People are on social media talking about holiday gatherings, posting pictures of the food they made and in general enjoying this 4-day weekend of food, family, Christmas decorating and shopping. I thought I'd take a moment to share the most unexpected Thanksgiving I've ever had. Nothing dramatic like being trapped in an airport due to a snowstorm and falling in love with a man half your age (plot of a book by Anne McCaffrey called "Stitch in Snow"), but an interesting glimpse of how things you always counted on can go awry.
My brother moved around a lot. He was a chef, taught hotel and restaurant management and didn't stay in one place too long. That particular year he was headed home to Chicago, from where I don’t recall, to surprise Mom for Thanksgiving. Dad had passed away not long before and he wanted to be sure she had the rest of us around. Somehow he convinced my cheapskate then-husband that we should come too. This was a miracle of persuasion because at the time I was married to a man who did all he could to make the miles between our home and my family home seem impossible to traverse in winter. Not even Mom's spectacular baking would budge him. This year, my brother prevailed and it was going to be a huge surprise. I was looking forward to spending time with family as much as the now ex-husband was dreading it.
Growing up, Mom always made Thanksgiving dinner, Aunt Rose, who lived downstairs in our typical two story Chicago gray stone would make Christmas dinner. Like clockwork - every year since the1940s this was the pattern. The menu seldom varied and it was a near crisis when someone dared to bring a salad to share sometime in the 70s. It was unusual for there to be fewer than 3 Jello molds with fruit and veggies inside and aside from the turkey the rest of the table was heavy on starches. When I read a Stephanie Plum novel by Janet Evanovich there is always a family meal that reminds me of these holiday dinners. On the trip down from Minneapolis my mouth was watering in anticipation of helping Mom make the stuffing, watching Chef Charlie make the gravy and eating a meal that was the taste and smell of family time.
When we arrived there was a nearly empty refrigerator, Mom wasn't baking and there was no sign of the 6 loaves of bread we usually toasted to turn into stuffing. (Everyone knows it isn't Thanksgiving without stuffing!) There was space in the fridge for a 22 pound turkey, but the usual Butterball® was not there. No Fannie May® candy in the candy dish, no pie baking.
Mom wasn’t ill, she just decided she was done cooking for a crowd. Her two sons with families of their own wanted to stay home with their kids and have their own holiday, so she and Aunt Rose accepted an invitation to attend a Senior Citizen’s Thanksgiving Dinner at the neighborhood restaurant when Chef Charlie once worked washing dishes as a teen. It was free, she didn’t have to shop, cook or clean up and it was a short walk from the house.
We were stunned. It was the night before Thanksgiving, all the grocery stores were closed already when we arrived and Mom wasn’t happy to see us. Our surprise had her feeling guilty for not cooking and it came out as anger that we hadn’t asked what her plans were. We were all a little stunned that there wasn’t even food in the house for breakfast for all of us. Mom ate at the corner cafe so she would get out and have some company now that Dad was gone and didn’t keep a lot of food in the house. However, even the trusty Royal Restaurant was closed for Thanksgiving so their staff could have a busman’s holiday and cook for their own families.
We were at a loss for how to cope. For three adults we were pathetic. We were like little kids again, whiny and incapable of thinking clearly. We felt betrayed and had no alternates in mind. We didn’t think to invite ourselves to one of our brothers’ homes, we didn’t even call them to tell them we were in town. The expectation that everything would be the same every year, forever, was hanging over us like a rain cloud.
Mom refused a ride to the dinner and she and Aunt Rose headed off to their early afternoon dinner on foot. It was a crisp autumn day and we were starving. A chef with an empty pantry and two people who hadn’t been in Chicago in years were left staring at each other with no good ideas. This was pre-internet and the only way to find food was to call a dozen places or just go looking. Hunger took over and we loaded up into the car and headed out in search of food. Surely there had to be SOMETHING open!
Driving down the major streets was dismal. Why we went west, away from downtown where the most likely options would be, I’ll never know. We drove a few miles and saw nothing open other than an Italian Beef stand or two. Now in Chicago, Italian Beef is a big deal. Crisp crusted Italian bread piled with thin sliced beef and drizzled with au jus gravy is a delight you don’t soon forget. But it wasn’t Thanksgiving dinner. Unless we wanted to spend another hour looking, there was no option. The Italian Beef stand was literally that. Stand up only - no stools. A counter on a street corner, like one of today’s food trucks set on the ground, beached for all eternity, enclosed in glass and grimy enough that you were glad they used disposables to serve the food!
We parked the car and walked up to the counter. The guy working looked like he wished he was elsewhere, as did we. My brother The Chef ordered a “tube steak” and the counter guy knew what he meant. A Vienna® red hot, Chicago style, complete with bright green pickle relish, mustard, pickle spear, tomato slices, sport peppers and a dash of celery salt. The paper lined basket was heaping with pale, soft centered fries, the dog nestled on top.
This was a different hot dog/Italian Beef stand than the one Chef Charlie first took me to when I was tiny, but the fare was the same. This Chicago Dog was a staple that no one messed with. Don’t ask for sauerkraut on a hot dog in Chicago. You won’t get it. The Chicago Dog tastes the same today as it did in the 60s. I can’t speak for anything earlier than that, as it would be hearsay.
My ex and I followed suit. No one opted for the Italian Beef that day. If you are going to have a very atypical holiday, might as well go all the way back to childhood and enjoy the food that you first tasted away from home in the days before fast food. Mom was shocked that we settled for hot dogs, but it didn’t feel like that to me. This Vienna® dogs are as much a taste of home as Mom’s dressing was. To this day, Vienna® Hot Dogs are my favorites. The casing has a snap to it when you bite in that can’t be replicated. The all beef dog is often imitated but never duplicated. The relish is absolutely unique and those peppers will burn like a habanero, so beware! The good folks at the Vienna Sausage Company will send you the whole kit so you can make your own Chicago Dogs no matter where you live. You can get their Italian Beef too, but for me it’s all about the dogs!
By the time we got back to the house that Thursday Mom and Aunt Rose were back, full of petty complaints about how their dinner didn’t measure up to home cooked, but then again, what can you expect for free? They enjoyed the company and the attention of the local politicians who sponsored it and stuffed their handbags with the extra dinner rolls on the table plus a few packages of butter. All in all, a good day’s outing.
They both thought our dinner choice was peculiar, but considering the options, we did OK. Our desire for stuffing hadn’t been fulfilled however and there was no pie. Somehow we survived that day and most likely got pie the next day when the grocery store opened up. I doubt that Charlie cooked that weekend. We likely had pizza from Father & Son the next night. That was another taste treat I’ll never forget. The best Italian sausage ever went on that pizza.
Breaking with tradition feels a little better when it is a choice and not a rude surprise, but time with family, no matter what you are sharing at the table, is worth it. If the turkey was dry as dust and the stuffing and gluey gravy had to be washed down with water or wine, it is worth it. I hope you all have family with you this weekend or people you think of as family. If you don’t, make a call, reach out to a friend and make the effort to connect. You might want to think twice about being a surprise guest however. You might find that granny or mom or your aunt is in Vegas for the weekend or has headed to south Texas to stay warm!
Happy Thanksgiving all!