The turkey is in the oven; the dressing has been made. The table is set, complete with a centerpiece featuring oak leaves turned the color of pennies and cotton bolls from the field right outside the door. The flag is waving in the bright November sun. I am ready for Thanksgiving.
But the truth is that I've been ready since Monday. Because, on Monday, I made the congealed salad: Lime Jell-O, cream cheese, crushed pineapple, and pecans, shaped into a wreath by a Tupperware mold.
I don't remember the first time Aunt Doris brought the congealed salad to Thanksgiving at Grannie's. It seems as though it was always there, in the 9 x 12 Pyrex dish wedged in between the sweet potato souffle' and Mama's creamed corn. Not everybody liked it, but to me it served as a sort of palate cleanser, a tart eye-opener between the butter-laden side dishes and the even-more-butter-laden desserts. The combination of smooth and crunchy, tangy and sweet made it my favorite -- well, one of my favorites -- on the holiday buffet.
After the death of my grandparents, which coincided with a geographical spread of cousins and the arrival of yet another generation, their children began gathering in smaller groups, family units as it were, to celebrate Thanksgiving. The first time I ate turkey and dressing without congealed salad I realized a terrible mistake had been made and quickly got the recipe from Aunt Doris.
Every Thanksgiving and every Christmas since then I've made it. Even if I was the only one who ate it.
I suspect that every family has a dish like congealed salad, something that might not at first look as though it fits in, that offers a slightly different flavor to an otherwise predictable menu. In fact, that dish might not even have been food. It might be a person. Someone whose ideas, whose language, whose skin color is in contrast to everyone else's. Someone who stands out at first, but who eventually fits in, right there between the sweet potato souffle' and creamed corn and without whom the celebration just wouldn't be the same.
I can smell the turkey now. In a few hours I will take it out and carve it. I will set out my own 9 x 12 dishes of dressing and macaroni and cheese. I will pour the vegetables into the bowls. And I will pull out the round glass tray that belonged to Grannie which is where the congealed salad will sit in the very center of Thanksgiving, a reminder that this national holiday is always a very individual one.