I’m clutching a carving knife that is sunk deep into the voluptuous body of a butternut squash. My laptop is open in front of me, crammed into what little space is left on the precious two-and-a-half feet of countertop in my old-build Berlin apartment. My iPad, showing the recipe I’m trying to follow, teeters above the scene, a wooden spoon rigged onto it and jammed behind the coffee grinder. David Bowie is crooning at me from a speaker somewhere over my right shoulder. The woman in the YouTube video on my laptop calmly instructs me to bang the squash down hard on the counter until the knife plunges through to the other side. I do, wearily. The wine glasses on the cart next to me rattle but the knife stays put. “You might have to do it a few times,” she says as I lift the squash again and slam it back down. It splits in two with a glorious crack. I’m sweating. It’s 10:00AM on Thanksgiving Day, 2015. I have nine dishes and nine hours to go until nearly fifteen people descend on my home.
Ok this video is a about a spaghetti squash, but it’s the one I remember so obviously I had not had enough coffee.
When I was a kid, the only things my mother would let me do on Thanksgiving were peel potatoes and open the can of cranberry sauce. The potatoes made my hands feel gritty and my mom chided me for letting the skins fly everywhere, but that shiny, heavy can was my triumph. If I did it right (insert butter knife at the edges and run it the circumference of the inside of the can, the way my dad had taught me) when I tipped it over and shook, the cranberry blob would slid out and land with a gelatinous thwap into the bowl. I would reach out to finger the ridges going up and down it until my mother batted me away, rolled it onto its side and expertly cut it in into thick slices. It would become haven of sweet on a plate awash in salt and fat.
I never made “real” cranberry sauce, like from scratch, until over a decade later when I had been living in Germany for nearly two years. I learned the word for cranberries (preiselbeeren) and walked into store after store in my neighborhood, asking “Preiselbeeren?” over and over in a way I hoped didn’t betray my unpracticed accent. It may have been the first time I didn’t struggle with the German “r” that is supposed to purr low in the back of the throat, like the quiet rumble of an oncoming storm.
Thanksgiving is the holiday when I most miss being in America. Germany during Christmas is a fairyland of juniper branches and sparkling lights and roasted chestnuts at every corner, but the holiday markets don’t open until December. On Thanksgiving, winter has set in without any of the trimmings. The sky is a grey gloomy cathedral, everything chilly and damp. All the leaves from the trees cling to the sidewalk, defeated and slick. I find remnants of their crumpled bodies in my apartment until May. No one discusses what they’re grateful for, unless they have an upcoming trip to Thailand.
This year, I am determined to wrestle Thanksgiving into being myself, with my own two hands, both of which are now cramping from scraping out the innards of the giant squash with an insufficiently-sized spoon.
I’m usually not picky when it comes to food, but Thanksgiving is different. There are tastes I want to taste on this day because I don’t get to taste them any other day of the year. I want spires of creamy mashed potatoes canoodling with creamed corn. I want pillowy stuffing, tumbled through with onions and herbs. I want tart and spicy cranberry sauce tickling the corners of everything on my plate. I want something that can declare itself A Casserole, or at the very least, baked mac and cheese. I want my own family’s tradition, Mama Chippy’s Broccoli Salad. I want a perfect wedge of pie crowned with whipped cream.
Because I can take or leave turkey, and my friend group is swarmed with vegetarians, the now-disemboweled squash in front of me is the foundation of the main dish I valiantly decided to take on instead of buying a Tofurky at the vegan store and calling it a day: a Vegducken. It’s a much less offensive version of the infamous Turkducken, and instead of various fowl stuffed inside one another, it’s a zucchini tucked inside of an eggplant, tucked inside of a butternut squash and layered generously with a stuffing made from each one’s the hollowed-out insides, then washed with more maple butter than you can shake a Canadian at.
The night before, my girlfriend, with whom I shared this kitchen and apartment and the better part of my time in Berlin, had gone with me to round up all the vegetables I needed for the meal. This, despite the fact that I had recently admitted to having an affair with an Australian man while away at a conference, and worse did not entirely regret it, and even worse was still talking to him. She was not shocked when I told her, but her face remained still, her eyes blinking owl-like behind her glasses again and again, my hands open and face-up on my legs in between us on the couch. She handled the blow with an alien sort of grace in the days that followed. But then in that small Turkish grocery store near our apartment, when I began introducing the eggplant lecherously to the zucchini, she winced. What made me wince most, crumble really, was that after nearly six years of dating exclusively women, it was a man that felled me. How his hands on me felt like an unleashing, a summoning of electricity down from the sky.
Putting the squash back together with all of the fixings inside is impossible. The zucchini is too curved, the eggplant too straight. The stuffing oozes out of the sides. I am supposed to create two perfect, mirrored halves, then match them together and tie the whole thing neatly up with twine. Nothing matches. The half I put on top slides off petulantly and rubs itself on the counter like a giant snail.
I start bargaining with it, out loud. “Oh come on, it’s ok! Don’t you want to go back together? It’ll be nice, you’ll see, and then you get to pop into the warm oven…” I press the whole thing back together and then wedge it between my elbow and rib cage as a I fumbled with the twine. I try not to think too much about the bodies of others pressed up against me. The twine is just enough to keep it tentatively in place as I balance it on a huge sheet of tinfoil, begin wrapping and wrapping its bulbous form in layers until it resembles an oversized burrito. I place it on the baking sheet, prop it up with two bread pans and survey my work.
That’s when I notice the forlorn bowl of maple butter that I’ve carefully reduced with rosemary, strained through a coffee filter. It is supposed to be coating the entirety of the squash. Next to it is the scallion bunch that’s supposed to be ceremonially tucked between the two halves before they’re closed. I close my eyes, take a deep breath and allow myself a single “MOTHER FUCKER” before I start peeling back the layers of tinfoil. The second time around, I’ve learned the squash’s tricks. When it is safely taking up the whole of my small oven, I sit down on the red vinyl floor that will never get clean enough to watch it through the oven door. I look up and around the kitchen from my new vantage point.
It will still be weeks before I will decide to move out, and months before I’ll gather everything into boxes, carry them one by one down the stairs. But I’m already casting around the apartment with appraising eyes, taking inventory. Almost everything in the kitchen is hers. I have a few mugs, my Mickey Mouse spatula, the blender. A Chemex. I remember how she set the small table with candles the night I moved in, after we dragged my stuff out of a friend’s basement, into a rented truck, and up the five flights of stairs, and we sat there, sweaty, eating delivered pizza. How we smiled wide at each other in the flickering glow over the tiramisu she’d gotten as a surprise for dessert. How we labored to make the apartment feel like ours together, room by room, but something lingered I could not shake away, cobwebs, a feeling that starts in the palms and then spreads.
I get up off the floor, reach for a long, heavy leek and a cutting board and my favorite knife, its weight in my palm like an amulet. I feel like a stranger in my own life, but I have seven hours and eight dishes left. There is work to be done.
I chop the leek, harder than necessary, reduce it to the “half-moons” the recipe calls for. I am heavy-handed with the olive oil, pour it in generous pools into the pan. I tear up the thyme, pick tiny sage leaves from the only plant left alive on my window sill. I manage to wedge a baking sheet of bread pieces into the oven over the Vegducken. I peel potatoes vigorously, letting the skins fly. I mash cloves and cloves of garlic with a thump of my palm, dice them into imperfect pieces. I boil water in multiple pots, dump potatoes and sweet potatoes and cavatappi noodles into each one. I measure out piles of flour, fold in cold butter and water and vodka, mold it all together with my hands, try not to think about skin, or faces mashed against faces. I wrap it in plastic, toss it into the fridge to chill.
I cleave a whole head of broccoli in two, divide the stems from the top, wonder what it’s called — a bush? A tree? How does broccoli grow? — chop it into tiny pieces, throw it into a bowl. Chopped walnuts follow it, and then purple onion pieces, then Craisins. I set it aside. The potatoes are the only thing I don’t need a recipe for, just mash them gleefully, pour in almond milk and olive oil and garlic and more garlic. Stop, taste, add Herbs de Provence. Drain the pasta, set it aside. I’m running out of bowls. I rescue the nearly too-brown bread pieces, dump them into a roasting pan, balance it precariously on a low padded stool. There is something spread across every surface, the table, the chairs, the floor. I am dancing among them all on tiptoe, apologizing when I knock something with my elbow or ankle. Flour coats every surface, light as the first snow of the year.
When it has gone dark out the window, I double my pace. Grate cheddar cheese and gouda cheese and emmenthaler for balance. Heat the milk on the stove, check it obsessively for the steam tendrils that mean it’s ready to become a roux. I roll out the pie crust with the full bottle of wine I haven’t had time to open. David Bowie is on his fifth go-round at least. I stir steaming cranberries with one hand, test the sweet potatoes with a fork. I try not to lose it over not being able to find the second piece of the immersion blender. I haven’t eaten all day, and I have to move two mixing bowls and a baking sheet to free the stool and go rooting around in the top shelf of the highest cabinet. Tupperware tumbles out all around me and I plead with it to stay put. The timer goes off. Something on the stove gurgles like a furious swamp. The kitchen is hot with food and smells and the red floor makes it feel like the room is glowing from within.
The door buzzer goes and I leave a smudge of raw egg on the button when I press it, open the door. As soon as I hear footsteps I start shouting, “Babe I need you to get all the shit out of the living room and set up the candles, I still haven’t gotten dressed and—” but it’s not my girlfriend, it’s the first guest. She’s grinning at me and holding up a six pack of beer.
“It smells amazing! What can I do?”
My frantic solitude is broken. I’m at a loss. “You can, um…”
“Open a bottle of wine?”
“Taste the cheese sauce with me!”
When my girlfriend does arrive, full of apologies and laden with wine, I am in a full panic. I snap at her, rattle off a list of things I need her to do so I can put on some clothes and some makeup and try to brush the flour and potato bits out of my hair. She is normally the calm center to my frenzy, but today she just says, “Ok, ok,” and moves away from me, pushing her sleeves back from her tattooed wrists. My whole body tightens at her, but when I emerge from the bathroom everything is in place, a large green salad is made, the last items are being pulled from the oven.
And then, as if a dam has broken, the apartment is full of people. We carry plates and and pans and dishes and every piece of silverware we can find into the living room, some of it still wet from the hasty washing I’ve just given it. I drown a glass of wine. We have foregone a big long table in favor of more guests, in favor of everyone sitting where they want, in favor of cozy. When the Vegducken comes out, everyone ooohs and aahs, kids at a magic show. I insist that my girlfriend be the one to “carve” it, and we pass it out, piece by piece. The Americans in the room give loud, overlapping retellings of what we learned in school as The Story of Thanksgiving, and what we now know to be true. The Canadians in attendance join in.
“These are tastes that I have never tasted all together,” someone says and two others agree enthusiastically in German. There’s a point where everyone falls silent, and the only sounds become forks on plates and Puff Daddy on the stereo. “If it’s your first Thanksgiving, raise your hand!” I demand, holding up a bottle of wine, and we have two at least. I want to make everyone say what they’re grateful for but I am overcome with a welling in my chest, with a longing for something I can’t name, with a sense of the community I have and, for a moment, wonder if I deserve. The door buzzes again, and latecomers arrive with cold pink faces. Two more bottles of wine are opened. The pie is in the oven, and before my girlfriend goes to make coffee, she puts her hand on my shoulder.
“Good job babe,” she says.
“Is the Vegducken ok?”
“Yes, it’s great.”
“Will you check on the pie? It should have a structured wiggle, not a wobbly wiggle.”
“I will check on the pie.” I must look worried because she adds, “It will be great. Everything is really good.”
“But I don’t want it to be just really good. I want it to be a triumph.”
“Oh-kay,” she says, in the way she does when she knows that I know I’m being ridiculous, but will placate me anyway. “It is a triumph. Have more wine.”