Empty Without Stuffing
Ugh, two bummer posts about my dead sister in a row. But I can’t help it. I think of her constantly in November. We weren’t really all that close, so there can be weeks at a stretch that I don’t think of her, where I can almost pretend that she’s not dead; she’s just in Florida and in a phase of drunkenly calling my cousins or my uncle instead of me. But then November rolls around, and it’s her birthday and the anniversary of the last time I saw her and Thanksgiving, boom boom boom. Of those, Thanksgiving is the roughest. She always called me just before Thanksgiving.
One of the better Thanksgivings I’ve ever had was when I was still in high school. I think I was a junior, right at the age where having adult responsibilities was exhilarating rather than burdensome. (“Driving?” I thought back then. “I love driving. I would love nothing better, friend, than to drive you home to the West Bank or New Orleans East.” Now, of course, driving and the attendant car maintenance make up one of the biggest time sucks/petty annoyances of my life.) Anyway, I was old enough to be tasked with helping my mom cook some of the Thanksgiving meal and young enough to be really pumped about doing it.
My mom and I usually piggy-backed on to someone else’s Thanksgiving because we didn’t have family in town and didn’t like the family we had out of town enough to travel to see them, and Thanksgiving for just two people is pointless. But this particular year, we decided to host our own dinner and invite our friends. We called it the Dysfunctional Family After Party, and although we made the basic Thanksgiving dinner staples, we emphasized desserts and drinks, so that people could stop by after eating with their families, have a sampling of pies, drink a cocktail or two and bitch about their relatives. It was great.
My sister, Ashley, was living in town that Thanksgiving (hm, so this must have been my senior year because Thanksgiving my junior year was when my sister brought a boyfriend to dinner, and he ran off with my stepmom, thus breaking my sister’s heart and ending my dad’s fourth marriage), and she ate dinner with us. Food was one thing my sister could talk about with confidence. She liked to talk politics but wasn’t quite savvy enough to argue her points effectively. She wasn’t much of a reader, she followed soap operas but not pop culture, and she loved the Saints but didn’t entirely understand the game. Conversation with her could be challenging. But food. Food was common ground for us, and she knew her stuff. She and I, like most New Orleanians, could burn up hours debating the best roast beef poor boys (actually, we both agreed that it was R&O’s, but we still spent hours discussing why we were right and everyone who thought Parkway was wrong) or the No. 4 (her pick) versus the No. 6 (my pick) at Bud’s Broiler or the merits of okra over filé in gumbo.
And so Ashley came to Thanksgiving that year, and she and my mom (her former stepmother) and I cooked and ate and talked and talked and talked about food. This was when the Food Network was in its infancy, so we discussed that a little bit, and we rehashed Ashley’s waitressing career at Brennan’s (she couldn’t even look at bananas anymore, she claimed), and we discussed recipes and restaurants, and it was all very pleasant. There was, of course, a ton of food. Ashley made deviled eggs, which were very good, and she raved about my stuffing, and we both fawned all over my mom for her oyster-and-artichoke soup and yeast rolls.
That was the last Thanksgiving we spent together. Ashley moved back to Florida that next spring, and I moved to Missouri that next summer, and in the remaining 12 Thanksgivings she had left, we never again shared the holiday. But she would still call me, like clockwork, every Monday before Thanksgiving and demand to know my stuffing recipe. “That one year I ate with you and your mom, you made the best stuffing,” she would always say. “It was the best I ever had. What did you do?"
And every year, I would respond: “Oh, God, it was nothing special. It’s just onions and celery sautéed in butter. Mix it with some bread you dried out in the oven. Add some chicken broth and sage, and bake it outside of the turkey at, like, 350 for 45 minutes.”
And she would always say, “That’s what I do, but it never comes out as good as yours did that one time.”
Sometimes, when I replay our last-ever visit over in my head, I wish I had cooked her stuffing instead of trying to show off and cooking veal piccata. It wouldn’t have mattered; she couldn’t really eat by that point anyway. But I still wish I had done it.
I got through her birthday OK this year. It was this past Saturday, and I did absolutely nothing special to mark it. My dad came over briefly and said, “So you know what day it is?” And I said, “Yeah.”
It is, as I wrote, the same conversation we have every year now. It has taken the place of the “how do you make your stuffing” conversation that she and I used to have every November. In a family that is pretty low on traditions and rituals, I feel the loss of our Thanksgiving recipe exchange pretty acutely. I can sometimes pretend, maybe, that she is still alive and we’re just out of touch, but no matter how long it had been since we’d talked, no matter how angry or hurt she was about real or imagined slights against her, she always, always called me to ask me how to make stuffing.
It might have started, I can see now, as a way for her to make her awkward teenaged sister feel better about her first attempt at cooking for Thanksgiving. After all, as I said, my sister was no slouch in the kitchen, and I’m sure she could make a simple sage-and-onion stuffing. At the time, though, with the ego of late adolescence, that didn’t occur to me. I really thought she needed me to give her the recipe. And by the end of it, I think she just enjoyed the ritual as much as I did, and she took comfort in remembering one of the few Thanksgivings we spent together as sisters.
I don’t have an answer as to what to do on her birthday. I am still searching for that. But this year, I know how I am going to include her in Thanksgiving: I am going to pull a chair up to the counter in my kitchen and teach Ruby how to make “Aunt Ashley’s Stuffing.”