Mom made the candied yams. Grandma slow-cooked the baked beans. Aunt Kay brought the dinner rolls and a pie. Uncle Dennis’ macaroni salad was unmatched.

I liked to cut both ends of the can and slide the cylinder of congealed cranberry gelatin sloppily onto a serving plate. We each took a perfectly round medallion for our plates.

As an ensemble, it was a symphony. But the standout was the stuffing.

By the time my dad died, I had survived a few years without his cooking. Jeff and I had determined to start our own traditions, hosting holidays with friends in New York. But I never was able to duplicate his stuffing. I’d had fancier versions with oysters and with mushrooms and sagey pork sausage, but the best way is always the old way, the plain old, everyday, delicious way.

I hope he knows somehow that I’m thinking about him. Holidays for me lost some steam when I lost my dad. He wasn’t a very happy man in the final years, divorced, lonely and in poor health, but when I was a kid, his enthusiasm and joy and pride were irrepressible and contagious. That was an integral part of my holiday experience, whether I spent it with him or remembered him from hundreds of miles away. One day, I hope to get that feeling back, but I’m not sure I eer really can. Maybe I should start experimenting with croutons and get some celery and onions going in the skillet.


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