By Dr. Constantina Michalos
The day after Halloween, Christmas wreaths decorated a shopping center near my home. I was appalled – again – dismayed that Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, had disappeared beneath a pile of candy wrappers and tinsel. The push for Christmas begins in July, tormenting little kids for months when they don’t understand how long a day is let along how far away December is, making me want to throttle that little drummer boy before he ever makes it to Bethlehem. In Washington Heights, where I grew up, the Christmas lights magically appeared the day after Thanksgiving, after Santa had made his way to Herald Square in his spectacular sleigh. Every holiday was special in our house, but Thanksgiving is quintessentially American, and my immigrant parents celebrated it with a sense of pride and gratitude for what this country had given them. My mother shopped for days. The turkey was enormous, just in case the Pilgrims joined us. The menu was all-American – no dolmades or spanakopita today. Though she was a master of all things Greek and sweet, my mother didn’t bake pies. Instead, she bought boxes and boxes of pumpkin, apple and coconut custard from the Horn & Hardart and stacked them on my window sill to keep them cool and fresh. Fruit cocktail, tomato juice, Brussels sprouts, turnips for my sister Sybil, cranberry sauce that retained the shape of the can it came in, and the best candied yams in the whole wide world.
I stood right next to my father as he melted a stick of butter in a cast-iron skillet, poured in a cup of sugar and a cup of Karo syrup, and slowly stirred this magic potion. When the consistency was sufficiently goopy, he gently ladled sliced yams into this sweet bath. My job – to even off the yams by snapping off any stray pieces of candy as he placed the finished potatoes on a serving platter.
My mother did make a yemisi, but it never saw the inside of the turkey. And it felt more Greek than 1st Thanksgivingish. I guess she just couldn’t resist:
1 chopped onion sautéed in butter. Add 1lb, chopped meat. Brown and then turn off the heat. Add raisins, pignolia nuts, chopped chestnuts, cinnamon and a little sugar. Add about 4 glasses of turkey juice. When boiling, add 2 glasses of rice, salt and pepper.
The whole apartment smelled of cinnamon, and there was plenty of yemisi for care packages and leftovers. That was probably the best part of Thanksgiving – eating obscene amounts of incredibly delicious food, clearing the table, and then coming back for more. And after a few weeks – after my father’s nameday and my sister’s birthday – then we decorated for Christmas!