For as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday.
It might be oversimplified to make the correlation between my love of a food-centric celebration and my morbidly-obese adolescence but, this explanation isn't entirely inaccurate. More to the point, however, Thanksgiving has always been the closest thing to a family reunion that I've ever known.
For one day, my Marine Corps father wasn't working the second or third shift and could eat dinner with us. My grandparents could devotedly spoil their grandkids and my always-dialed-in aunt could stealthily share the latest inappropriate jokes for dissemination on the fourth-grade playground.*
* -- "Did you know there were computers in the Garden of Eden? Eve had an Apple and Adam had a Wang!" (I remember laughing uproariously at this in 1984, even though the only word in the punchline that I remotely recognized was "wang" – and not in an electronic sense.)
My most memorable Thanksgiving was in 1995.
I came home from my first semester at San Diego State University. After spending three months trying to feed myself with a no-frills, bare-minimum meal plan; I carried just 155 lbs. on my six-foot frame. The colossal holiday spread remains – 15 years later – the greatest meal I've ever eaten. Everyone from my endearingly dysfunctional family met at my parents' house and I clearly remember regaling them with tales of my new girlfriend.
My grandmother passed away in December 2001, my parents divorced around the same time and – in the blink of an eye – Mrs. Bootleg and I were spending our first Thanksgiving as a married couple alone on a rainy San Diego turkey day in 2002. Believe it or not, this wasn't nearly as depressing as it sounds. We'd barely been married for two weeks, so Mrs. Bootleg broke out some of our wedding china and turned our claustrophobic condo into a romantic nook.
For the past few years, we've hosted Thanksgiving at Stately Bootleg Manor. Since most of you are familiar with the guest list, let's get right into the events of last Thursday.
12:30 AM -- Thanksgiving cannot officially begin until Mrs. Bootleg pulls a pair of sweet potato pies from the oven. In keeping with both family tradition AND traditional black woman tendencies; she makes as much noise as possible during the late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning mixing, baking and unnecessarily exaggerated oven door opening/closing process. This is her not-so-subtle reminder of my minimal contribution to the preparation process. And, if every Thanksgiving from the previous decade is any indication, Mrs. Bootleg will SWEAR this is her last holiday as head chef before the day is over. It's as predictable as cranberry sauce, y'all.
8:30 AM -- Mrs. Bootleg is baking a small batch of cornbread as part of her homemade dressing.** Several weeks ago, she ruined -- beyond recognition -- a sheet of cornbread that was supposed to be the accompaniment with her secret recipe chili. She found a way to over AND undercook it before the cornbread collapsed on itself like a gritty, gooey shanty. My wife pulled her Thanksgiving batch from the oven and, amazingly, had achieved an identical "black on the outside, batter on the inside" consistency. Turns out she set the oven for 500 degrees, instead of 400 -- no small feat, considering our stove has a digital temperature display. Of course, I took my disappointment to Twitter.
** -- African-American Fun Fact: We always call it "dressing", never "stuffing". I'm sure there's an explanation for this that dates back to slave days...or at least back to when Big L was still alive.
8:45 AM -- I was genuinely worried that my 15-year streak of making unplanned trips to the supermarket on Thanksgiving morning was in jeopardy. Thanks to Mrs. Bootleg's oven escapades, here I was with all the other unwashed, unshaven men standing a dozen deep in the "15 items or less" line. It was 42 degrees when I left the house and I was forced to brave the cruel, cloudless elements with only a pair of shorts and a long-sleeve t-shirt. Enough already, autumn!
9:45 AM -- Not long after I return, Mrs. Bootleg solemnly shows me the expiration date on a bottle of paprika that's been resting comfortably in our pantry. Since, I'm familiar with the outrageous suggested retail price of spices and have no desire for a one-hour reunion with the supermarket cashier, we agree to use the
12:15 PM -- My family arrives. My grandfather presents Jalen with two $50 bills that have been bent and folded into a pair of exotic shapes ("Negr-origami"?) and a handful of the shiniest silver dollars I've ever seen. (Thirty years ago, I was happy to get one of those "drummer boy" quarters from him so I could buy a Chunky Bar at the liquor store down the street. I'm just sayin', Grandpa.) Meanwhile, my mother is wheeling a cooler that's roughly the size of our refrigerator.
12:30 PM -- An "appetizer table" has appeared out of nowhere. The sheer amount of "not-the-entree" eats would've been embarrassing if America weren't already the king of superfluous food. My mother's deviled eggs never last more than a few minutes and this year she debuted a deviled filling with finely diced bits of bacon. These would've landed the coveted "500 (out of 5)" in a TBG Eats feature. Salty, eggy and awesome.
3:30 PM -- Damn it, Roy Williams! Don't you realize how far back in the pool I am?!
4:00 PM -- I've previously written about my contempt for Brussels sprouts. It's one of the few foods that I'd completely given up on. But, my mom whipped out the skillet and tried something different: baby Brussels sprouts (which I'd never had) tossed with baby carrots and sautéed in a butter, onions and bacon bath. Glorious. It reminded me of a mildly-sweet fried cabbage with the bacon perfectly comingled with the mild vegetable flavors. Aaron and Brussels sprouts. This is the most shocking turn in years. Or months. Or, at least since this.
5:00 PM -- I finished the evening with a bomber of Shipyard's Smashed Pumpkin Ale. While bacon had saved Thanksgiving, it wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world if it hadn't shown up. Mrs. Bootleg baked her best batch of dressing ever. Her collard greens killed -- as usual -- and won the approval of my Alabama-born grandfather, who knows a thing or three about African-American southern cuisine. And, her turkey died a heroic and delicious death.
Almost on cue, my wife declared that we'd be spending NEXT Thanksgiving with my in-laws in Utah...presumably so Mrs. Bootleg could be free from kitchen duty.
I'll pack your "road