I should have known when the word "pepperoni" crept into the conversation that the future of our family Thanksgiving dinner was not looking up.
I suppose that to some people, making changes to this time-honored meal might seem like no big deal, but to me it is a very big deal. In fact, it's no less unnerving than receiving notice that henceforth the "Hallelujah Chorus" will be played on a kazoo. Some things just shouldn't be tampered with, and Thanksgiving dinner is one of them.
That's because in my family we always prepare the same meal every Thanksgiving, and I do mean the exact same meal. As far as we're concerned, there is one menu and one menu only, and not once in 75 years has anybody ever dared to change it. We don't tinker with it. We don't experiment with it. We don't even accept outside contributions. When guests join us for the holiday and offer to bring a dish, we politely decline. The truth is we don't want their okra muffins. Nor do we want their sweet-and-sour oysters, or their jalapeno-rhubarb pan dowdy. Our Thanksgiving menu is sacred and nobody messes with it. Or at least nobody did until now.
Here it is, just a few days away from the holiday, and I'm on the phone with my daughter. Thirty-three and married with a family of her own, she has invited her in-laws over for Thanksgiving dinner, and because we live hundreds of miles apart, I won't be there to help out in person. So, like any self-respecting mother, I'm doing what I do best – running her life long-distance.
"So did you get the shopping list and the to-do list in countdown format that I e-mailed yesterday?" I ask.
"Yeah, I got it. I'm surprised you left off what time I'm supposed to go to the bathroom."
"OK, so I got a little carried away on the details," I explain. "It's just that preparing a meal like this is a big undertaking, and I'm trying to save you a little time. Speaking of which, don't tell anyone I told you this," I lower my voice to a whisper, "but you could serve canned sweet potatoes instead of real ones, and nobody would know the difference."
"I've got news for you, Mom," she replies flatly, "you could serve a big pile of dog doo instead of sweet potatoes, and nobody would know the difference."
Her remark stings me a little, but I choose to ignore it. "Well, if you don't like the sweet potatoes, I suppose you could leave them out since you're also having plain mashed potatoes."
"I'm not serving plain ones either."
My breath catches in my throat. Did I hear her correctly? No potatoes? This can't be happening! I try to compose myself before going on. "I guess that's all right. Of course, it means you'll need to make an extra large batch of cornbread dressing."
"Actually I'm skipping the dressing too," she says. "Never was a big fan."
I hear a distinct whirring sound. It's four generations of my ancestors, spinning in their graves. "Sweetheart, if you don't make dressing, what are you going to put that wonderful giblet gravy on?"
"Mom, do you know how many fat calories there are in a single spoonful of gravy? Besides," she adds curtly, "I know this will come as a shock to you, but not everyone wants to eat something that has body parts floating around in it."
"Giblets are not body parts, they're ... well, they're livers and gizzards and hearts and..."
"Like I said. Body parts. I am not serving something gross like that to my mother-in-law."
"So let me get this straight," I say. "You're hosting Thanksgiving dinner for 12 people, but you're not serving sweet potatoes, or mashed potatoes, or cornbread dressing, or giblet gravy?" I add tersely, "Next you'll be telling me you've decided not to serve turkey either!"
There's a long pause on her end, and I don't like the sound of it. As I wait for her response, I struggle to envision my daughter in the early light of dawn, armed only with a paring knife and a pair of safety goggles, squaring off against a half-frozen turkey that weighs as much as she does (only the turkey has fuller thighs). Try as I may, it's a picture I can't get clear in my mind.
"As a matter of fact," she replies, "I was thinking we'd just order a pizza."
So there you have it. After valiantly weathering 75 years of drought, pestilence, floods, tornadoes, the Great Depression, wartime rations, televised football and TV dinners, our family Thanksgiving menu has finally run up against a force it cannot overcome. A picky eater.
Somewhere, off in the distance, the kazoos are already warming up.