It is close enough to Thanksgiving so that I can tell you one of my father’s favorite turkey stories. This is actually a teaching tale about innovation, not to mention quick thinking. I first heard it when I was very young, and I am embarrassed to tell you that I puzzled over it for a long while before I got the point.

But first I have to tell you another of my dad’s favorite teaching tales, which is about the opposite, namely, not thinking. This story involves a ham. Today you can find it on Google. I bet Dad found it in the Reader’s Digest.

The child is watching the parent prepare the ham for baking. The end of the ham is cut off. The child asks, “Why do you cut the end off?” The parent is stumped and calls the grandparent. “Because that’s the way I learned it.” In turn they call the great-grandparent who says, “Why, so it will fit in my pan.”

This is now a classic study in sticking with how you learned it. I personally like rote learning a lot when starting out, especially since some of the things I learned to do in the kitchen I only learned the reasoning behind 50 years later.

Ask me sometime about lemon juice, my mother’s secret ingredient. It’s about the physiology of taste. Who knew?

Meanwhile, on to the turkey story. I have made my mom the star of this story, even though it is my dad’s tale, and this never happened in our house. Trust me on this. But let’s pretend: It’s Thanksgiving. We’re home from the football game, and the extended family is assembled. It’s too early for the talk to have turned to politics, so as yet there is no fighting, not even among the kids. The grown-ups are at the dining room table, and the kids are at the kids’ table in the living room. We have had the chopped liver and the pickled herring appetizers. The bread, the squash, the corn, the potatoes and the peas with mushrooms and onions are brought in. The extra pans of chestnut stuffing are passed. Also the three kinds of cranberry sauce — jellied, whole berries and the one with orange peel that Aunt Celia always brings, ack phooey.

(It is too early in time for Susan Stamberg’s mother-in-law’s cranberry sauce, featured every year on All Things Considered. It may exist, but if I said it was served at our house at the period I am imagining, it would be an anachronism. In fact at the time I am thinking about, National Public Radio hasn’t been invented yet. Heck, the TV signal comes on only at 4 p.m.)

Anyway, we’re eagerly awaiting the turkey. Much clattering and banging from the kitchen. The door swings open. Mother proudly brings in the huge bird. Dad is standing at the other end of the table, brandishing the carving knife. Mom continues between the dining room table and the sideboard. And then — disaster! She trips! She loses her grip! Horror in slow motion. The turkey is airborne! We all hold our breaths. The turkey has landed.

Silence. Every guest is thinking, “We’re going to eat that?

“Oh,” says Mom, picking herself up, “please don’t be concerned. I have another one all ready in the kitchen.”

Here is a recipe for whole cranberry sauce with my mother’s magic ingredient.

1 12-oz. bag of cranberries

½ cup water

1 cup maple syrup (more or less depending on how sweet you like it)

Juice of ½ lemon

Wash and pick over the berries and put them in a saucepan with the other ingredients. Cook on brisk heat until the berries pop. Don’t over-boil. It doesn’t take very long. Cool and serve. It’s gluten-free, refined-sugar-free, and it is, of course, traditional with roast turkey (recently airborne or not).

Happy Thanksgiving!

Theodora J. Kalikow is vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Maine System and president emerita of University of Maine at Farmington. She can be reached at [email protected]


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