I was 31 when I roasted my first Thanksgiving turkey while my mother, with her experience and reassurance, coached me from her recliner in the living room. At that age, it was about time I learned the matriarchal skills required for preparing a holiday meal, but I was too young for the reason that the task fell on my shoulders. A week earlier, my mother was in the hospital suffering from congestive heart failure.
The stuffing I spooned into the bird was not the traditional recipe my mother used every Thanksgiving and Christmas for decades. Mother and I whiled away time at the hospital by flipping through magazines we pooled from our collections. The November and December covers of Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Family Circle displayed feasts in warm colors and glowing light. One article covered the topic we needed—a heart-healthy holiday meal.
“How about this for the stuffing?” I showed Mother the glossy photo and a recipe that featured rye bread, apples, and pecans.
She looked skeptical. “Do you think we should give up the sausage stuffing?”
“There’s no way that can be considered heart-healthy,” I said with the conviction of a zealot recently converted by a pamphlet with some forgettable title like Your Heart and Your Diet. “Besides, this looks delicious. See, it has all of the seasonings you would expect in a stuffing.” It felt odd to be the one making the decisions about food and health. My mother had been doing that for me since American families were sold on the idea that if Tang was good for astronauts, it must be good for kids. But what she learned about healthy eating in her twenties and thirties didn’t match the dietary requirements we were learning for cardiac patients.
Once the turkey was in the oven, I had surprisingly little to do and nowhere to put the nervous energy that built up during my anxious menu planning and food preparation. The night before, I baked pumpkin-cranberry muffins from the Jane Brody’s Good Food Gourmet cookbook I borrowed from the library. The muffins stood in place of dessert, avoiding the saturated fats in buttery pie crust or cheesecake that would have crowned our special meals in the past. A muffin could be spared for the cook’s breakfast, so I settled down with one to watch the beginning of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.
We all knew Mother’s favorite part of the parade—the Rockettes. No matter what stage in her Thanksgiving readiness, she insisted we call her from the kitchen to witness the mesmerizing line of kicking women at the finale of the Rockettes’ performance. I was able to watch the Rockettes, plus all the song and dance numbers from the Broadway shows, and most of the parade with only a few interruptions to check on things in the kitchen. I kept thinking there must be more to do but our heart-healthy menu simplified the chore list. I wasn’t assembling casseroles of sweet potatoes and green beans because our menu called for baked sweet potatoes and blanched green beans, items that could be fixed closer to the time we wanted to eat.
By the time Santa arrived at the end of the parade, my husband, Rick, wanted to take a walk. I made him look at my list and check the turkey to confirm that I had time to leave the house for a few minutes. I did. As soon as we were out of the house, I confessed my biggest worry. “What if the turkey is dry? Maybe I shouldn’t have thrown away that ball of butter in the cavity.”
“Getting rid of the butter was definitely the right choice. Do you want us all to have heart problems?” Rick laughed. “I like how you snuck it out of the turkey and into the trash this morning without your mom finding out.” The ball of butter was a surprise encounter when Rick helped me wash the turkey. It was the one moment I didn’t give the verbal play-by-play to Mother. I was afraid she would advise leaving the butter in the bird.
“Inserting a wad of saturated fat is a strange thing to do to a turkey, since it’s such a healthy meat, otherwise. But I sure hope we don’t end up with dry turkey.”
After our walk, activity rushed a bit more toward the culmination of our festive meal. At one point, while I slipped in sweet potatoes and obsessively checked the meat thermometer, Mother reminded me, “Every time you open that door, you’re letting the oven cool.” I curtailed my fretful watchfulness for a while by setting the table with the fine china and good silverware.
The turkey looked glorious when it came out of the oven, glistening brown and giving off the smells of every Thanksgiving since my youth. Everyone came into the kitchen to admire the bird. Even Mother walked the few paces needed to wiggle the turkey leg and pronounce it done, confirming the data from the meat thermometer.
Our family had a lot to be grateful for that Thanksgiving. The electrical cardioversion shocked my mother’s heart into normal rhythm. The turkey was as moist as ever. Our traditions, while changed in the quest to reduce saturated fat and cholesterol, were still intact at the core—we had good food, a festive table, and family to join in the celebration.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!