Monday, November 28, 2011

Family Holidays (Cleveland Post, November 17, 2011)

With the holidays on the way, I have been thinking about family and cooking and hospitality. And Joe Lee's thirty odd relatives bedded down in a mill house. The tale of that visit, as recorded in a recent "My Southern Expressions" column, has stuck with me and peeps out when I encounter Thanksgiving-themed ads and articles.

Magazines and advertisements are full of perfectly roasted turkeys and recipes for cranberry and pumpkin treats. Costco has had peppermint bark for over a month. Carpet cleaning and furniture are on sale to help fix up the house in preparation for all the guests.

I also read somewhere that real estate experts say that new houses are shrinking, down from over 2,500 square feet to a little over 2,100 square feet. You could fit at least two mill houses in one of the new ones, if not three. To reduce the square footage, they are getting rid of living rooms, formal dining rooms and mud rooms. I'd give a lot for a mud room.

(For those unfamiliar with mill houses: In the early days of industrialization in North Carolina, building a cotton mill meant building houses for the workers, as there were no towns with a housing market large enough to accommodate them. Mill houses were small, but often - when they were new - a lot nicer than what the mill hands were used to.).

We've got bigger houses now, but you don't hear of folks being as hospitable as Joe's family. Relatives over the age of twelve sleeping on the floor, well, there is just something unseemly about that. And these days, we are more likely to strengthen families ties by keeping a safe distance.

We make jokes about our families, or at least laugh hard enough at the comedians to keep them coming. Not all the jokes are heartwarming.

Troubled family questions keep the advice columnists in business: "Dear Addy, My sister has invited our father for Thanksgiving and he wants to bring the hussy who ruined our family and our mother says she won't come if he does. Help!" Tragic, comic, all at one time.

There is something special about immediate family, but that is also where any problems tend to reside. And even if there are no problems, the mix can get stale. Same folks, same jokes. The smaller the family, the fewer opportunities to hide or change the subject.

Even the turkey and pumpkin pie get old, if the number of recipes for new twists on old favorites that appear this time of year are any indication. So, maybe folks should take an idea from the cooks: add some new ingredients, rearrange the old ones.

It is amazing the change one new adult guest can work on a family gathering. For one thing, it adds new topics of conversation. For another, it can make people mind their manners, and reduce the chance of family laundry getting drug out. And if it doesn't, it might change the fireworks. But sometimes it changes the whole dynamic and fond memories are made.

If you've got thirty relatives, there are lots of conversations and stories - and opportunities to avoid the painful ones. But it's hard to rustle up that many relatives these days. Even if you have them and you love them, the chances they live close enough to come for Thanksgiving are likely slim. (Yet we do travel - Thanksgiving is the worst --oops, I mean busiest --travel time of the year).

I wonder if food only appears to be the center of Thanksgiving because its the one thing we have control over. We may be able to influence the other things for which we are grateful--family, friends, employment--but they are not under our control. That is why they are called blessings.

So, if the holidays have gotten predictable or problematic, maybe the thing to do is to invite some new "ingredients". My mom has this year and I am looking forward to it.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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