I know how you're supposed to celebrate Thanksgiving. Eat while it's still light outside, watch football, pass out, wake up at 4 a.m., go to Wal-Mart.
That was never my experience. Growing up with Indian parents and no siblings, our family gathered en masse with others like us -- relatively recent immigrants who preferred garam masala to green bean casserole and their American-born children who just wanted a drumstick with a scoop of mashed potatoes.
By the time I was 10, a compromise had been established: one family would host the gathering of 30 some odd people and roast a turkey. Everyone else would bring sides, pot-luck style. Over the years, these have ranged from the logical and delicious -- casseroles, gratins, nut breads, roasted root vegetables -- to the completely incongruous -- frozen manicotti. But as long the turkey was there, even if over-cooking rendered it dry and tasteless, we kids were happy.
One year, the usual gathering was put on hiatus. The host family was busy with upcoming marriages and babies, and no one else was able to accommodate the whole group. Alternate plans were made. My parents and I ended up with one of my mom's friends from the Hindu temple near our hometown.
Let me preface what follows with the disclaimer that I was a sophomore in college during this fateful Thanksgiving. I lived off dining hall salads, Special K, and soy chips. I had been looking forward to a proper sit down meal for weeks, even if "proper" meant frozen manicotti and leathery breast meat.
We arrived at our adoptive Thanksgiving to a bowl of salted cashew nuts, a far cry from the trays of homemade cheesy bread that traditionally kicked off the annual eat till it hurts to wear pants a-thon. But hey, who complains about salted nuts? They went down easy with wine and, I reasoned, would free up my stomach for more of the good stuff later.
Later. Later, later, later. It was 9 p.m. before dinner was served. I was accustomed to a 5 p.m. Thanksgiving start time. Six, even. Who cared if most of the eastern seaboard was in a food coma by then? But I was ready to rip into the couch cushions and start gnawing on the upholstery by the time we sat down to dinner. Suffice is to say my expectations were high.
I barely registered the sides that lined the table. There was a big, oval opening at its center, a clearing for a bird that would no doubt summon a ray of light from the heavens when placed in its final resting spot. I perched on the edge of my seat.
Our lovely host strode into the dining room and rang out, "OK, here's the turkey!" She held a sterling silver platter. On it was a giant head of cauliflower.
Cauliflower. It appeared to have been roasted. It was the color of … roasted cauliflower. There were some green things surrounding it. Surely, she was joking. Or perhaps this was the "turkey" for the vegetarians. She and my mom had never eaten meat.
But then everyone began helping themselves and digging in. Our host bent over and started hacking the cauliflower to bits. No more trips to the oven. Nothing to check on in there. She plated up piece after piece, calling out, "Who wants some turkey?"
It's one thing to serve a large vegetable at Thanksgiving because you don't eat meat. It's another to call that vegetable a turkey when any rational being could see that it was not.
I looked desperately at my mom and dad. Mom was thrilled about the "turkey" she could finally eat. Dad thought the whole thing was hilarious. There was nothing to do but hold my plate out and take part in this Twilight zone-level theater of the absurd. Cauliflower. An insult to turkeys everywhere.
In the car on the way home, I made my parents promise that we would never return to that house for Thanksgiving. They obliged. The next year, and for many following, we returned to our safe, tryptophan-filled party. While I'd like to say that I relished the hunks of rosemary-scented muscle and fat festooned with globs of gravy, I'm not going to lie. I actually kind of hate turkey and always have. It was the principle of the thing.
I suppose I should be happy that my "worst Thanksgiving ever" involves cauliflower and not glass-breaking hysterics or worse. I am. I'm thankful to have been surrounded by loved ones on every Thanksgiving I can remember. And I can't blame my family friend, whom I adore, for not making me a bird that she didn't want to eat.
Nevertheless, since then, I've taken a proactive stance on what appears on the Thanksgiving table, whether it's my own or not (future hosts, be warned). This year, I'm cooking at my in-law's. Items likely to appear on the menu include brussel sprouts, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes, a chicken, and maybe a leg of lamb. But no cauliflower. There will not be any cauliflower.