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Healthy Junk Food

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At least some of those pervasive Southern California stereotypes ring true.  We’ve got gorgeous weather, we’ve got omnipresent fruit trees and we have a surplus of fitness buffs jogging around, all hours of the day and night. 

When I first moved here, many years ago, I discovered that one of the most peculiar reflections of Southern California’s character could be found within the aisles of our neighborhood convenience stores.  There, prominently displayed beside our favorite artery-clogging indulgences were a plethora of irrationally healthy choices.

There were Pita Chips right across from the usual Tortilla and Sodium Twisties.  Nacho-flavored rice cakes (which my husband fondly refers to as “compressed styrofoam”) co-existed with Barbecue-flavored Pork Rinds—one of the Seven Deadly Digestive Sins, in my humble opinion.  In a refrigerator, beside the usual 200 types of leaded and unleaded cola, were 57 varieties of water.  There was regular bottled water, flavored bottled water, carbonated water, flavored/carbonated water, vitamin-enhanced water and flavored-vitamin-enhanced water.  (Personally, I feel that if God had intended us to drink water in this fashion, he would have created waterfalls in the shape of soda fountains.)

Improbably, there was a rack of appealing “fresh choice” sandwiches—sealed in plastic and delivered daily—in the exact same spot where the petrified hotdogs ought to have been!  And don’t even get me started on the sushi.  Yes, my local convenience store carried sushi.  I would be willing to bet a sizeable amount of money that, back in those days, the neighborhood 24/7 stores in Mazomanie, Wisconsin and War Trace, Tennessee did not provide any items made from raw fish… Beef Jerky spicy enough to erode your esophagus, maybe, but sashimi, no. 

At our store, there were meal-replacement drinks and smoothie facsimiles back-to-back with the Trans-Fat-A-Palooza ice cream bars.  And speaking of bars, the selection of bars available in this store was greater than the number of species on Noah’s ark.  They offered granola bars, nutrition bars, meal-replacement bars and exotic tiger’s milk bars, in addition to the carbohydrate-laden candy bars of yesteryear.

It seemed to me that these equal but opposing products could not exist under the same roof.  Like matter and anti-matter, I would have thought that they’d cancel each other out and bring about some kind of nuclear explosion.  The Glucose-Gloop rolls that my children loved were the antithesis and arch-enemy of those little cartons of yogurt in the dairy case.  The amount of sodium in those dehydrated ramen noodle packets—the ones that have been sitting on the store shelf since 1812—was about 95 times what you’d find in 10 bags of trail mix.  And how could you seriously stock your store with vegetable-fruit blend juices like Carrot/Mango or Pineapple/Tomato and maintain a cooler full of Old Gut-Buster Beer?  The contradictions were mind-numbing; not to mention, tastebud-numbing.

There were those people—including those within the ranks of my immediate family—who were appalled by the concept of “healthy junk food.”  My brother recently reminded me of a day I drove him to the coast, during one of his many visits out West.  En route, we passed through fields of lush red and purple berries, orchards achingly full of sunshine-bright oranges and lemons and ranches bursting with cucumbers, peppers and pistachios.  I felt compelled to stop at a roadside fruit and vegetable stand and buy some of this bountiful produce for my kids.  I lovingly selected the juiciest most enormous strawberries I could find.  But when I served them after dinner that night my older son looked at the bowl, aghast, and exclaimed, “Mom, that’s not dessert!  That’s fruit!”

Similarly, my husband is philosophically and morally opposed to the very concept of carrot cake. He adamantly insists, “You must not make dessert out of a vegetable.  It’s a culinary faux pas.”  (Zucchini bread and pumpkin cake are also, understandably, incompatible with his world view.)

And yet, it appears that in the ensuing years since we left the beef-crazed Midwest for the veggie-mad West Coast, the rest of our nation has moved closer to the California model, in regard to the consumption of healthier snacks.  Collectively and individually, we still have a long way to go—I’m as guilty as anyone of picking chips over carrot sticks.  But when my local convenience store stocks the potato-chip substitutes that are popped rather than fried, I usually pick the popped snack.  When they carry a whole-grain tortilla chip besides the traditional kind, I opt for the whole grain.  And when they offer a bran wafer next to an ice-cream bar… well, of course I choose the ice cream bar.  It’s all about balance right?

In any event, I remain encouraged by the proliferation of healthy junk food.  This widespread trend bodes well for our future.  If food items as light and insubstantial as air live can side-by-side with convicted aorta killers we must be living in an age of greater diversity.  And, if our Swiss chocolate rolls can live in peace with our sushi rolls, perhaps there is hope for the rest of Mankind.



The Enchanted Aisle

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One of the strange side-effects of motherhood is that, when you finally have the opportunity to take a much-needed break, you’re too tired to think of anywhere interesting to go.  Nine times out of ten, I end up at the local market.  It’s not as rewarding as an afternoon at a day-spa but neither is it the snooze-fest you might imagine.

Unless you’ve taken up residence under a large, comfy rock, you’ve probably noticed that supermarkets have undergone a radical transformation.  Unforgiving gray cement floors have been replaced with blinding white tile.  Dreary exposed pipes have been exchanged for cathedral ceilings dotted with flood lights.  Aisles too narrow to circumnavigate are now as wide as the Interstate.  Each segment of the store is clearly identified by charming wooden signs, lettered with flowing script.  Products that once rated a cramped corner of one shelf now merit their own departments.  Our local markets have become the grocery equivalent of theme parks.

In the old days, when my dear grandmother trouped to the store, she brought along a large, square, wire shopping cart of her own.  There were two big wheels on the back of the cart and two pointy wire legs on the front, capped with rubber tips, so as not to skewer any passing grandchildren.  It boasted a tall, metal handle for convenient dragging across broken sidewalks.  And it was collapsible, to provide for easy storage in the back of her pantry.  The deep, rectangular basket offered more than adequate space for her days’- or weeks’-worth of groceries.  This was well before the advent of the warehouse store so she didn’t need room for five-pound jars of peanut butter or 80-piece chicken-wing specials.  No, her faithful, personal food-hauler was all that she or any other mom of that era required.

Today’s shopping carts are more suited to Bugs Bunny Land than Land O’ Lakes margarine.  An alarming number of these transportation devices feature large, red plastic car or fire-truck facades, complete with decorative wheels.  (Just plop your young’uns behind the yellow steering wheels and watch them mimic all the terrible habits and road-rage that they have observed in Mommy & Daddy.)  Slightly older rugrats are presented with adult-style carts, scaled down to child-size.  (These are infinitely convenient for ramming precarious fruit displays and/or unsuspecting siblings.) Other shopping carts are as broad as double-wide trailers—minus the ubiquitous tornadoes.  These come equipped with two seats and four leg-holes in the front shelf and their basket areas seems to contain a square acre of storage space.  My own market, undoubtedly responding to the “down-sizing” trend, also offers half-sized adult shopping carts for less ambitious expeditions.  Given this wealth of choices, it is now easier to choose a family car than to pick out the right shopping cart.

Adding to the excitement of each supply-seeking excursion is the fact that food is no longer divided into the mundane categories of our childhoods.  No longer does one purchase protein from the Meat department.  Instead you visit a rotating carousel of beef labeled “The Meaty Go Round.”  You find milk, butter and eggs in a section known as “Knott’s Dairy Farm.”  Apples and bananas can be found in “The Produce Playground.” And the breads and assorted fresh-baked carbohydrates are located on the “Cruller Coaster.”  (We disdain the pathetic Europeans, whose breads and cakes are relegated to mere bakeries and whose meat is displayed in bland butchers’ windows.) Every supermarket is a microcosmic expression of our Era of Excess.

When did edibles become so incredible?  When did provisions become so prolific?  When did rations become so… irrational?

Further contributing to the carnival atmosphere, unnaturally cheerful employees roam the store, dangling mouth-watering samples before our drooling lips.  In their starchy white shirts and checkered aprons they bear more than a passing resemblance to the wacky humanoid characters who wander Disneyworld and Legoland.  Few can resist the Siren Song of the Sample.  Numerous friends have sheepishly confessed to making a meal out of the plentiful offerings at our local big-box store.  Who needs a sensible salad for lunch when you can dine on mini-hot-links, tiny pizza squares, quarter-granola-bars and Dixie cups overflowing with noodle casserole?  Four-ounce shots of the latest diet-shake-liquid-meal-replacement provide your daily dose of health food.

The auditory aspect of the experience has evolved too.  Irresistibly upbeat pop music is pumped through the structure, building excitement like the overture to a Broadway show.  Everything in the surrounding environment screams, “Be happy!  Be hungry!  Spend your way into a carbohydrate-induced-coma!”

Oddly, when my kids were small, they appeared every bit as amused purchasing foodstuffs as they did riding a funfair attraction.  My younger son spent every visit skipping, diagonally, from tile to tile as I trudged up the cereal aisle.  My older son was endlessly entertained by the process of opening and closing glass freezer doors—trapping his younger brother between the frosty glass and the frozen pizza was simply an unanticipated bonus.  Surreptitiously sneaking cookies into the basket was as much fun as any arcade game.  And, at the conclusion of each excursion, they would scrutinize the checkout register screen as if studying the score of a particularly exhilarating Laser Tag game.  When my tab went above the $100 mark, they would cheer and announce that “This is the best show ever!”  (Our impending poverty was apparently a source of hilarity to them.)

So let me give you a tip.  The next time that you’re looking for an affordable getaway for you or the kids, drag yourselves to the local supermarket.  It’s every bit as colorful and entertaining as Coney Island.  Besides, a week’s worth of chow still costs less than one day at most parks and seasons’ passes are not required.



That's Entertainment

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That’s Entertainment

Civilization through the ages has devised countless innovative means of entertaining itself. The Pacific Islanders had intricate hula dances. The Ancient Greeks had magnificent comedies and dramas. The Romans had gladiators doing their impressions of hors d'oeuvres for lions. And the people of my town have… restaurants.

Before I moved to the ‘burbs, I never dreamed that people would line up for dinner at an average coffee shop the way that people queue up for tickets to a Springsteen concert. Mind you, I’m not talking about a 120-minute wait for filet mignon at Lawry’s. I’m referring to hours in the cold night air, anticipating the Grand Opening of Bob’s Burger Barn. In my neck of the woods, the debut of a new restaurant is tantamount to a Hollywood Premiere.

I’ll grant you, during my turbulent youth I was known to spend ridiculous amounts of time awaiting entrée to the latest hot spots, in order to inflate my shaky self-esteem. But we’re all adults now—our self-image ought to be built upon sturdier underpinnings than the local paper’s latest candid photo of our appearance at the Family-Style Taco-On-A-Stick.

Furthermore, the service is barely worth the wait. Don’t get me wrong, waiters and waitresses are as charming, diligent and clever as they ever were. But waitstaff in the post-Y2K era aren’t allowed to spend much time with you. As you enter, a charming hostess leads you to your booth. Soon afterwards, a busboy takes your drink requests. Ten minutes later, your spunky server makes small talk and takes your order. Ten minutes after that, a junior server and apprentice waitress deliver your food as busboy number two replenishes your drinks. By the time that your original server returns to take your desert order, you’ve forgotten how you know the person. For some reason, the current philosophy of waiting tables entails a greater division of labor than the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Diner and Server are denied the interaction that a leisurely dinner affords. One never has the opportunity to build that special culinary relationship. (Consequently, one never leaves quite as large a tip…)

And, might I add, these sought-after local establishments are not dinner theatres. There is no Circque De Suburbia. There’s no Regional Repertory presenting Lady Gaga as “King Lear” in tandem with an Early Bird Special. The only entertainment available at these Root Beer and Sushi emporiums, is a surreptitious scan of the ticked-off, impatient faces gathered before you.

Because my neighborhood is designated by the county as a “Wholesome Hamlet,” all inhabitants within this zone are legally required to produce two or more children. This means that every adult surrounding me, awaiting a table, has a Baby-Sitter-Ometer ticking in his or her brain. You know the thought process: “I can’t wait to try those Egg Fu Yung Gyros, and I now owe the sitter $8.00.” “I’m having an awesome night out, anticipating my Thai Bratwurst and I now owe the sitter $22.80.” It’s like sitting in a taxi at rush-hour—the more you try to avoid the mounting cost, the harder it is not to focus on it. Meanwhile what you owe Muffy or Buffy multiplies exponentially like an earthquake on the Richter scale.

Not to mention the fact that today’s babysitter earns considerably more than yesterday’s Teamster. My yearning to indulge in the latest and greatest cuisine the community has to offer is tempered by the certain knowledge that this evening out will undoubtedly necessitate a second mortgage. The college fund will be depleted. We may have to put off that second car.

The “upside” of this predicament is that family-friendly areas such as mine are nearly devoid of crime. I am raising my kids in a place without splashy nightclubs. Sleazy bars are unheard of, as are edgy comedy troupes, as are raves. Our township is clean. Our streets are beautiful. …Our nightlife is painfully dull.

The lack of external stimulation is in direct inverse proportion to the near-hysterical popularity of newborn neighborhood dining establishments. We celebrate the creation of each bistro, saloon and lunch counter because, really, what else is there to do? Europe has its soccer riots; my locality has its restaurant rampages.

The good news is that, if one can simply restrain oneself and wait three short months to visit the newest, freshest chophouse, soda fountain or cafeteria, one’s waiting time dwindles from two hours to roughly two minutes. A modicum of patience insures that you will receive your coveted seat at the coolest venue in town—the only hitch is that, by then, it will no longer be fashionable. The natives of suburbia are a fickle bunch. In the span of time that it takes an average mountain man to grow a competitive ZZ-Top beard, our hottest hash joints have become as cold as a scoop of gelato in a Wisconsin winter.

Still, an evening out at a slightly-less-chic boîte is preferable to wasting one’s precious free time and disposable income languishing in endless lines on rock-hard pavement, simply to sample the latest fusion-fare and “be seen” with the beautiful people.

There is only one discernable advantage in visiting the newest Chicken-Fried Corned Beef Café, or Cajun-Style Pudding Palace during the first week they’re open. You get to play with all those strangely-shaped, light-up pagers. (Because we suburban patrons are all tightly-scheduled and attention-span-impaired, we appreciate the fact that those funky, futuristic pagers allow us the illusion of personal autonomy. We can stand 20 feet away from the maitre d’, instead of nose-to-nose, for those two interminable hours.) My personal favorite beepers are the square ones, which are adorned with a circle of oscillating lights. I’m always tempted to slip those babies into my purse and tape them to my lower back on rainy days—the subtle vibrations would be so soothing to my aching lumbar muscles.

And yet, even factoring in the entertainment value of agitated customers and aesthetically pleasing pagers, a night out spent in anticipation of the latest Ethiopian Pizza Rolls or Broccoli De Fois Gras is simply not worth more than 60 minutes atop my fallen-arches.

The whole dilemma is too overwhelming for my tired, maternal brain to absorb. It’s almost enough to make me consider cooking dinner!


The Long Road to China

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The Long Road to China

I’ve never felt 100% comfortable with my fine dishes.  I’m more of a paper-plate kinda gal.  (I make that admission at great personal risk—one of my brothers was with the EPA and, when he hears I’ve developed a paper-dependency, he’s liable to dispatch a team of Navy Seals to kidnap and de-program me.  If this article ends abruptly, you’ll know I’ve been whisked off to the Tree-Hugger version of Guantanamo.)

My mother had four sets of china.  We displayed these delicate dishes in a graceful wooden cabinet with glass doors.  Even during the most spirited fights, my brothers and I were careful not to hurl each other into this treasured piece of furniture.  It was a masterpiece of domesticity.  It represented civilized behavior and all that was good and classy in the world.  There was a calming air about it.  In other words, it was the anti-me.

Much to my mom’s chagrin, I spent High School in khakis and denim.  My mother was of the generation that mystically coordinated their every outfit with matching hat, shoes and gloves.  Mom was prim, proper and well-put-together—she was the personification of fine china.  I was more like a plastic plate decorated with cartoons—lots of fun but not exactly elegant.

When my dream-guy and I got engaged we took the traditional trip to Marshall Field’s department store and registered for our own china and silver service.  After minimal debate, (my hubby, like most men, is more concerned with the grub than the plate) we settled on a modern black-and-white Mikasa pattern—not quite funky, but somewhat less-traditional.  It was sophisticated without being classic and light-weight without being dainty.  It was a good match for our casual personalities and we took great pride in owning it.  We also found an effortless, stylish silver pattern similar to my mother’s—knives, forks and spoons that curved slightly to one side at the handle and looked like gentle, shimmering waves.

My mother-in-law soon presented us with a gorgeous, contemporary china cabinet that perfectly complemented the dishes: six feet of black lacquer and slender glass, each shelf accented by subtle lighting.  It was our second piece of new furniture and tangible evidence of our status as grown-ups.  When I inserted our dishes, they shone like violinists on a concert-hall stage.  

One of my hubby’s cousins generously gave us a set of cut-glass stemware to enhance our fine-dining accoutrements.  The seriously chic crystal she bestowed upon us was far beyond anything we would ever have been able to afford on our own.  These weren’t your average drinking vessels—they bore a closer resemblance to dazzling diamonds than lowly mugs.  I was instantly possessed by a paralyzing fear of chipping or breaking them.  

These acquisitions marked the onset of my “Dinnerware-Dysfunction” and my “Fancy-Phobia.”

I proudly debuted my serving goods in our china cabinet as soon as we were wed but exercised obsessive caution when cleaning them or setting the table.  Still, I managed to overcome my trepidation and display them for three years… until the day we moved to California.

It was my life’s dream to relocate to Los Angeles.  As a result, I’d eagerly anticipated every aspect of life on the Coast—everything except what that move would mean for those refined plates and balletic goblets.  I weighed the pros of exhibiting our treasures against the cons of a devastating earthquake.  After much contemplation, I opted to leave our dishes and glassware beneath the sink, in their original boxes, rather than unpacking them.  For the next two years, whenever we had company I performed the time-consuming ritual of unwrapping, dusting and washing every piece.  I became a busboy in my own home.

January 17th, 1994, at 4:30 AM my husband and I awoke to a holocaust of noise and motion.  The Northridge earthquake proceeded to lift and smash every item in our apartment like a two-thousand-pound toddler angrily hurling toys.  For countless hours, that afternoon, I swept crunchy, shattered glass off of our counters, carpets and tiles.  Against all odds, our formal dishes and stemware remained safe and intact within their cardboard cocoons.

Our lovely display-case suffered a different, heartbreaking fate.  It crashed onto the front-room couch.  Once the worst of aftershocks had passed and we began reorganizing our apartment and reassembling our lives, I asked to remove it from our living space.  The prospect of hiding such a beautiful, sentimental piece made my spouse sad.  It was a symbol of his mother’s love and a mark of our maturity.  However, I couldn’t shake the thought of my husband or future children being hit by that lovely but lethally heavy cupboard.   Following some very emotional discussions, my husband allowed me to move the tragically damaged furniture to the storage shed.  

Years passed.  We moved from our apartment to a small house and welcomed two bundles of joy.  The arrival of our bouncing baby boys heralded the Age of the Plastic Plate.  As any parent knows, children are to fine dinnerware as elephants are to Swarovski Crystal.  The two things are mutually exclusive.  For reasons that sometimes escape me, we opted for the kids.  

Fast forward a million meals later… We moved to a bigger house.  Our infants grew into toddlers.  We plopped finger foods directly onto their high-chair trays, foregoing pesky platters.  Our toddlers grew into school-kids.  We served them with colorful plastic bowls and Scooby-Doo plates.  Our grade-schoolers stretched into hungry pre-teens.  We invested in sturdy, attractive Corelle and fed them sandwich after sandwich.  By the dawn of their teenage years, our boys had bypassed the need for dinner service of any kind.  The time that elapsed between my serving the food and their ingesting it was too miniscule for even a dedicated physicist to measure.  Only propriety kept me from pouring the contents of my frying-pans directly into their upturned mouths.

Yet, even as the family’s dining style evolved from chaotic to casual, I experienced a nagging urge to use the fine dishes.  Maybe I was being subconsciously influenced by the paper-plate-averse ghosts of my mother and mother-in-law.  

I found myself pulling out the china each Passover and Thanksgiving.  I occasionally set the table with my “good stuff” when relatives or friends came to dinner.  I eventually unpacked my dishes and stacked them in a conspicuously empty cabinet.  (I never could bring myself to unpack the crystal, despite the earthquake-latches affixed to every cabinet-door.)  

I try to remember the purpose of this elegant service.  It is not meant to intimidate or frighten informal geeks like myself.  It’s created to support and cultivate the joy and ritual of dining.  It is therefore intended to nurture, in the purest sense of the word.  

I know that I’ll never be as comfortable with formal dishes as my mother—despite her quiet nature, she was a warm and gracious hostess.  I know that I will never lay gold-and-silver utensils besides gold-rimmed porcelain platters with the straightforward confidence of my mother-in-law—she was a gregarious “people person” who loved to entertain.  But, for them, I will use my fine dishes with pride whenever I can muster the courage.  I will honor the memory of my mother and mother-in-law with my progress on the long road to china.

Denise Koek is a happily married actress, writer and mom, who currently produces “The Chef’s Wife”and “Uncle Chef.”


The Worst Thanksgiving Ever!

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The Worst Thanksgiving Ever


For some reason, people never believe that I broke a tooth on my son’s tushie…. But why wouldn’t that disaster befall us? We experienced everything except cattle disease and demonic posession on that horrible Thanksgiving day.  Cracking a tooth on my baby’s butt was a natural progression.

Eleven years ago, my hubby, my two boys and I flew to Chicago for my brother’s wedding.  At the time only our closest family members knew that my mother was dying of Cancer.  My two brothers’ weddings that year were part of the fabric of Life to which Mom clung so tenaciously.  We adults greeted Thanksgiving morning with the bittersweet awareness that a series of powerful life-cycle events were colliding that day.

But my children—ages 5 and 2—were conscious only of industrial-strength family attention and the tantalizing cooking smells wafting through my mother’s house.  As my 2-year-old gleefully ran laps around the dining room table, we all caught a whiff of a not-so-enticing odor.  My sons had shunned the at-birth toilet training my friends’ daughters seemed to embrace.  Instead, they wore their stink as a badge of honor until the most advanced age possible, at which time even their peers would observe their untrained status in disdain and disgust.  So, at 2, my younger son was thrilled to be sharing pungent proof of his full diaper with everyone in the city-limits.

I was nearly blinded by my mother’s gleaming white carpeting as I pulled down his pants to carefully begin the “changing” maneuver.  I made a mental note to change the tyke as soon as humanly possible so as to avoid any horrific stains.  Before I had even processed this thought, the diaper-clad-critter bolted for a victory lap around the dining room. 

With every fiber of my being—and every fiber of the carpeting at risk—I knew I had to catch him before his diaper leaked.  Just as our escapee passed his daddy’s perch on the couch, my husband lovingly scooped the baby up and wrestled him to his chest so he couldn’t escape again.  I heaved a sigh of relief and bent down to retrieve our tiny fugitive from justice.  My hubby—not seeing me—tossed the giggling toddler into the air.  As my son’s soft tushie slammed into my face, the force of my jaw clamping shut chipped one of my front teeth.

Confused and in pain, I ran to the bathroom mirror.  Ethel Bee Clampett stared back at me.  In seconds I had gone from glamorous Californian to dentally challenged hillbilly.  We were minutes from the arrival of my mother’s guests and three days from 2,400 wedding pictures.   

My mother tried in vain to comfort me.  She claimed not to notice the  snaggle-tooth.  My husband was horrified and apologetic.  My brothers seemed oddly amused.   How could anyone find humor in a woman disfigured by rampaging buttocks?!?!?

I cautiously gummed my mother’s delectable Thanksgiving meal, deliberately avoiding tooth-to-turkey contact like an ungrateful toddler suspicious of table food. Meanwhile, our relatives fussed over the kids and greeted their every pronouncement with a heartfelt “Aaaaw!”  Usually I would accept every compliment offered to my offspring as a heartfelt testimonial to the factory that had produced such worthy products.  That day, however, I was ungrateful and surly, burdened by what I perceived as rotten luck.

Compounding this dilemma was the knowledge that my parents’ feast was the first of three celebrations on the schedule.  We were supposed to have Thanksgiving lunch with my parents, Thanksgiving dinner with my father-in-law’s family and Thanksgiving dessert with my mother-in-law’s family. 

When you live in a different state every visit home is like a cameo appearance and your children are full-fledged celebrities that every relative (i.e., “fan”) clambers to see. I usually wallow in this kind of Show-Off-Palooza like a has-been wallows in “infomercials.”  But that day I dreaded the Holiday Habitrail—because I looked like a hamster.

Struggling to assuage my dental distress, the hubby suggested we call our family friend, Dr. Gary—a dentist, a considerate childhood pal of my husband’s and the only one of our 3,000 Midwest friends we’d forgotten to make plans with before coming to town!  So, not only were we calling him to do us a work-related favor on Thanksgiving, we were imposing on a great guy we had snubbed.  To compound our guilt, he was wonderful when we called.  Dr. Gary immediately offered to meet us at his office and do the required cosmetic touch-up before he’d even digested his stuffing.

We said our good-byes, loaded the children into my father’s new car, and drove to the dentist’s office.  Dr. Gary made my jagged tooth beautiful in record time.  He regaled us with funny stories and showed us photographs of his beautiful family and we responded with deep-seated shame.  What a great guy—we didn’t deserve to wipe the turkey grease off his chin!

As we left, Dr. Gary warned us to be careful pulling out of his parking lot.  It was a peculiar design encircled by multiple telephone poles.  We assured him that we had noted this oddity.

With my newly gorgeous front-tooth, we set out for the suburbs, to attend our second dinner of the day—two hours late.  As we pulled out of the parking space, our 5-year-old proclaimed, “Daddy, there’s a pole.”

In stereotypical Dad tones—half-reassuring/half patronizing—my better half affirmed that he saw the pole behind our car.  Unfortunately we didn’t see the pole beside the car.  A hideous crunching noise ensued.  The boys sat up in their car seats and gasped, “What was that noise?” 

Too distraught to reply, my husband attempted to extricate the car from the pole.  Alas, by the time my hubby had completed this auto-ectomy, there was an appalling dent in my father’s new, forest green car.  In a flash of clairvoyance I was actually able to see into the future and to feel my Dad’s blood pressure rising.

Over and over the boys demanded, “What happened?”  We requested, ever so politely, that they be so kind as to stop asking.  Or maybe I screamed at them.  Time has a way of blurring such insignificant details.

We got to my father-in-law’s home much later than expected.  We were warmly greeted by my father-in-law, his wife, one auntie, three strangers and 87 pounds of food.  Everything looked delicious but we were too wound up to eat.  And the kids, being kids (i.e., one step up from the megaphone, on the evolutionary scale), related the agonizing details of everything that had occurred.  I masked my humiliated blush by smearing cranberries on my face.  I looked like a deranged clown, but at least no one could tell I was embarrassed.

After this second Thanksgiving dinner, we attempted to proceed to our next meal, Thanksgiving dessert. Unfortunately, we were cruelly pressured to consume a  pre-dessert dessert at my father-in-law’s house.  My boys loved this new culinary custom of dessert redundancy.  I fought to resist.  (As they say in the Sci-Fi biz, “Resistance is futile, Earthling”.)

More thoroughly stuffed than the dearly departed turkey, we said our farewells and advanced to the next stop on our Glutton-Fest Tour.

By the time we arrived at my cousin-in-law’s home—two or three hours late—all the other guests had left.  No one remained but the immediate family and three lonely pies.  Our kids had moved beyond exhaustion into a hyper-kinetic state of delirium.  They sparred with the cousins’ kids, fought over toys, forced themselves to eat more sweets and then ran in circles until nausea seemed a foregone conclusion.  The family was warm and gracious, despite our thoughtless tardiness and our sugar-crazed progeny.

Close to midnight, we drove back to the city.  The children fell asleep in the back seat of my parent’s mangled vehicle.  We carried them up to bed and vowed to tell my Dad about his car… first thing in the morning.

My mother, who never failed to “wait up” for me throughout my teenage years, was awake when we got back.  She kissed the sleeping children and gave me a warm, tight hug.  Somehow, that made things better.

I fell asleep that night contemplating how wildly events had spun out of control, yet relieved to have survived the turmoil.

For a long time, I looked upon that day as “The Worst Thanksgiving Ever”.  But as I said before, time has a way of blurring such insignificant details.  Upon reflection I feel as if that hectic day wasn’t at all what it seemed.

It was the last Thanksgiving we shared with my entire family.  It was the last Thanksgiving before 9/11 changed our world forever.  It was the last Thanksgiving we ever spent with my dearest mother.  It was the best Thanksgiving ever.

Denise Koek is a happily married actress, writer and mom, who currently produces “The Chef’s Wife”and “Uncle Chef.”


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