Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Blame it on the rutabaga: A Thanksgiving reflection

Photo by karenwithak

If I'm defeated by a rutabaga this Thanksgiving ... so help me God.

I'm standing in the supermarket produce aisle at 10:30 pm on a rainy Tuesday before Thanksgiving because frantic holiday shoppers make me misanthropic, so I'm choosing to lose sleep than murder a dawdling old lady with my shopping cart.

I'm tired, and I'm damp, and I'm cranky. But I have only one item left on my list: rutabaga. And then I'm home-free, ready to rock and roll, all set for Thanksgivingpaloozafest '09.

Except for one problem. I don't know what a rutabaga looks like. I've never grown, cooked, or tasted one. I'm not even sure which section of the produce aisle to hit. (It is produce, right?)

All I know is that this rutabaga has a bounty on its head. Its fate lies in my cornbread dressing, and I am NOT leaving this store without the mystery root vegetable locked in my grubby fist.

You can run, rutabaga. But you can't hide. Not from a first-time holiday hostess.

Oh, I've done plenty of dinner parties -- many a successful feast with good home cooking and candle arrangements and even an artistically placed napkin setting on occasion. But this is big. This is a HOLIDAY. It has expectations attached.

I mean, the Pilgrims and Indians managed to get along on this day, so I have to hit at least an equal level of satisfaction. Because if guests don't walk away happy from Thanksgiving, I haven't ruined their night -- I've ruined their year.

Just consider all the moving pieces for Turkey Day. First, the menu. You must plan a variety of dishes that complement one another in flavors, textures, colors, nutrition, and preparation timing. God forbid you have a food allergy in the mix -- your head might explode.

Then the turkey is in a class by itself -- the poultry personification of peer pressure. An imperfect bird signals your inability to provide for your family. So tent it, marinate it, deep-fry it, brine it, make it out of tofu, just don't dry it out. In fact, do everything to that bird but wring its neck yourself. And even that you should handle if you get the opportunity.

Then comes meal execution, where you purchase ingredients (ahem, rutabaga), cook the food, serve the dinner, clear the table, clean the kitchen, and have Poison Control on standby just in case the time-honored family mashed potatoes recipe is sending everyone to the family plot in your less-than-capable hands. (Though according to my Betty Crocker cookbook and episodes of Mad Men, it appears I can salvage any situation with a well-made highball.)

Oh, and let's not forget the hosting. What time is everyone arriving? Where are they sleeping? Have you dusted? Vacuumed? Wiped the banisters? Changed the hand towels? Refilled toiler paper? Made enough ice? Hidden the vibrat -- I mean ... um ... moving on.

But here's the kicker element: guest dynamics. For my first holiday I'm hosting the long-held parents and the newly minted fella. Which leads to such agitating trains of thought as, "Will Dad wear pajamas under his robe? Will Mom take her bra off in front of Fella? Oh god, is Fella allergic to rutabagas? I don't even know! I'm a terrible girlfriend! I DON'T DESERVE LOVE!"

The stress is enough to make a girl go food-shopping at 10:30 p.m. Oh wait. It did. I am.

It makes me wonder how people who never cook or clean or have civil conversations with their families survive these ordeals. Because I love cooking and hosting and visiting and ensuring hygienic living spaces, and even I'm overwhelmed by the societal pressures of a holiday feast.

I blame it on the rutabaga. Damn you, rutabaga. Damn you.

I can't hold out any longer. I have to do what I never do at the grocery story, my second home: ask for help. So I head over to the nearest employee, who is stocking shelves with unnatural vigor given the hour.

Me: "Excuse me, what are -- I mean, where are the rutabagas?"

Employee: "I don't know. Why don't you tell me why you're masquerading as a capable, sophisticated hostess with refined tastes and savoir faire, when all you're really capable of is Easy Mac mixed with tuna, and that's on a good day?"

Me: "Wait ... what?"

Employee: "Near the carrots, next to the turnips."

I go to the carrot section. I see a pile of strange vegetables poking out from behind the parsnips, looking part-turnip, part-Ernest Borgnine. I pick one up and hold it out to the store clerk.

Me: "Is this the rutabaga?"

Employee: "GOD. YES. Get out of my STORE, you shameless poser!"

Me: "Wait ... what?"

Employee: "Yep, you got it."

I nod, half-smile, and look down at the rutabaga. It's rougher than I expected. Some dirt sprinkles onto my hand.

I expected to feel more triumph in this moment. But now that I've made my conquest, I simply feel ... relief. Good. I don't have to go to another store. I have everything I need for my menu. And for the first time, I believe I can master this holiday, one root vegetable at a time.

That is, as soon as I figure out how to peel a rutabaga.

***

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Here's a prayer for your own feasts (and preparation thereof).

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