When people usually think about a holiday dinner, they imagine turkey, cranberry sauce, the usual staples, along with their own customized favorites, sweet potato pie, creamed onions, frozen peas. When I think of that special dinner, which I traditionally make twice a year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, I think first of one thing: olives. Black olives. The large size in the red can. Pitted of course. When I was growing up some kids put them on the ends of their fingers, but my mother never allowed that. Olives were important to me for a different reason.
I was a finicky kid. My knees were bigger around than my thighs. Getting almost any food down me took a direct threat. Usually my wolfish teenaged brother would swallow everything on my plate in one bite after he distracted my parents. Then I’d be off the hook.
Thanksgiving was a nightmare. First turkey, just sitting there a plate with nothing to disguise it. The mashed potatoes weren’t even the good, instant kind from the box, but handmade. I hated the tiny lumps my mother said she couldn’t get out. Then there was the stuffing. Soggy bread crumbs, coagulated celery, stuff even my brother couldn’t recognize. Even worse was the blood red canned cranberry sauce, the kind with the skins forming soft swords that I had to swallow. My mother said I had to put a small amount of everything on my plate. My goal was to leave as much white plate space between the foods as possible. The only thing that saved me was the olives.
My mother and her friend Jean Jones alternated cooking Thanksgiving dinner for our families. I loved the Jones’ house. Lots of old mining paraphernalia sitting on window sills and around the hearth. Darkened bedrooms that smelled like strangers. Whenever we went there, or whenever my mom cooked at our house, there was a bowl of olives set on the table to accompany the meal. When we went to the Jones’, Jean made sure the bowl was placed right next to my plate. The salty succulence made the thought of so much mystery and horror food tolerable, and it wasn’t until I put half the bowl on my plate that my mother would give me “the look”. Jean Jones would still try to sneak me more. Between that and the pumpkin pie I made it through childhood.
This last Thanksgiving I cooked my 15th turkey. I’m a pro now and I’ve grown to love every food I cook, from the stuffing to the cranberry orange bread to the baked yams. My thighs are no longer smaller around than my knees. But this last Thanksgiving, when I asked a guest to put the olives on the table, I was puzzled that she happened to put them right next to my plate. My son, almost as finicky as I was, ended up sitting on the other side of me. As everyone dished up, I helped myself to a few olives. Then he took a few. I took a couple more. Then he did. We looked at each other, then around the table. “Not that many left,” I said and he nodded, divvied up the rest between us. I took the bowl back to the kitchen. “More room on the table this way,” I said. He nodded, and on his plate put the smallest amount of sweet potato ever known to human kind.
This essay was first broadcast on the radio in 1993.
Twenty years later, my mom’s last Thanksgiving: