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Queen's Salad

I've never had a great relationship with Thanksgiving. I grew up in a very small family. Three reduced to two after my parents' divorce and the grandparents were half a country away. Turns out its both difficult and expensive to make all the traditional American Thanksgiving fare without so much of it going to waste. On top of that, I have never really cared for turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, or green bean casserole. Nothing wrong with loving those dishes, they just aren't for me.

So, and I don't remember when this happened, my mom and I just stopped trying to do the traditional American Thanksgiving fare. We started making chili. It worked for us. My mom would be browning beef and sausage while I watched the Rockettes kickline for Santa in front of the Macy's in New York City. We'd start unpacking and carefully unwrapping the Christmas decorations while the meat stewed with tomatoes, beans, garlic, onion, and spices. It was cheaper, way less labor intensive, and became a part of our holiday tradition.

Once I'd navigated that rough patch that was my first marriage and found myself a single mom, I returned to my Thanksgiving roots and started making a pot of chili instead of a turkey and fixins' every third Thursday of November.

Then I married Jack. More importantly for this discussion, I married into Jack's massive family. His people have lived in this area for generations and they go hard on Thanksgiving. They take the idea of tradition and turn the dial all the way to eleven. When I joined the family. I actually found it nearly impossible to contribute to the Thanksgiving table. By that time I'd learned to cook and was actually pretty good at it. But I was the last spouse to join the family. All the standard dishes were claimed. My step-sister-in-law had the broccoli cheese casserole on lock down. My step-brother-in-law had perfected the smoked turkey. The mashed potatoes, bread, dessert, veggies, casseroles, even the damn cranberry sauce was handled. They all knew who brought what and what it was supposed to look and taste like.


It didn't matter that I had a killer broccoli cheese casserole that they'd all eaten and loved. Thanksgiving broccoli cheese casserole HAD to be this one particular recipe they'd been eating on Thanksgiving for decades and my sister-in-law had it under control.

Thus I was left with...Queen's salad. Basically fruit salad drenched in sweetened condensed milk and cool whip. That's the kind of thing you give to the one family member who can't cook for shit but also cannot be trusted to remember to bring the solo cups and ice. If they remember, great, we have fruity sugar cream. If they don't, no one is going to miss it. But that's what I get to make. Queen's Salad.

I was bitter about the Queen's Salad thing for...a few years. I'd worked so hard to learn how to cook. And being a burnt-out gifted & talented kid, I couldn't just stop at learning how to cook. I had to excel at cooking. I had to self-teach French Mother sauces and how to flambe. I had to tackle beef wellingtons and coq au vin and souffle, notoriously easy to fuck up dishes. In my single mom days, I learned to be a Chopped champion, making meals that actually tasted goods out of a seemingly random assortment of ingredients that I could afford. I was a good cook, dammit.

And I got to make fruit salad with cream.

To recap I went from trying to force a "traditional meal" to saying "Fuck it, let's make chili," to "Please let me cook anything. Like actually cook. Dump and stir feels like cheating." It's a weird relationship I've developed with Thanksgiving.

I need you to understand the decision to not let me cook is not a commentary on my cooking skills. It's just the dynamic of tradition I entered into when I married Jack. They happily welcomed me into the fold. But they just didn't have anything left for me to add to the Thanksgiving menu. It was all spoken for.

My love language is feeding people. It hasn't always been but over the last decade or so, I want to make food for people to enjoy. I'm not even going to pretend it's wholly altruistic, the act of making meals and treats for others. Nah. I love the dopamine hit I get when someone takes a bite of food I made and they do that thing where their eyes roll back in their skull as they make the mmm-mmm-hmmm-om nom nom sound with their mouth full.

I realized this was also my mom's love language. It started with the chili. She would have absolutely kept looking for ways to halve and quarter recipes so we could have a Thanksgiving feast just like the rest of the country. But I didn't care for the classic dishes, so she shifted and started the chili thing. Making food we both enjoyed was the more important part of the tradition.

But in Jack's family, it felt like I wasn't allowed to love them through food. It was "just" fruit salad. How am I supposed to prove my love if I can't feed you? The harder the dish, the greater the love, right? It took Jack casually dropping an absolute bomb of understanding on me, having no idea what he'd said. One year, I'd been lamenting my forlorn roll as fruit stirrer as I made Queen's Salad when he commented,

"It's so weird they ask for this every year. Once Grandmom died, no one made this anymore." Hang on. Grandmom? Grandmom was the title given to former Matriarch of the whole goddamn family. The woman who everyone feared, respected, listened to. She was the type to speak essays with eyebrows and her "I'm disappointed" could gut and field dress you on the spot. I'd never met her. She'd died a couple years before Jack and I got together. But her legacy was deep and unbreakable in the family.

"I'm sorry. Did you say Grandmom used to make the Queen's Salad?" I asked incredulously.

"Yeah. It was everyone's favorite and when she died, it disappeared. No one ever remembered to make it but we missed it every year."

Oh. Oooooh. I'd been viewing Queen's Salad as a consolation prize, a "fine, if you insist," gesture. Turns out I was given a beloved part of the family tradition, in memory of Grandmom. That stupid fruit salad was a high honor that I simply hadn't understood. They'd incorporated me into the family tradition.

Here's my turning point - Thanksgiving isn't about the food. It's about the memories that food invokes, the time spent preparing food for others to partake and enjoy, and, hopefully, spending time with family (chosen, given, or comboed) sharing the food you made together.

One day, I fully intend to return to Thanksgiving chili. When Jack's family traditions begin to shift, the children hosting the parents instead of the other way around, and we are no longer dutifully trooping over to his dad's house for smoked turkey and subpar broccoli cheese casserole, I'll start making chili again. I'll put a big pot on the stove and remove expectation that my kids come over to my house. I'll be the optional tradition. Go to your boyfriend's house, agree to work that time and a half shift, don't feel bad about having a Friendsgiving. If you want to swing by for Thanksgiving Chili (even if its "To Go"), lovely. If you can't, my feelings won't be hurt. I'll see you at Christmas, kids.

But for now, I make the Queen's Salad to share. I felt like I was outside the traditional landscape of Jack's family for so long. Now I recognize it for what it is. The expanded their tradition to include me. So long live chili. Long live fruit salad. Long live traditions being both static and evolving.



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