My grandmother, Ann Fineman, was a stylish woman in her way. She had a big bouffant of blonde hair and a ready laugh. We have a black-and-white snapshot of her and my grandfather, Max Fineman, on Broadway in New York in the late 1940s. They owned a clothing store in our hometown of Pittsburgh, and they were in the Big City for a buying trip. He’s wearing a snap-brimmed hat and a coal-black Ronald Coleman mustache and is smiling confidently as he strides along the avenue; she is proudly on his arm, wearing a vaguely Hollywood aura, a sly smile and a tight skirt.
So Ann was not, at first glance, a central casting, Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving grandma. But she cared about making and serving the meal with a fervent devotion that bordered on the religious.
The turkey, she declared, had to be a fresh (never frozen) young hen with short legs. She insisted that male turkeys were too tough and long-legged females too active: apparently, in her mind, they had run around too much and were given to carousing in a way that made them unfit for human consumption, at least on the Holy Day.
There were other rules, from the proper kind of stale bread for the stuffing (the whiter and more pedestrian the better; the exact reverse of her usual preference) to the amount of milk to mix into the mashed potatoes (almost none).
As for the apple pie, you had to scour the grocery store bins for the tartest possible apples and then add a lot of sugar to them. The amount of tongue/torque thus created was almost (but not quite) painful. She did it in part, I always thought, because Max had grandly sworn off the knowing consumption of sugar in 1943 as a patriotic gesture during World War Two. It was Ann’s job to preserve this fiction by quietly dumping tons of sugar into the mix when Max wasn’t looking.
Once she had orchestrated the launch of the meal — as traditional as they come — she would leave the kitchen and take her seat while Max carved. She sat at the edge of her chair, watching with an eagle-eyed stare as everyone began to consume her handiwork. At first she would take nothing for herself. She refused to eat until she had been assured — again and again — that the (short-legged female) turkey was moist and tasty and good.
And then she’d take a small slice, picking at it cautiously. Once she did so we all laughed, and she did, too. She had finally partaken of her own sacrament. We praised her for her success and her bravery. And in our laughter was an offer of thanks — for her devotion, for the blessed well-being of our family, and for the city and country we all loved.