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German Chocolate Cake, Thanksgiving Dessert, November 22, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

Thanksgiving Day ’12 will go down as the year I finally managed to balance quality and volume for me and my small family of wife and finicky nine-year-old son. I did nearly all of the cooking on Wednesday, starting with the turkey and stuffing at 7:30 am, and ending with mushroom gravy at 11:45 pm. In between, I dropped my son off for school, ran some errands, finished the turkey and stuffing, went for a 5.4-mile run, made the mac and cheese — as well as steak and butternut squash soup (from scratch) for dunch — and finally showered.

Then I made the collard/turnip greens mixture, seasoned ham with brown sugar and butter, super sugary Kool-Aid (first time I’ve made it in two years), iced tea with lemon and German chocolate cake in quick succession. In between, I also made dinner for my son, sorted and wrapped fifteen pounds of meat for the freezer, and did another round of grading for one of my classes. All in all, a very busy day, but it made the mashed potatoes and setting the table yesterday look like nothing by comparison.

Most of my Thanksgivings as an adult have been pretty peaceful. I’ve actually only been back to Mount Vernon for three — count them, three — Thanksgivings since I left for college and Pittsburgh in ’87. One was in ’87, then after the 616 fire in ’95 (see my post “The Fire This Time” from April ’08), and then with me and my family in ’06. At these gatherings, folks were too busy eating to get into serious issues like acne problems of whether someone’s cake was made from scratch or not.

But at my wife’s family’s Thanksgiving gatherings — which I attended or served as sous chef from ’96-’99 and in ’01 — the above issues and more became part of the annual Turkey Day in Pittsburgh. The most elaborate and long-winded of such dinners in Homewood-Brushton was in ’01. It was going to be a doozy right from the start, as I’d agreed to cook virtually all of the Thanksgiving dinner for an estimated twenty-five guests (it turned out to be twenty-eight in all). Me and my wife flew in from DC that Tuesday and wasted no time in buying everything we’d need to make her family’s version of a Thanksgiving meal possible.

Wife’s family and Noah in Pittsburgh, July 15, 2004. (Donald Earl Collins).

My sister-in-law flew in from San Diego the following day, and wasn’t exactly to see us. Or at least, was standoff-ish with me. It was only the third time we’d ever met, and the first time me and my wife had seen her since ’96 (and since we’d married in April ’00). She wasn’t happy having to share her sister with me, among the other issues she had back then.

She found fault with me making a chocolate cake via Duncan Hines instead of completely from scratch, even though I’d also made a twenty-two pound turkey, corn bread, five pounds of collard and turnip greens, five pounds of potatoes, a gallon’s worth of turkey mushroom gravy and stuffing with sausage that Wednesday. It was one of a series of not-so-charming comments from her that week.

Thanksgiving Day wasn’t much better, for us, for my sister-in-law, or for my wife’s extended family. Just after 12:30 pm, “G,” one of my wife’s cousin-in-laws, showed up with his two teenage kids, four hours before we had scheduled ourselves to serve dinner. He reminded me of my now late ex-stepfather, loud, out-of-shape, and ready to eat or fight at a moment’s notice. Between him and my brooding sister-in-law, I was happy to be in a hot kitchen or down in the basement getting furniture while finishing the preparations for dinner.

The dinner itself was a hit, as in-laws, cousins, nieces and nephews went for seconds and thirds between 4:45 and 6:30-ish. Then G suddenly became really loud and obviously angry while watching the Dallas game in the crowded living room. One of his kids had said as a joke to the then forty-nine year-old, “You’re so old, you were born before they built the railroads!” You know, stuff anyone over thirty hears from their kids at least once a week. But for nearly an hour and a half, G smouldered, then yelled, then smouldered some more, as cousins and in-laws tried to step in. He disowned his kids right in front of at least a dozen family members.

The crescendo was between G and his nephew “AA,” the third family member who had attempted to end the situation. AA was telling G to go home, and even offered to take him there. The rest is family strife gold and history.

“Don’t you EVER come to my house!,” G yelled.

“I love you, and…” AA responded.

“If you come to MY house, I’m gonna put you in a body bag!,” G hollered with a death stare.

“Then I’m gonna be in the back of your mind for the rest of your life!,” AA yelled, a bit hurt.

Eat’n Park logo, March 2011. (http://www.printablecoupons.us/).

While that was going on, my sister-in-law suddenly complained to the female contingent at the dining room table, “They never pick up the phone! They screen all of their calls!” That was in reference to me and my wife.

By 9 pm, it was all over, with two disowned kids, a crazy middle-aged man and a gloomy sister-in-law as part of the package deal that was Thanksgiving ’01. All that was left was an awkward Eat’n Park lunch with my sister-in-law that Friday — not exactly “the place for smiles” that day — and her suddenly booking an early return ticket for San Diego for Saturday morning. We had paid for her original round-trip flight, and her new flight cost more than the original ticket. She really wanted to get away!

So despite how tired I’ve been since Thanksgiving morning, I’ll take the peace of mind that comes with a small family and a thankful gathering any day over Thanksgiving ’01 and family drama.