Write what you know the old adage goes.
That is good advice, and as I do know a few things, here is where I will write about them. For instance, I know that raisins are an utter disappointment for anyone who was expecting chocolate chips. I know that a budding clarinet player has the unique ability to call down wild geese right out of the sky. And I know that the morning you finally decide to water your dying lawn, it will rain all afternoon and evening, even though it hasn’t rained a drop for an entire three week stretch.
But I also know this:
If a certain type of Thanksgiving Jello-salad has earned itself a nickname, then it’s best to not eat it.
Before I explain this, let me give you some background on my childhood Thanksgivings. Thanksgiving was a huge affair in our family. It wasn’t very often we gathered the extended kinsfolk together. Relatives drove for multiple hours, all to meet up in the elite and affluent neighborhood where my Aunt and Uncle lived.
The entire lot of us arrived in formal attire and invaded their house for the full length of the day. We ate appetizers off silver trays and exotic nuts out of crystal bowls that were strategically placed throughout the house. Adults laughed and sipped Bloody Marys and knocked-back expensive beers while the wine chilled outside in ice buckets.
To this day I cannot smell any beer without thinking of my uncles with their khaki pants and sweater vests, warm smiles and Heineken bottles.
The cousins and I would remove our dress shoes and run and slide down the long wooden hallway in our socks and tights. We girls twirled in our long dresses, while the boys played Foosball and tugged at their ties.
Although blood related, this entire side of the family outclassed us in nearly every sense. It was not uncommon for my aunt to rent linens, silverware and table accessories that might have come directly from Martha Stewart’s own house. Large tables were set up in the “library” and placed atop a dazzling white fur rug. My aunt threatened to cut off our heads if we spilled even a drop of cranberry sauce, so the children sat at the end of the room, further away from the adults and all the interesting conversation.
Not only was the turkey roasted and carved in grand splendor, fancy dishes were passed down the table while soft candlelight flickered in the dim room and our food gleamed on top of our china plates. Everything was delectable. The tables carried every available food accessory down to the last detail; gherkins, olives, butters and giblet gravy, sauces of all kinds, cloth napkins and fresh rolls. Grown ups chatted and laughed and sipped their wine while a fire roared quietly in the lovely brick fireplace behind the table. Cider popped and fizzled from the bottles. Cousins giggled and told jokes. It was enough grandeur for the royal family.
Except for one thing.
Next to each place setting, was a perfectly square piece of jello salad. It was a layer of shiny, thick, translucent gelatin (probably dyed red from the blood of naked mole rats), with a bottom layer of chunky maggot paste and toenails masquerading as whipped cream and nuts. This was all cheerfully served atop a romaine lettuce leaf on a small fine-china plate.
Even the adults called it that and still do.
Year after year the cousins and I sat and wondered who would be the first to cave in and eat the Red Death, in order to be excused from the table and earn dessert. It was a death match. Kids vs the jello salad from Hell. And Hell won each and every time.
One year in particular, a pact was made, as we sat at the end of the kid table, buttering our rolls and pretending we didn’t just smudge Martha’s table linen with cranberry sauce. With quiet whispers we all agreed that nobody would eat the Red Death, no matter what the threat. The parents sitting up yonder, sopping up gravy and knocking back Budweisers, could just deal with the fact that when dinner ended, Red Death would remain next to each of our plates, untouched. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, fools. It was a brilliant plan and we soared through the first rounds of competition with ease.
Time passed and eventually we were outwitted by my Aunt, who shrewdly and loudly announced “I’ll pay $5 to anyone who eats their enire jello salad.”
My brother (Uncle Fun) and I exchanged solemn looks. Was she serious? Five whole dollars just for a brief encounter with the Red Death? Now there’s a deal. After all, we only had to eat it once a year. Being that Uncle Fun and I were broke, rednecky children, anytime cold hard cash was offered for something as mediocre as food bribery, we were sure to take it.
So we caved.
On that cold dark Thanksgiving night, as candles flickered and sparkling cider gleamed in our goblets; as we endured jaw-dropping glares from our fellow comrades, we broke the unified resolve in the war against poison. Bite by bite, with the last shreds of our dignity and determination fading, we solemnly collected that money with outstretched hands and upset stomachs.
There are fond memories that spring to my mind as I think back to my childhood, especially after flipping through old family photographs that have been worn around the corners and grayed over the decades; the family photos that were taken in front of my aunt’s fireplace as we stood in 1980’s formal wear. To this day I want to breathe into a bag when I look back at how horrifically my bangs were cut and how I wore a plaid pleated skirt with a red sweater covered in 100 white sheep, and one black one. We stood together and smiled while a friendly uncle snapped multiple photographs for our album.
I know a few things.
I know I will never cut my daughters’ bangs myself. I know cannot possibly duplicate the giblet gravy, because I’m convinced even the cooks themselves didn’t fully realize what went in there. And I know I will never be able to replicate the elegance and splendor that Thanksgiving brought each and every year.
And I know this:
Thanksgiving runs just fine without serving jello salad.