Cross-posted on The Bilerico Project.
We’re in a cabin somewhere in Virginia with C’s extended family for the weekend. He would correct my use of “extended family.” He calls this group of about 20 -- his parents, siblings, aunt, cousins and their spouses, other relatives who live nearby, and half a dozen or so various offspring -- his “immediate family.” The extended family, he tells me, consists of some hundreds of far-flung kin whom I’ve had a small taste of at two weddings but will not feel the full blunt force of until I attend “the family reunion” this summer, an event the contemplation of which sends me into a cold sweat.
I exaggerate. I do -- despite cultural differences (someone Thursday morning asked if anyone was planning a trip to Walmart because she needed a few things) which are, with each family gathering, a little less stressful for me to just shut up about -- love C’s family, all 500 of them. Immediate, extended, whatever. A marriage (or maybe it’s me) can only tolerate so much arguing about nomenclature.
We left our apartment Wednesday at about 3:30, picked up a zip car a few blocks away, and drove 9 hours to get here. A couple weeks ago, the women in the family circulated an email with information about the cabin, accommodations, plans, and a menu and sign-up sheet for the big meal. I volunteered for mashed potatoes (because I make awesome mashed potatoes) and decided to also make a few pies (god knows why, because I’m not really a baker and nearly had a nervous breakdown Tuesday night when the crust was giving me trouble, but I really wanted to make a pear pie and C wanted pecan, so …).
I also brought 3 dishes without which Thanksgiving would not be Thanksgiving for me: succotash, Grand Marnier cranberry sauce, and maple/garlic roasted carrots. When I said in the email chain that I would bring a couple dishes from my own Thanksgiving traditions, a cousin of C’s replied that she loved that I would be bringing dishes from my own family’s traditional meal. I don’t think I had said “family,” but of course these dishes are from my family traditions. Just not my biological family. I haven’t had Thanksgiving with my parents and siblings in many years, not because I’ve been avoiding it, but because most years I had little time and little money and couldn’t justify or afford two trips to Indiana in less than a month. So I chose Xmas, at least until the last 10 years, when I didn’t even usually make it home for Xmas.
Thanksgiving in my adulthood has been a time for celebrating with what queer people our age call our “acquired family.” My parents are liberal, accepting, not homophobic by any stretch, so I’ve never had the experience of being spurned or excluded by my family like so many LGBT folks have. But I have felt that essential difference that at holidays can put distance between parents and their gay kids, and I’ve known the feeling which so many of us have in common of safety and relief when socializing without straight people.
It was important and inevitable that I put some distance between my family’s lives and mine when I left Indiana at 18, to find and assert the difference between me and them, to find an aspect of me that I couldn’t learn from their example. As I get older, the loss aspect of that experience seems to have more meaning than the assertion of independence aspect. In retrospect I guess it gets more sad than exhilarating.
But what is there to do about it? The most convincing argument for gay marriage, the one that seems to be working because it convinces even, or especially, people with a conservative world view, is that by allowing and encouraging homosexuals to form traditional families we avoid or at least mitigate that loss. Don’t force gay kids to leave their families, but accept them fully as part of traditional families. But won’t there always be something about us that our parents (if they’re heterosexual) won’t really understand or appreciate? It seems to me that if our parents are heterosexual, that one essential difference between us and them will always force us to seek to find reflections of ourselves outside the family, and that will always in some way weaken traditional family bonds. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is what gay uncles are for. Everybody has a gay uncle, right?
At any rate, it was loss that led me to find and create all these remarkable little families I’ve been a part of through the years. So, though I love and miss my mom’s cooking at Thanksgiving (her pumpkin pie and her sage dressing are still the gold standards), most of the foods that mean Thanksgiving to me come from later epochs of my life.
Succotash. The recipe itself came from the restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen where I waited tables in the late 80s for two years. The owner/chef was a lunatic and a bully, but he made delicious American comfort food at that time in New York when regional American cuisine was making a big comeback.
I loved my co-workers and the food, and I made tons of money, so I stayed for 2 years. When I left I just didn’t show up for work one day and never went back. I am not proud of that, and it literally gave me horrible waiting-tables-and-everything-is-going-horribly-wrong nightmares for about 20 years.
But I loved his succotash so much I started making it myself. It takes me back to that Thanksgiving (1986? 87?) when B and I lived in Brooklyn and my sister was in New York for an internship at Paramount her senior year at Indiana University and she was living with a friend a few blocks away. I wanted so badly for her to move to New York, but just the previous summer she had met the man who would be her first husband, and she went back to finish school in Indiana, then moved to Louisiana to live with and soon marry him.
That fall, she and I and B prepared a sit-down dinner for about 25 or 30 of our friends and various Thanksgiving orphans, and we ate at a long makeshift table crammed into the living room of our floor-through apartment in Ft. Greene. The kitchen was a sink and stove wedged into what had been a closet in the original one-family brownstone which had been converted (but not really – our bathroom and another small room were off a stairway that the upstairs tenants passed through to get to their apartment). The fridge was in the living room.
I have made that succotash every time I’ve made Thanksgiving dinner since. The recipe’s not hard. Equal parts corn and baby lima beans, diced red bell pepper, simmered for about 20 minutes with cream, butter, a pinch (or more) of ground cayenne, and lots of salt and black pepper. I like the consistency better when it’s made the day ahead, cooled and reheated.
The cranberry sauce is J’s recipe. I don’t know if it predates our relationship, but he always made it when we had Thanksgiving at home or if we were invited somewhere and asked to bring something. I can’t imagine a turkey dinner without it. I had to email him last week for the recipe, because I’d never made it. He follows the recipe on the bag of cranberries but substitutes Grand Marnier and orange juice for the liquid, reduces the amount of sugar by about half, then stirs in a little more Grand Marnier after cooking so it has a slightly boozy taste. I added a little orange zest and a pinch of clove too, because I can’t resist fussing with everything and that orange was just sitting there. We also didn’t have Grand Marnier so I used triple sec and didn’t notice the difference. It’s delicious, and it makes me think of all the wonderful things about our years together and how dear and generous J is and how glad I am that we’re still close. He is still as much my family as anyone.
The carrots were on the menu at Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah, where I cooked 2 seasons in 2005 and 06. It doesn’t feel at all correct to me to describe Hell’s Backbone Grill as a restaurant where I used to work. It was more like total immersion.
Boulder is a town of fewer than 200 people, a Mormon ranching settlement and tiny oasis for tourists on Scenic Route 12 which snakes through southern Utah’s glorious landscape. I had just finished my film Life in a Box, couldn’t find a job in San Francisco where I had ended up because an editor I wanted to work with lived there and in 2005 it didn’t much matter where I went because nothing was keeping me anywhere.
I met a skinny smiling queer Buddhist in a leather bar who said, “Why don’t you come to Utah with me and cook in my friends’ J and B’s restaurant?” A couple weeks later I met J and B when they were in San Francisco for a fancy food show, and, a few weeks after that, I was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by awesome spectacular beauty every moment of the day, preparing food in a restaurant where love is the mission statement.
The menu there incorporates elements of New Mexican cooking (lots of green chilies), ancient Native American cuisine (seeds, beans, corn, squash), and Mormon pioneer cooking (beef from local ranches, trout marinated in molasses, dredged in cornmeal, and fried in a cast iron skillet, and lots of Dutch oven dishes). I’ve never eaten more delicious food in my life.
My first season there I lived in an old RV that was half sunk in the yard of one of those women, surrounded by chickens and lilac bushes. I shared the RV with a colony of mice who stole my office supplies and turned them into a vast elaborate city under the mattress of my bed. Though it’s been 6 years since I’ve been back, I still hold that place and those people deep in my heart. I think of them nearly every time I cook anything, and that’s not exaggerating.
The carrots are sliced about ¼” thick, tossed with maple syrup, garlic, vegetable oil, salt and pepper, and roasted at 350 until they shrink and caramelize a bit. I added mustard, which I don’t think was in their recipe (fuss, fuss).
I also learned how to make mashed potatoes at Hell’s Backbone Grill. There’s no secret to making the best mashed potatoes ever. Just lots of heavy cream, lots of butter, and lots of salt and pepper. Lots. For 10 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes, I added 2 sticks of butter and about a pint and a half of cream. Boil the potatoes, mash the butter in first, then add the cream. Handfuls of salt. At the restaurant we added fresh chopped sage leaves to the breakfast potatoes and lemon zest and sour cream to the dinner potatoes. Though I have nothing against a little lily gilding, even without, they’re every bit as good as you want them to be.
These dishes remind me, on this weekend when we’re all under a lot of pressure to express gratitude, that I have had an abundance of experience, tradition, love enough for a hundred lifetimes, and I’m only 51 years old. It’s almost embarrassing how good I’ve had it. I well up with emotion just contemplating the depth and richness of my life so far.
Now C and I are creating our own family, which is somehow nestled into his larger clan and, what I didn’t expect, finding a renewed closeness with my own parents and siblings, a new way of thinking about my place in their lives and mine in theirs, a re-experiencing that began with the run-up to my wedding and their participation in it. And it all adds up to a much more traditional kind of family. I cherish it. But it’s not without loss. Loss of the primacy of that ramshackle family I cultivated over the last 30 years. I still have those people in my life and love them just as much. But I will not spend Thanksgiving with any of them.
Looking back over what I’ve written, it’s not lost on me that a lot of what I have presented here as acquired family is just past relationships. There’s a lot to contemplate there -- the differences between those relationships and my marriage to C, differences that come from different aspirations and desires, cultural expectations that change with the times, the differences in the particular families of those past partners and their relationships with them. One of the things I love and hate about sitting down to write (or even having a conversation, for that matter) is that it often feels impossible to discuss one thing without discussing another thing, which doesn’t make sense unless we bring in this other thing, and eventually it seems necessary to be talking about everything in order for the current topic to make any sense. Writer’s block is never about there being nothing to write about. It’s about there being too much to write about.