(this column originally posted Thanksgiving 2010)
From the time I was a little girl I deemed Thanksgiving as my all-time favorite holiday.
When I was really little it was because of the love. When I was a little older it was because of the food. When I was in high school it was because of the Twilight Zone marathon. When I was in college it was because of the alcohol. When I was married it was because of the baby growing inside my belly. And when I got divorced it was because of the freedom.
Last year it became all about sweet potatoes.
For the past seven years we have had Thanksgiving at my sister’s house and every year she let’s me know what I’m supposed to bring. For almost every one of those years I have been given sweet potatoes.
I don’t why. I never hollered out, “I love me some sweet potatoes!” I never professed to know how to cook sweet potatoes. In fact, I still don’t know the difference between a sweet potato and a yam.
But for some reason I am the sweet potato provider and I take my participation in this event very seriously. After all, when you’re given a dish over and over again you start to think, “Yeah, that’s right. Time to fire up my famous sweet potatoes, people!”
But, honestly, it’s potatoes and marshmallows. Kinda the ignored dish. The dish you give the person you think might be the least skillful in the kitchen.
So, this year I decided to get all tricked out with my dish. I went to the internet and zoned in on the most difficult, fancy, show-stopping sweet potatoes dish I could find.
Martha Stewart didn’t hold a candle to the recipe I discovered on some obscure gourmet cooking site. It required something like three days of prep, 14 hours of cooking and a little bit of prayer and meditation just to be safe.
I was up for the challenge. I was ready to make my statement. I could see it now.
“Gather around, family. This ain’t no ordinary I-suck-in-the-kitchen-and-all-I-have-to-show-for-it-is-this-lousy-sweet-potatoes-Thanksgiving-glob-that-no-one-eats-except-the-kids-and-even-they-only-scrape-off-the-marshmallows dish.”
No, this was going to be a masterpiece. One that we will be talking about for years.
Thanksgiving morning, long before Hannah was even awake, I was knee-deep in sweet potato hell. Once she was awake I was in single mom hell.
Juggling a happy daughter who just wanted to decorate and play and count down (every 20 minutes!) when it’s time for dinner while in the midst of following a recipe that I now realized was designed for master chefs and not some pathetic, divorced, unemployed, mom who should’ve just stuck to the she-doesn’t-have-a-lot-of-time-on-her-hands, money-or-help-to-make-anything-more-than-some-mashed-up-orange-stuff-with-melted-sugar-glue-on-top assignment was … a bit of a mistake.
But, I was not going to be beaten.
Somehow I managed to make Hannah breakfast, dance to a few Michael Jackson songs, draw a turkey, and get us both showered and dressed while continuing to cook my dish.
And even when it was time to head to my sister’s and I knew there was still another hour of cooking to be done on this damn thing I didn’t panic.
Transferring the whole hot platter and all the seasonings and marshmallows to the car wasn’t tricky. Driving to my sister’s at about 5 miles per hour so the dish didn’t spill wasn’t tricky. Finding room in my sister’s oven to continue to bake wasn’t tricky. In fact, it was starting to look like I was going to pull off this sweet potatoes surprise without a hitch.
It was exciting. I felt like a grown up. I felt like a cook.
It was finally time for everyone to sit and while my mom, my sister and, yes, even I began to bring out the food, the kids—at this point starving and looking a little pale from lack of nutrition—gathered around ready for their Thanksgiving feast.
My daughter proudly announced, “Wait until you see what mommy made. She’s been cooking it for days!”
Yes, the look in my girl’s face of sheer pride that this year her mommy actually made a dish worth bragging about filled my heart. And as I headed to the table holding my absolutely perfect looking sweet potatoes dish in my hands, marveling at how it looked even better than the picture on the website, I walked over to my daughter’s side to offer her the first helping.
The next four seconds are a little fuzzy.
I was standing next to my daughter, dish in hand, ready to serve, when somehow – and to this day I still don’t know how – the entire dish slid out of my hands and fell upside down onto my sister’s floor.
Everyone gasped, then silence. Hannah immediately jumped up, wrapping her arms around my waist, “Oh mommy!”
I stood there motionless, just staring at this upside-down disaster on the rug. I remember hearing a lot of “Oh, honey” and “Oh, nooo” and “Oh, I’m soooo sorry.”
I bent down and lifted the casserole dish to see exactly the extent of the damages. The entire thing was on the floor, and the marshmallows (that had been organic and slightly toasted sprinkled with cinnamon and brushed with butter) were now burning a hole into my sister’s rug.
Hannah, still by my side, put her arm around me, patting my back, “It’s OK, mommy, we’ll still eat it.” And she grabbed a spoon off the table and started to scoop a pile off the rug to put on her plate, trying to pull out strands of lint and hair along the way.
I looked at my little girl, so full of care and concern for her mommy. And then I remembered myself as a little girl and why Thanksgiving was my all-time favorite holiday. Because of the love.
I put my daughter’s spoon down and started to laugh. And then she started to laugh. And then we all started to laugh. And we couldn’t stop laughing.
And as I dumped my sweet potatoes into the trash, never having once tasted what had taken me days to make, I realized it really was the absolute best, most beautiful, show-stopping, everyone-will-remember-for-years-to-come dish after all.