Let us give thanks for those who cook - oh, and the wine


When I put the pizza and its box into the oven to keep warm, it caught fire. As the kitchen filled with smoke, my husband said -- and there was almost sympathy in his voice -- "Honest to God, honey. You're the only woman who can burn a dinner she didn't cook."

You can guess what Thanksgiving means to me -- an opportunity to demonstrate with a great big turkey and my best china that I cannot cook.

My friends and family know this about me and they understand.

My daughter, standing on a chair in my mother-in-law's kitchen and icing an array of holiday cookies, revealed that "my mother doesn't bake."

My husband says that when my children are grown, they will remember their mother's home cooking every time they hear a microwave beep.

One rainy afternoon I tried to make some of those Pillsbury slice-and-bake cookies and my son screwed up his face and said, "Mom, what are you trying to do, be one of those perfect mothers?"

When I invite friends for dinner, they cheerfully suggest, "Why don't we just order out Chinese?"

When planning family gatherings, my sisters -- one of whom prepares fresh-killed turkeys for her family in the middle of any old week, for heaven's sake -- say, "Just tell Susan to bring some wine."

So you can see why Thanksgiving, a holiday of eating and food, is so difficult for me. My Lenox dishes with the holly pattern cannot disguise the plain food that is served on them.

But hey, who would eat anything else? Not my kids.

What cooking skills I had have atrophied because of my picky children. Hot dogs, grilled cheese, Spaghetti-O's, Lipton chicken soup, Kraft macaroni and cheese. That's what they love best. And I am good at what kids like. There are children who come from blocks away for my grilled cheeses.

But if dinner is supposed to be something more or better than that, it is not. It is something we do in those precious moments between soccer practice and homework and half the time we do it through a drive-through window. I have taken great solace in the fact that there is vitamin C in the tomato sauce in pizza.

If Italian food didn't exist, women like me would have had to invent it. Ravioli, tortellini, fettucini, ziti, shells. Same stuff, different shape. Pour Ragu over it, and you have dinner at my house. And I dare say that is true up and down the streets of my neighborhood.

If a recipe calls for more than "mix all ingredients and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes," I'm in over my head. Thanksgiving dinner is so intimidating because you have to get everything -- the meat, the gravy, the vegetables -- done at the same time.

For years, I didn't have to try. My husband and I spent Thanksgiving in one football press box or another, or sampled the sophisticated holiday efforts of friends more accomplished in the kitchen than I am.

But when my son was born, I longed to begin a tradition of food that would forever remind him of home and family. And so, for his first Thanksgiving, I prepared all his favorites: corn, mashed potatoes and gravy (see, already I was bending to his will) and, well, a roast chicken.

Hey, how would he know? It seemed excessive to prepare a 20-pound turkey for the three of us. And besides, I wasn't quite sure how to do it. And so, when the little button popped out of the side of the little chicken, I presented my little family with my triumph.

"A chicken? You made a chicken?" my husband asked, incredulous. (This is the same guy who still can't get over the fact that I don't do his shirts.)

I blushed and stuttered and explained the economy and good sense of what I had done.

He said no more. And I noticed that dinner seemed to go down just fine.

But when it was over and he was sure I could hear him from the kitchen sink, he took Joe on his knee and said, his voice resonating with the gravity of the moment: "Son. This is your first Thanksgiving. And your mother has prepared the traditional Thanksgiving chicken. Just wait until Christmas, when she will make the traditional Christmas meat loaf."

Very funny. But I've learned my lesson. The best Thanksgiving dinners are the ones waiting at the end of a 250-mile drive to Pittsburgh, where my mother-in-law bakes.

But I'm bringing the wine.

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