FOR ALL THE GOODWILL THAT surrounds the Thanksgiving feast in America, my family came to describe our experience year after year in the 1970s and 1980s with one phrase that makes us sound like a bunch of ingrates.
We dubbed Thanksgiving at Grandma Mellskog’s place “turkey through a straw.”
She was a widow by then and lived alone at a retirement home in Rockford, Ill., with a smaller nursing home wing.
But this place never smelled like Pine-Sol.
The pocket lobbies off the curving hallways included chandeliers and wing-back chairs on blue carpeted floors — all of it somehow ever resistant to dust and wear spots.
No wonder the owners named it Fairhaven.
The home also lived up to its name by feeling like Florida in late November despite the Carter administration’s energy crisis measures that called for lowering the thermostat, not cranking it.
Yet, for all this lovely senior living, the Thanksgiving spread served in the family-style dining room tasted mushy every time. This traditional meal already abounds in soft foods — from the candied yams to the cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. At Fairhaven, the fixings — including the turkey — seemed mushier still.
For this reason, the “turkey through a straw” label stuck and brought a welcome undercurrent of levity to our gathering every year with Grandma and, sometimes, with my aunt, uncle, and cousins who met us there in the middle from the other side of the state.
What matters then and now is that we sincerely appreciated her invitation to treat us to a nice dinner at the retirement home when she no longer managed her own kitchen. We wouldn’t drive 86 miles through often crummy northern Illinois winter weather for the food — even if it were a gourmet meal.
One year, just for a change, we must have put subtle pressure on Grandma Mellskog — we just called her “Nanny” — who lived at Fairhaven for two decades until her death at 95.
That Thanksgiving, if memory serves, she took us out to a nearly empty restaurant with a buffet. Honestly, the food tasted only marginally more textured and flavored, and the atmosphere was less cozy by a long shot.
So, back to Fairhaven we marched for forthcoming Thanksgiving feasts.
I use just about every pot and pan I own these days to unveil an elaborate annual Thanksgiving dinner at home here in Colorado or at my parents’ place in Illinois.
My kitchen turns into a hot mess of lots of things bubbling or baking with two or three timers ticking away the minutes to completion.
One year, though, I misread a recipe and used evaporated milk, not sweetened condensed milk, to make the pumpkin pies.
The crust turned out golden and picture perfect. Nothing about the filling looked suspicious.
But no amount of whipped cream could cover my mistake.
Though the pumpkin pies tasted like flavorless babyfood, everyone at our Thanksgiving table started eating it and kept eating it until I sat down to eat it and announced that it — whatever it was — was inedible.
Something had gone dreadfully, awfully wrong.
Pairs of eyeballs all around the long table rotated my direction at the same moment then, and all of us set down our dessert forks with relief so we could laugh and laugh. Thankfully, that handily broke the Emperor’s New Clothes-like tension at the table.
Both of these stories illustrate something meaningful to me as we close in on Thanksgiving 2016.
For as much as some of us fuss over the feast — and I am happily guilty as sin on this point as a diehard foodie — fussing over family and friends is far more important.
The first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621 celebrated harvest bounty, surely.
But who came to dinner made that gathering an enduring national holiday.
The Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians — groups as different as Republicans and Democrats, post election — made it happen.
If they can do it, so can all of us with a voting record at odds with our relatives — especially if we find a way to bring our sense of humor to the table instead of indignation or smugness.
Pam Mellskog can be reached at email@example.com or at 303-746-0942.