Monday, November 23, 2009

A Thanksgiving Memory

Thanksgiving foods are supposedly universal and set in stone: Turkey always plays a role, backed up with stuffing, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.

But then there are renegades like me. For me, the traditional Thanksgiving foods start with Wonton Soup and end up with bagels and lox.

In my family – which is to say the three of us, my mom, dad and I – didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving in what the media suggest is the universal tradition.

I’m not quite sure how our own tradition came into being, but it most likely had to do with the fact that our only other “family” members in the area where we lived where my mother’s sister’s family, and on Thanksgiving, they usually spent the day with the ‘other side’ of their family, which didn’t include us. So if we wanted a family celebration of our own, we’d end up sitting around the kitchen table staring at each other, just the three of us.

That would have been seriously depressing, so early on, someone decided it would be a good idea to ‘Go Away’ instead. Somewhere. Anywhere. After all, there was a four-day weekend involved.

In the early years, the destination of choice was Minneapolis. We lived in a tiny town in North Dakota, right on the Minnesota border, so the drive to Minneapolis took something like six and a half hours.

On Thanksgiving morning, no aroma of roasting turkey graced our house. Instead, we’d get up early and pack our suitcases, adjust the thermostat, close up the house for the weekend and pile into the car.

My duties on Thanksgiving morning included preparing our traditional Thanksgiving picnic, which we’d eat as we were driving, all along the way. The menu never varied: baloney sandwiches on plain white Holsom bread. Each sandwich would be cut crosswise, to make triangles, and then packed – without paper or plastic wrap – into a long narrow aluminum box, which was then put into a glen-plaid travel bag, flanked on each side by a thermos, both of which contained hot coffee.

Fresh water came along in a separate jug, meant to refill the actual glasses of ice water that never failed to accompany my parents on any car trip of any length, including the three block trip to my dad's office. Long before it was common, my dad rigged up a water glass holder that sat on the dashboard so they were never without ice water, no matter where they went.

The goal was to leave by 9 am, so one by one, we’d bring down our suitcases and stow them in the trunk. My father always favored long, low, heavy cars, starting with a series of Hudson’s. One memorable one was a red Hudson convertible, clearly not the choice of any practical North Dakotan, but my father loved the idea of it. It didn’t last long. After the cloth top of the convertible blew off a few times in North Dakota’s fierce winter winds, he started buying hard-topped Chryslers instead, the bigger the fins the better.

Suitcases in the trunk, we’d pile into the car, with me in the back seat. The moment my mother and I had closed our doors, my father would say, to no one in particular, “Your door is open.” Obligingly, my mother and I would open and then re-slam our car doors.

Had a door really been open? I doubt it. That was just something he said, each and every time we got into the car. “Your door is open.” No one ever argued or questioned it. We just slammed the doors again. Only then would he turn the key.

We drove along at a stately pace, stopping only at various “filling stations” to refuel and use the facilities. We didn’t stop for food, but at some point, the ubiquitous sandwiches I’d made would be handed out. By the time we pulled into Minneapolis, it was dark. We’d check into the Radisson – I had a room of my own, right next door to my parents – and unpack. I don’t remember having any more meals that day, but the one thing the Radisson offered that was totally unique was a television set. Imagine. A real television -- in my bedroom! I was transfixed and never turned it off.

The next morning we’d get up very early, quickly eat sweet rolls and coffee in the hotel cafe, and then head for Dayton’s. The goal for today was to be among the first to get into the store. Even in those days Dayton’s was a glittering wonder to behold – the decorations were awesome, glittering crystal, gold and white. Standing open mouthed and gaping at all the glory could take hours.

This was long before anyone had heard of “black Friday” of course but clearly Dayton’s knew the score. They opened at 8:00 the Friday after Thanksgiving, and outside each of the very many entrances, long lines of mostly women waited to get in. My mother and I were always somewhere in the front – we didn’t want to miss a single minute.

These shopping expeditions weren’t intended as any kind of holiday shopping or gift-buying events. This was a time where each of us bought what we wanted for ourselves – holiday shopping came later. I was given $100 in ten dollar bills to spend – which was an amazing amount of money in those days. Today, that might be comparable to giving a kid $800 to go have a good time. These were the days when you could normally buy a nice everyday dress for $6, shoes for $5, or a warm cuddly robe for $3 – except that on this day, almost everything was on sale. Boy, did we shop.

We didn’t stay together. My father, I think, quickly found something else to do although I’m not sure what. He might have spent the day watching television. That was a rarified treat for all of us.

My mother and I would separate, planning to meet once during the morning so we could take the accumulated shopping bags back to the hotel. Then we’d start again.

I’m not sure what year it was, but one year I hit a real bonanza. I loaded up on three-strand fake pearls, on several huge purses with a shoulder strap – who ever heard of such a thing? And sling back shoes. Low heels, with just a strap across the back. I bought about five pair of sling back shoes, one of them in glorious black patent leather. Another year I bought a fake fur coat – full length, sort of a grayish color. I have no idea what animal that plush “fur” (think stuffed-animal fabric) was supposed to represent, but I loved that coat and wore it for years.

By four in the afternoon, we were shopped out, foot sore and generally exhausted. We’d drag ourselves back to the hotel where my father would have ordered “cocktails” together with some kind of snack. We’d take our shoes off, relax, and then head out for our ritual Thanksgiving dinner at the Nankin, a Chinese restaurant.

The Nankin was top heavy with exotica, glistening aquariums all around, lined with red padded velvet booths, each adorned with gold-tasseled red lanterns dangling from every upturned black lacquer surface. It was the most exciting place I could imagine.

The Nankin may still be there – it survived long enough that I was able to take my own kids there on one of our trips to Minneapolis. My kids couldn’t quite understand what I saw in the place, but then how could they? Even so, for me, the Nankin ranks as one of the finest restaurants in the world.

In the early days, I’d order Wonton Soup as an appetizer, followed by something else as a main course. But it soon dawned on me that the Wonton Soup was by far my favorite food, so I started having an enormous bowl as the entrĂ©e. My father’s always ordered sweet & sour something, while my mother stuck to chow mien or something else more prosaic. She also hated the bland white rice, so I usually accompanied my soup with her white rice.

When we were finished, the waiter – always male – brought three fortune cookies. We took turns opening them, with my father going last. Year after year, he would break open his fortune cookie and read the little piece of paper: “You will shortly be called upon to pay the bill.”

Every year that struck me as totally hilarious. In fact, my father’s fortune cookie became part of the Thanksgiving ritual. I came to expect it, year after year. Now I find myself wondering what his fortune really read, all those years.

We’d shop again the next day, too, but clearly the enthusiasm was waning. On Sunday, we’d make the long trek home. I’d sleep most of the way.

The years passed, and when I moved to San Francisco for law school, my parents became serious snow birds. In previous years, they’d rented places for a few months at a time in Palm Springs, but by the time I was in law school, they’d bought their “condo” -- an odd little white villa – and spent fully six months of the year there, where my father played golf every day and looked forward to his morning trek to the post office. Why? The post office held out the potential of running into his “good friend” Red Skelton, who my father insisted was “just a great fellow. Nice as can be.” Other celebrity sightings – Bing Crosby and Bob Hope – were also cherished, but Red Skelton was “a guy you can really talk to.”

So now we were all in California, but again, when Thanksgiving came around, the tradition was to “go someplace.” We all flew – separately – to Las Vegas for four days of holiday there.

In Las Vegas, we first stayed at the Flamingo, then at the Imperial Palace. Both were owned by Ralph Engelstad, a friend of my father’s from their days at the University of North Dakota. Engelstad had been the goalie for UND’s Fighting Sioux Ice Hockey team, so every year, football was replaced by reminiscing about the great moments of ice hockey at the University of North Dakota. A couple of years we were invited to have “drinks” with Ralph and his wife Betty, which was quite a treat. My mother insisted Betty had been a “show girl” at one time, which almost certainly wasn’t true, even though Betty had the aura of serious glamour. That made it fun.

None of us were even remotely serious gamblers. My dad and I spent the days at Caesar’s Palace, our gambling destination of choice, albeit for reasons I don’t remember. He’d wander off and play a little low-key Blackjack or Craps, while I’d ruefully donate a few rolls of nickels to the slots.

It didn’t take long for me to seek out the Keno lounge and plunk myself down there for the duration. The variant of Keno I chose to play was relatively cheap. True, you couldn’t win much, but the upside was, it took quite a while to lose whatever funds I’d set aside for gambling, too.

Every evening we’d go to one of the big casino shows. Over the years, we saw just about all the Las Vegas regulars, but the only one that sticks in my mind was Debbie Reynolds – who could forget ‘Tammy’?

The real highlight of the Thanksgiving Las Vegas trip was the food. Because there are no clocks in casinos, breakfast could be ordered at any hour of the day. So for four days in a row, three times a day, I ordered my most favorite Thanksgiving meal ever. Bagels and lox.

Morning, noon and night I ate bagels, lox and cream cheese, garnished with tomato, red onion and capers. I’ve never ever gotten tired of it.

What all of this means is that American Thanksgiving can be celebrated in many different ways, with many different traditional foods. For some, it’s turkey, yams dotted with marshmallows, followed by pumpkin pie.

For me, Thanksgiving brings back warm memories of Wonton Soup at the Nankin, or bagels and lox at a Las Vegas casino.


  1. What great memories!! As long as I've known you, I didn't know the whole story of your Thanksgiving celebrations. Just as well. I would have been jealous. I loved Minneapolis and lived for my summer visits with my grandmother and aunt.

    After 80 years in business, The Nankin Cafe closed in early 1999, but the family who owned the Nankin is still in the business. One of their enterprises is The Wanderer at Ridgedale in Minnetonka. It lacks the red/gold/black decor of the Nankin, but it uses the same recipes.

    Much as I enjoy Chinese food, I still like turkey, gravy, dressing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, lefse and pumpkin pie for our traditional meal.

    Traditions are good. Thanks for sharing yours.

  2. That's my friend Sally speaking -- we've been best friends since 7th grade (and I'll spare us both the agony of admitting to the number of years that encompasses).

    I'm sorry to hear of the Nankin's closing -- but delighted the recipes live on.

    I love turkey, too -- just not on Thanksgiving. Wonton Soup would be welcome -- and of course my Beersheba friends know how I long for bagels, here, which are dueced hard to find.