Most people’s memories of holiday dinners involve sitting at a kids’ table, dry white meat, and a drunk relative. I have none of that. My one and only memory of holiday meals involves a few strangers at my front door with a brown paper bag.
And they pretty much changed my life.
We didn’t celebrate holidays growing up for religious reasons, but we also didn’t do a lot of other things, like have a working parent in the house, or have any income aside from government assistance, or eat on a regular basis.
The thing with being raised the way I was — under the thumb of a controlling, overbearing, fundamentalist religion — is that they teach you to be thankful for every little thing you have, because most of us had so little. Every night, I would lay in my bed and thank God for my many blessings, while my stomach grumbled and I wore my brother’s handed down underwear. We rejected the outside world, and for the most part, they rejected us back… until the night when I was able to give thanks for the kindness of strangers.
We hadn’t ever had an entire turkey in our house before, let alone an entire holiday meal. And we shouldn’t ever have, because of our religious beliefs, except that one year when I was around 11, there was a clerical error at the food bank and the people who hand out free holiday meals to families in poverty showed up at our house by mistake.
With a turkey. A WHOLE TURKEY.
We shouldn’t have accepted it (see: religious ideology), but being hungry makes you do a lot of things, and so we accepted the bag full of food from the strangers we’d never see again and agreed to cook it after the holidays, so it didn’t count.
I’d never had a whole bird to cook before. (My mother didn’t cook. She didn’t do anything, actually, but that’s another story.) I called a few adult neighbors and asked them what I should do with a turkey; one neighbor walked me through the basics, another told me how to make a gravy from scratch with butter and cornstarch and whatever was left in the pan. My older brother explained the concept of "basting" to me, and we set out together to cook a roast beast.
We didn’t know what deglazing was, we had no idea what brining was; all we knew was that there was food in our house that wasn’t frozen in a box, that needed thought and attention to cook, and we gave it that. We had Stove Top for stuffing and canned cranberries on the side, and there was nothing on that turkey but butter, salt and pepper, and our excitement.
It was, to this day, the best meal I have ever eaten. Ever. And I’ve been cooking ever since.
To most people, it would have been just another turkey, but to us, it was the possibility of a different life — one my brother and I are both living now. I don’t know that our food bank holiday dinner had anything to do with the fact that we were both able to get out from under that life, but I don’t know that it didn’t, either.
There are a million reasons why I still feel humbled by the holidays. It’s not the the twinkling lights and pageantry and magical mascots that get to me. It’s the remembering, reflecting, and showing gratitude. And every year, I give silent thanks to whoever it was that donated a few dollars and changed the course of my life.
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