Getting the Bird

For some reason, I like Thanksgiving a lot.

You don’t have to buy presents, for one thing. Also, you don’t have to unwrap presents that are horrible, while you scream your fervent thanks for a multicolored striped attack-scarf that reminds you of nothing but Isadora Duncan and her fatal fashion sense.

No, all you have to do is cook and eat and be a glutton and watch football on TV. Since I am adept at three of those four activities, I become grateful every fourth Thursday in November. (Batting .750 should never be lightly dismissed.)

Oh, sure. We’ve had our off years. There was the first Thanksgiving dinner my husband and I ever cooked, in 1972, when we almost food-poisoned an unsuspecting Japanese couple. There was the year the gravy was purple, the years we left the innards in the turkey.

But I became aware of how benign most of our Thanksgivings have been when a friend told me about one of hers. As usual, her mother had been hitting the bottle pretty heavily, so my friend intervened and hid the bourbon. When her mother noticed its absence, she bit my friend on the hand.

That became my second-favorite Thanksgiving story, eclipsed only by my learning the traditional American Indian Thanksgiving prayer, “Thanks for nothing!” Every year, my part-Indian children and I recite the prayer and try to bring the congenial, freewheeling conversation away from talk about politics and religion and football into more meaningful discourse about genocide and Wounded Knee and scalping.

(Ha, ha, ha! The truth is, the talks about politics and religion might have already taken a turn for the grisly and personal, so who needs more dissent? Anyway, I’ve always taught my kids that nobody likes a bunch of bitter losers, so just pass the oyster dressing and avoid gratuitously snide references to Little Big Horn, except when absolutely necessary.)

Now where was I? Oh, yes! Other people’s bad Thanksgivings! Some Internet pals sent me these:

Another Thanksgiving my then 2 year old daughter tripped and fell and landed face first into a corner in a doorway. Lots of blood and screaming, and she couldn’t eat a thing. The next morning the pediatric dentist insinuated we were child abusers when we had her checked out. “If it happens again I’ll have to make a call.” We found a new dentist soon thereafter. And my husband worked on teaching our daughter to put her hands up to catch herself when she fell!

— Brette Sember, author of The Parchment Paper Cookbook, which I highly recommend


Despite my paean of love to the holiday, I definitely have had my
share of disasters.
The most memorable was my attempt as a nearly newlywed to impress my
country-folk inlaws by cooking a duck instead of a turkey for
Thanksgiving. Do you know how much grease those puppies exude?? I

And then there was the turkey on the spit on the outdoor barbeque (I’m
in Arizona where you can do that). The feast was scheduled for noon,
and everything except the turkey was ready.  A gaggle of starving
relatives finally got to eat around 6:00 p.m. when the turkey FINALLY
was done.

— Vera Marie Badertscher of the excellent blog, A Traveler’s Library


Anyway, happy Thanksgiving to all of you, Native Americans and oppressors alike. Keep your mother away from the bourbon, teach your kid how to fall, and remember, a duck has a lot more fat than a turkey.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)


11 comments… add one
  • How memorable would Thanksgiving be if you didn’t have stories like these to retell in your family year after year? I feel like my family Thanksgivings have been downright boring in comparison–so far no trips to the ER.

  • Sheryl Link

    Another one here with not-so-exciting Thanksgivings, which I am eternally grateful (though a little bored with)! Think I’ll stir things up this year…

  • It didn’t happen on Thanksgiving, but when my daughter was 18 months old, we were visiting Old Salem, NC. She, in spite of our pleas, ran from us on a brick sidewalk. Inevitably, she fell, and busted her front teeth clear up into her gums. We had to take her to the emergency room of a local hospital, where the intern looked at us as if we had bashed her face with a 2×4. It’s hard to be thought of as capable of something so horrible.

  • A Native American friend told me a few years ago that the federal government sends a turkey every year to each registered native American household. I liked the irony, so I do hope it is true.

  • Love this.

  • I lived in France for 25 years, where no one celebrated Thanksgiving. Our cranberry sauce was imported. I bravely told my kids the story of the Pilgrims, omitting the bit about what a bad hand the Natives had been dealt. Then I listed all the things I was thankful for and urged them to do the same. Now I live in the USA, I have a half-Blackfoot friend who always marches in Plymouth at their non-Thanksgiving parade and I’m celebrating with my adult son this year. We were at Sprouts today. “Guess we should pick up fixings for Thanksgiving,” he said. “How about chicken?” I glowered and he bought a turkey. As for the cranberries, I brought a bag of organic ones from Cape Cod and will teach my granddaughter how to turn them into sauce. We will also talk about what we are thankful for. And, by the way, I’m thankful for this blog because you always make me smile … and think. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • M.K. Link

    I think there’s a lot of performance pressure on the cook. (I didn’t say wife/mother, so as not to appear sexist.) If you are a terrific cook, maybe it’s just a little bit of pressure, but if you’re not, it can be terrifying.

  • Ha! Love your examples of Thanksgiving disaster stories, may I borrow some for a story on same I’m penning? (Yes, for 2012, the lede is already written but I ran out of time to write it all before the holiday this year.) Purple gravy? Note to self: Talk with Ruth well before the biggest food holiday of the year rolls around again.

  • I do love Thanksgiving, but after reading this, realize how pedestrian the holiday’s been around here. We need a disaster we can tell the grandkids!

  • b condra Link

    Many moons ago, I, being the transplanted Yankee into my new San Antonio Hispanic family of what eventually became ‘outlaws’, was invited for my first Texas Thanksgiving. Imagine my excitement! As we entered the home ‘o host…I smelled….cumin. Odd, thought I. Until I saw the table. There was a turkey alright…right next to the beans and rice and tortillas and a bowl of chicken mole (which I love, I might add…but not that day).

    Where’s the stuffing? Where’s the cranberry sauce?? And what’s that stuff all over that f**king turkey??? I walked a mile and a half to the HEB that never closed and bought a can of cranberry sauce and a can opener and ate it with my fingers all the way back to the car where I sat until it was time to go home. I’m a pathetic guest.

  • Cindy A Link

    My most memorable Thanksgiving (long ago) was finding out that when a lawn chair is used as a battering ram for a pickup truck window, the glass breaks into a thousand pieces but sticks together like a membrane, which I sat on in my pajamas until my distraught relative gave me the gun he was going to shoot himself with.

    Brave or stupid, I’m not sure which, but ever since I’ve been thankful for less drama at the holidays. 🙂

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