The importance of eating chopped liver
Every Thanksgiving, my grandmother makes chopped liver. It’s smooth, a little sweet, vaguely metallic—because of the iron in the chicken’s liver, my uncle used to tell me. It’s always on the same mosaic coffee table, in the same ceramic bowl surrounded by a ring of water-crackers. Every year I eat too much. Every year my grandmother says the same thing: “That’s my girl! She’s always loved chopped liva!”
I really do love it: for its wonderfully nostalgic taste, but even more so for its place in my family mythology. Thanksgiving of 2001, my uncle’s mother, Miriam, lodged a chopped-liver cracker in her throat. Panic ensued. Twenty minutes later, my entire extended family—all twenty-five of us—was gathered on the sidewalk while Miriam shrieked at a handsome young paramedic for asking what her age was. (Miriam’s age is a mystery. Her son doesn’t even know.) At the risk of sounding morbidly sentimental, the Miriam chopped-liver incident, in the tradition of absurdly dramatic food-related crises that occur at large gatherings of Jewish families, was something of a blessing. We got to act like Miriam had almost died—in reality she’d been speaking and breathing just fine through the whole ordeal—and like we were thankful that she hadn’t. We all shared something. It was kind of nice.
We were a merry bunch, the students abroad in the Brown-in-Bologna program. It was my first Thanksgiving separated from family, but I suffered no sense of loss. There was something so natural about celebrating the holiday in Italy: the things Americans cherish on the third Thursday in November—loving company and food—are woven firmly into the daily life of an Italian. They eat slowly, they drink slowly, and dinners are known to run for hours into the night. As ours did that Thanksgiving. We invaded the small restaurant and claimed it for ourselves, along with the two turkeys prepared for us by the cooks each sporting an American and Italian flag. The locals strained their necks to ogle the spectacle of our turkeys, and the head chef proudly watched us enjoy his food. He had never prepared a turkey before, and had made an entire test run the night before to practice, and then eaten it with his family. I can vividly recall the things we felt: pride emanating from him, irradiating our table; happiness in his eyes at his success and the obvious pleasure we had in eating his food; my eagerness to demonstrate my gratitude and reciprocate this bliss. The food was unforgettable. We had all the usual Thanksgiving foods, just wonderfully Italianized. We laughed; we ate, we drank far too much wine. No celebration could have been better, and for it I am so thankful.
In a country of overeaters, Thanksgiving is the one day of the year when this vice is celebrated nationally. This in and of itself is a marvel, but it is doubly true for a child of divorce. Every year, I must resort to a slew of trickery if I am to vanquish the looming threat of tryptophan-induced slumbers, made acutely more resonant by my double feature feasting.
Over the years, I’ve struck a wacky balance between Dad’s schmaltzy mealtime rigmarole and the hilarity that is my histrionic grandmother at Mom’s. The day starts with lunch around Dad’s table, where my brother and I are coerced into holding hands with stepfamily, our heads bowed as Dad spouts off on the blessing of togetherness. It ends with Mom’s dry exchanges with Grandma, who would be most thankful for a daughter who visited her daily…
On any other day, holding hands with a step-brother could really ruin one’s appetite, and awkward chunks of Velveeta would put a damper on the spinach casserole. But then, the day Grandma starts using fresh spinach and real cheddar is a day I never want to see. Somehow, I know I’ll never have to. And that’s comforting. Having learned to be a savvy Thanksgivinger, I see that this bizarre mishmash of dishes and relatives is just what it means to be a family.
The new stuffing on the block
I’m going to make a big generalization here—Asian families do not get thrilled about eating turkey on Thanksgiving. It’s all too familiar: Daddy Cheung complains about the meat’s blandness, Auntie Wong incessantly brings up how thick the gravy is, and Mommy Cheung mutters to herself, “we have to eat this for the next two weeks?!”
I have a solution to please Turkey-friendly and hostile relatives alike. Ready? I present to you: sticky-rice stuffed turkey. Move over, bread/veggie/assorted nuts stuffing, and meet your new competitor. Most likely adapted from a Cantonese dim sum called lo mai gai (sticky rice with mushroom, conpoy, and chicken wrapped in lotus leaves), the sticky rice-stuffed turkey has become a go-to dish for many Asian-American families. The rice absorbs all the turkey juices so it’s extra flavorful, plus you can add whatever you fancy to the rice (Chinese chorizo, black mushrooms, and chestnuts, to name a few). To make the stuffing, soak the rice in cold water for a few hours before cooking to soften it, then bring to a boil over high heat, and reduce it to medium heat until all the water is absorbed by the rice. Place your choice of ingredients on top of the rice, add in soy sauce, sesame oil, and black pepper, and cover it with a lid to allow the steam to do the cooking. Cook it until it’s semi-translucent, as the rice will cook more in the oven. Finally, stuff the brined turkey with the rice—add chestnuts if desired—stick it into the oven, and voilà! Oh, and tell your mom not to worry—there won’t be any leftovers.
The best cranberry sauce in the world
Buy can of Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce. Open can with can-opener. Squelch Jell-o cylinder onto a plate with a smiling pilgrim on it. If the ridges from the can glisten in the candlelight, still intact, you have succeeded. Slice, serve, snort some up your nose (try to get it to come out your mouth…). And save the real cranberries for the dark chocolate-cranberry glazed tart with mascarpone filling.
Thoughts on survival
Don’t touch the carving knife. Leave that to your dad, the one with experience. And take time to stare. Stare at the uncle from the Midwest who thinks East Coast education makes you a Socialist. Stare at the 5th grade cousin who tells you of spelling bees won and girls lost to boys with footballs. And listen not to them but to the sound of your dad cutting through turkey. And appreciate the silence of unconditional familiarity. Appreciate that they know you can give them an ear but not a thought. Only a passing smile because you are in college, and you have too much on your mind.
Thanks for nothing
How to botch Thanksgiving? Be a sixteen-year-old boarding school brat on her first trip to France. When my friend’s host family asked me if “I could share to them please our speciale holyday?” I thought of my extensive E-Z-Mac experience and agreed! At the local Carrefour, I could not locate cranberries, pumpkin, squash, turkey, or any of the French words for these items (although I did manage to find several bottles of the green-apple flavored liquor, “Manzana,” which I purchased without showing ID and smuggled back to boarding school in my suitcase.) So I improvised. After an afternoon of messy labor, I presented to the family a trashed kitchen, an overcooked chicken in brown soup, a celery-crouton “stuffing” salad, boiled potatoes smushed with a fork, a side of raisins, and ice cream. The ice cream was a hit. As for the “turkey,” it was spit back out into the napkin upon first bite and then ignored. Even the chubby ten-year-old made fun of my purée. “Maybe the trash can will like it,” he smirked as his mother scraped the uneaten muck into the poubelle. I stuffed myself, for posterity’s sake, thinking about how I could would gush about the snobby French to friends back at home. I should have just stuck to Manzana cocktails.