Yet my mother, as untied to her apron strings as she could be, was bound by the expectations of her time. And no matter how unwilling she might have been to carry them out, when she did you could be sure you'd never hear the end of it.
There is the famous lemon meringue pie. The one.
"Do you remember the lemon meringue pie I made for your school bake sale?" my mother will remind me, as if I could ever forget about that pie with all the reminding she's done the past 30 years.
Yes, I do remember it, I tell her, and thank you again. It's only during this last decade that I've managed to end my response there, instead of feeling compelled to go on and point out that this culinary masterpiece involved opening a box of lemon Jell-O pudding, dumping it into a bowl and, following the instructions on the back of the box, adding milk, and stirring and heating, before pouring the Day-Glo mixture into a ready-made Nabisco graham cracker pie crust. Reddi-Wip optional.
My mother was always a very good cook. Nothing comes close to her beef stroganoff. Her chicken soup was wonderfully soothing. She made a fine tuna fish sandwich. No one went hungry. And she cheerfully served up all our meals with plenty of fruit and vegetables. She just didn't like cooking for the holidays. So she didn't.
Naturally, I planned to do it all differently, and I did.
College found me dawdling over holiday entertainment cookbooks. While other students were out studying or drinking themselves unconscious, I was busy making grocery lists and scouring estate sales for the perfect ramekin. While other students were experimenting bicuriously, I went full-frontal epicurious, ever on the lookout for a revolutionary souffle.
I'd spend the entire third week of November scrubbing and shining every inch of the apartment I shared with the boyfriend I'd host holiday meals with -- all holidays, all meals -- for years to come.
My god was Craig Claiborne, and later, I am embarrassed to admit, I fell under the sway of Martha Stewart, and industriously undertook all her vastly time-consuming and unnecessary steps prescribed to produce even a single sandwich.
But after one too many cups of tea that I was forced to grow, harvest and brew, in addition to later encasing the boiled tea leaves in tiny muslin pillows to soothe my eyes, which were in need of soothing only because of Martha's relentless chores, I finally gave up on her. Had the dominatrix been in my kitchen, though, she would have given up on me. Too much cursing with my melon balling.
Yet as burned, blistered and decorated with slippery knife cuts as I could be, I'd turn out the most festive Thanksgiving meals ever, each more elaborate than the last. Chestnut and pumpkin pie, anyone?
Everyone was invited. Friends, frenemies, strays -- come on in. It was fun. It was Thanksgiving.
The single element of Thanksgiving chez moi that never varied was a guest list. Lots of people at the table were essential to my execution of The Perfect Thanksgiving, and so it was, year after year after year.
With the birth of my two sons, holidays became even more important. And, if possible, even more elaborate. I gave my mother the Thanksgivings I'd never had. Even after she remarried, when her movable feasts moved to restaurants.
It was all so very Thanksgiving-ish, so wonderful, so bountiful, so...exhausting.
Sometime after the last bite of apple pie had been swallowed one Thanksgiving, my husband and I decided to go our separate ways, splitting the bakeware. I took my ramekins with me, all the way from New Jersey to Texas.
My first Thanksgiving in Texas four years ago was on the forced death march that is my hefty stepmother's viscous idea of food. Eating enough to be polite but not so much as to incur food poisoning, I braved through her Crisco-laden meats and odd mildewed vegetable, all rounded off with a lumpy corn syrup confection meant to simulate pie.
"This is classy food," she instructed, stretching her lips wide to pronounce it "clossy," in a fake British accent she swears is her birthright.
"I adore swimps and ersters," she continued. "Like the King eats."
"And what King might that be? Burger King?" I asked, but by then she had turned her full attention to dipping her thumb into a steamy bowl of brackish gravy. She plucked it out, and plunged it into her mouth. "Mmm," she hummed.
My father sat, dull and sneaky, smirking and pointing at the fat burbling beneath the leggings gripping his wife's bulk like bratwurst casings.
Wishing I were an orphan, I finally rolled out with my children, our stomachs battered -- with fry grease and punishment -- but our dignity unbowed.
The next two Thanksgivings brought invitations from new friends and their families, teaching me the Texas two-step of sequential holiday dining. I loved going to their homes. I loved leaving too, coming home to have nothing more to do than slip into my pajamas and watch "It's a Wonderful Life."
Last Thanksgiving, I got to try deep-fried turkey. Delicious! Unexpectedly tender and light, with a bright, satisfying crunch. And I didn't have to clean up after it. The next day I inaugurated my kitchen oven as storage space.
And now, at last, I get it. This is a holiday. My holiday too. So this Thanksgiving, I'm going over to my friend Millie's. There will be lots of us. I'll be among the widows and orphans, happy to be invited and happy to be there. I'll bring the lemon meringue pie.