1975. That was the year I made a decision and learned a secret that would change my life.
By Tim Carl.
In 1975 Thanksgiving had many of the same ingredients as today — turkey, football, family drama, cranberry sauce — but it all seemed so much bigger. More necessary, somehow.
Nina, my grandmother, spent days secretly creating two important dishes that she’d developed over the course of her lifetime: stuffing and chocolate-cream pie.
“In my Will I’ve left the recipes to my favorite,” she’d say. It was never clear who she meant, but whoever it was held the power.
Mom would sigh and leave the room, rolling her eyes.
Earlier that day my friends Chad and Ricky and I spied on my grandmother as she put the finishing touches on her secret recipes. We had been shooed out of the kitchen along with everyone but my mother, who was under the strictest code of silence.
Nina’s pie was the best thing I’d ever tasted. The flaky, buttery crust was filled with a chocolate cream that was so light and rich that it must have come from some French recipe, handed down through the ages. And the stuffing was sublime. Two different colored breads, finely chopped onions and green specks of unknown herbs were blended in perfect balance in a mixture that was both moist and crisp, sweet and salty. It was clear that both time and love had gone into these wondrous additions for our holiday meal.
I had to get those recipes!
Ricky speculated that from the roof I could lean over the edge and look into the kitchen window to uncover the secrets. So we climbed to the roof.
Chad stayed down below, watching for any threat, such as my older brother seeing what we were up to, and telling. “All clear,” he whispered.
“I’ll hold on to your feet,” Ricky said as we inched our way to the roof’s edge.
“You want me to hang from the roof with you holding my feet?” I asked in awe over the genius of the plan.
Ricky nodded enthusiastically. Chad, from below, nodded encouragingly. I slowly slid down the roof’s tiles toward the edge. Below, thick juniper bushes would break my fall in an emergency, so I felt reassured and leaned farther, while my smaller friend held onto my ankles.
Through the window I saw the two women over the stove laughing, each with a glass of wine in their hands. To their right, just out of sight, the ingredients to Nina’s famous dishes resided.
I felt Ricky’s grip slip.
“You okay, up there,” I whispered.
The women stopped laughing, crept to the window and looked out, but instead of looking up they gazed down toward the bushes. After not seeing anything suspicious they walked back to the stove.
“You’re getting heavy,” a strained voice came from above.
“Just a little farther,” I said.
I was so close.
“Hey, your brother’s coming,” Chad called.
What happened next was in slow motion: Ricky’s hands slipped and I tried to grab onto the eaves of the house. As I did my mother and Nina turned with shocked faces to see me falling into the surprisingly prickly bushes below. But as I did I clearly saw my grandmother’s secrets on the countertop.
Outside my mother and Nina stared down at me, my body sprawled awkwardly in a shrub outside our kitchen window. I had just fallen off the roof. The damage to my body was minor — a few scrapes and scratches. But during my descent I’d glimpsed the source of my Nina’s secret recipes for her famous chocolate-cream pie and scrumptious stuffing. Goodbye to innocently believing that these luscious items came from days of preparation and toil. Instead I had discovered that they actually came from Jell-O-brand pudding mix and a few boxes of Stove Top stuffing.
“He doesn’t look seriously injured,” my mother said, her voice sounding slightly disappointed.
Nina eyed me cautiously. She knew what I had seen. I had leverage now, and she looked like she was wondering how I’d use my new-found power.
It seemed like hours later, after we’d retold the much-exaggerated tale of my adventure to our friends, that we got the distant call from mothers and fathers, all standing outside their doors, hands cupped to their mouths, repeating the same phrase, “Time for dinner.” It was 3 p.m., and it appeared that all families had synced their watches.
Like a herd of deer that stops motionless and lifts their heads at the sound of a cracking branch in the nearby bushes, everyone in the gathering tensed, straining to hear if they could pick out their own unique parental call. Then, once registering a familiar voice, each peeled away from the group and ran home to indulge.
My brother and I were left standing alone in the middle of the street.
“You better not have delayed my dinner,” Scott said as he cracked his knuckles, readying himself to attempt a headlock.
Under orders to wash up, we went into the house, knowing the food would be on the tale soon.
My grandmother stood at the doorway to the kitchen and gestured with her finger for me to come and join her. Her face was stern. Was I going to be punished for my transgressions? For what I had seen? I walked to her slowly, each step heavy with guilt and remorse.
When I reached her she grabbed my face with both hands and looked straight into my eyes.
“I want you to bring this to the table,” she said and handed me the bowl of stuffing.
Bringing in the stuffing had always been her dominion — it was her greatest yearly entrance.
I hesitated but she smiled and encouraged me on.
I took the warm bowl, turned proudly and walked into the room to cheers from around the table.
That year everything seemed to taste better somehow. And toward the end of dinner, when my Nina looked over and gave me a wink, I felt truly thankful.
Excerpted from original published in St. Helena Star.
Photo: Christopher Schmidt/Flickr modified by JJ Vincent
More “Remember When…Holidays”:
Want the best of The Good Men Project posts sent to you by email? Join our mailing list here.