Menu Fantasies

I’m in my excited Thanksgiving planning phase, which will soon give way to reality.

One of my favorite books ever is “The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx. It has a strong journalism plotline, which is obviously appealing to me, but more than that, I just love how evocative it is and how Proulx plays with language.

There are several parts of it I quote – or at least think of – frequently, and every year at Thanksgiving, I’m reminded of this exchange:

“Did you get the lobsters?”

“Got them from Lud Young. He kept shoving extras in the basket like they were lifesavers. Tried to pay for them but he wouldn’t take it.”

“Season will be over pretty soon, we might as well eat ‘em while we can get ‘em. If he wants to give lobster to you, take them. I remember the Youngs from the old days. Hair hanging down in their eyes. You know, the thing that’s best,” said the aunt, “is the fish here. Wait until the snow crab comes in. Sweetest meat in the world. Now, how do we want to do these lobsters?”


“Yes, well. We haven’t had a nice lobster chowder for a while. And there’s advantages to that.” She looked toward the other room where Bunny was hammering. “We won’t have to hear that screeching about ‘red spiders’ and fix her a bowl of cereal. Or I could boil them and pull out all the meat and make lobster rolls. Or how about crêpes rolled up with the meat in a cream sauce inside?”

Quoyle’s mouth was watering. It was the aunt’s old trick, to reel out the names of succulent dishes, then retreat to the simplest dish. …

“Lobster salad is nice, too, but maybe a little light for supper. You know, there’s a way Warren and I used to have it at The Fair Weather Inn on Long Island. The tail meat soaked in saki then cooked with bamboo shoots and water chestnuts and piled into the shells and baked. There was a hot sauce that was out of this world. I can’t get any of those things here. Of course, if we had some shrimp and crabmeat and scallops I could make stuffed lobster tails-same idea, but with white wine and Parmesan cheese. If I could get white wine and Parmesan.”

“I bought cheese. Not Parmesan. It’s just cheese. Cheddar.”

“Well that settles it. Lobster pie.” 

I do this same dance every year. I reel off all the things I might want to make at the holidays – lemon-cranberry tart, brown butter sage rolls, beet salad, corn pudding, roast squash, oyster-artichoke soup, homemade chicken pot pie, things that sound delicious but are too ambitious/time-consuming for me to tackle during the rest of the year. 

And then, not 100 percent of the time but probably 78 percent of the time, I resort to my old standbys, which are often informed by what we have on hand because I hate leaving my house in the late fall and winter. 

Thanksgiving is always pumpkin-and-black bean soup, turkey, sage-and-onion stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes mashed with bourbon, cranberry-orange relish, and two pies (usually cherry and pumpkin).

However impressive my imaginary menu might be at this point in time (10 days or so out), everyone in my family already knows what we are having. They’ll humor me. They’ll send me recipes they want me to try; they’ll offer feedback on recipes I show them. But we all know, at this point, that it’s all theatre. 

I branch out a bit more for Christmas and New Year’s – one year, I got on a massive bread-baking kick and dropped off rosemary bread to friends all over the city; another year, my husband and I made vats of lemon curd and dozens of shortbread cookies – but mostly, I end up watching reruns of Cold Case instead of brining and braising as planned.

And of course, just like Bunny in the passage above, no matter how good or bad what I make is, Georgia most likely will end up eating a bowl of cereal.

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