*This post is also on dailylapse.blogspot.com, a blog which I share with my dear cousin Angela :)
It's basically a fact of life that food defines the holidays. However, when you grow up in an extraordinarily big family, scrap food kind of defines the holidays. I can remember the first holiday gathering I brought up the caboose of the buffet line. Not a smart move when 32 cousins have already passed ahead of you. Aunts and Uncles, yes, them too. But they don’t matter quite as much, as adults and children have completely different palettes, you see. The adults grazing the Thanksgiving buffet table tend to gravitate towards plates the kids could care less about. No more of Grandma’s green bean casserole, which she only makes on this sole day every year, with green beans and onions from Grandpa’s garden which have been picked and stored with care until this very day? Meh, no biggie. No more pickles or after dinner mints left? Now we have a problem.
As I brought up the back of the line, passing up silver platters with mere crumbs left on them and china bowls scraped clean, I spotted a beacon of red gelatin splendor: “A Jell-o mold! I love Jell-o! How did those fools pass this up!”, I thought to myself, giggling with delight. I added it to my plate of pickles and after dinner mints, and picked up a bun for good measure.
Ah, now, where to sit to enjoy this fine spread? Seating also is a complicated process. The grown ups sit in the dining room with the china and wine and having, what I imagined at the time, amazing adult conversation about the good old days, and maybe about sophisticated things such as Aristotle (he was the one who invented T.V., right?) or The Beatles (i loved The Beatles). Or perhaps, gasp!, they were already planning where we would all have our summer vacation together! (That’s what I really liked to imagine.)
Being 11 or so at the time, I clearly didn’t fit into the adult table. The next option was the kids table. Again, somewhere that I didn’t feel as though I belonged, and I certainly didn’t have as many romantic notions about what took place there. I knew what took place there. I had sat there for 11 years, babysitting my 5 year old sister and cousins because “I was the older one”. It was a bit like an unsatisfying job: you hate being there, and just when you are about to pull a “fuck you, fuck you, I’m out” to the boss, he will come over and sing his praises about how “responsible” and “great” you are to be” helping out”. How utterly unsatisfying, but it keeps you there until the next breakdown.
There was a bit of a purgatory, but it was a place you had no option to visit: the Teenager’s Table. A cardboard table set up in the entry way, where they dined together and talked about tantalizing topics such as “high school” and “dating”….that’s what I imagined, anyway. And, now that I’m older, it was a place where I’m sure they pulled out their hip flasks out to give Aunt Alice’s Holiday Punch a little more “spirit”, if you will. How do I know this? Because it’s exactly what I did where I was finally old enough to sit at the cardboard table.
Back to the Jell-o: I went in line expecting Glorified Rice, and I ended up with Jell-o! Hallelujah! The first bite was heavenly; there isn’t much to say because it was Jell-o…it really only has one taste. But I will say the maraschino cherry I scored in the first bite did add a little something special. As I slurped the second spoonful into my mouth, I hit something. As in, I hit something that couldn’t just be sucked down -- it needed to be chewed. “What the…..?” I thought to myself, and took the bite. Celery?! I spit it out and examined my slice of the Jell-o mold: cherries, yes. All that other canned cocktail fruit, yes. But, wait….what was this? What was this green stuff? Why in hell was there celery in my Jell-o?
I consulted with my mom.
“Uh, mom…why is there celery in the jell-o?”
“Oh, your grandma made that!”
“So…why did she put celery in the jell-o?”
“It’s just her recipe”
“So….she, like, did that on purpose….or….?”
“Yeah, it’s just the way she makes it”
I took a moment to reflect. Apparently my grandmother was senile and she actually thought celery in Jell-o made sense or something. That made me feel kind of bit depressed, because everyone knows the first stage of death is losing your mind. I sighed a tragic sigh if ever there was a thing, and got back in line. Maybe there was some Glorified Rice left.
A couple Thanksgivings later with Celery Jell-o still making an appearance, I realized the celery in the Jell-o was no mistake; it was just part of the recipe. And now it’s become the Thanksgiving staple that I never eat.
Grandma Marcella’s Fruit Cocktail and Celery Jell-o:
2 package cherry flavored Jell-o
1 bunt cake mold
2 cans fruit cocktail
1-2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
Prepare Jell-o according to directions. Add cocktail fruit, drained. Add celery pieces. Stir. Chill in refrigerator until set. Flip mold onto serving platter. Serve to unsuspecting relatives.