As I think about telling this Thanksgiving story, I need to back up to August of that year. My mom has a sister ten years younger and my family and grandparents were headed up to Lake Erie to see she and her husband’s new boat. I don’t know much about yachting, but apparently the challenge of a Great Lakes boat is that it must be every bit as seafaring as a boat meant for ocean voyages, but not too big as much of the Great Lakes is accessed by small canals and passages. As a result, the marinas are meant to host boats of a certain size. At 6’ 6” and easily 350 pounds, my uncle is not of a certain size and neither was his boat. He actually had two boats. The big one was TUBBY and the smaller one was TUBBY Jr. He grew up boating on various lakes in Michigan and is a very skilled and safe yachtsman. But he is also totally fucking obnoxious. At big family functions, people often assume he and I are father and son because we are both big and loud and have dark hair and are curiously tan.
|My aunt, left, was pregnant with her first while my mom was pregnant with her last|
So anyway, we all get up to Lake Erie, board the boat, and head for Put-In-Bay. Now the only people who know about Put-In-Bay are extreme history buffs and Midwestern drunks. It is kind of like Cancun with murky water and a lower cost of entry. I don’t know the yachting terminology so forgive me. But because the marina wasn’t equipped for a boat this size, he had to drop anchor in an inlet and then have a water taxi/dinghy take us to the dock. Unfortunately in this process of swim deck to dinghy to dock, my grandmother fell. She thought it wasn’t that bad, as she was able to brace her fall with her forearm. Just to be safe, we had an island medic look at it. I’m pretty sure all this guy was equipped to do was take peoples blood alcohol content and tell them if they were legal to drive their boats. She said her arm hurt but it was fine. We had a good time that day. My mother being the first born Aries that she is felt the injury was worse than my grandma was presenting it to be. My mom does not like water, drunk people in tube tops, bugs, or humidity. So Put-In-Bay was not her thing anyway. We just all kind of assumed she was looking for an excuse to hightail it back to the mainland.
We got back home and sometime in the following week my grandma made it to a real doctor, who after x-rays referred her to a surgeon. One of the bones was fractured and it was a whole thing. I don’t speak medical either so I don’t really know. But she had to have a surgery and then a cast with an exterior bar contraption that looked positively medieval. By the time this all happened, we were headed for our annual Thanksgiving Hilton Head trip.
|The very weighed down Explorer. You can see how the Griswold essence is hard-wired into me|
For many years, my mom’s entire side of the family all met in Hilton Head and spent Thanksgiving there. Hilton Head is completely intertwined with Thanksgiving for me. So the Saturday before Thanksgiving, my grandparents would head down first. All three of them. My grandparents divorced before my siblings and I were born. They had a very amicable divorce and always still really loved each other. My grandma remarried, divorced, and remarried. My grandpa met a woman just before my older sister, the first grandchild, was born. He and L are not married because L had been through a nasty divorce and saw no reason to get married again. L was raised very Catholic and jokes that she did everything her parents dreamed for her by 22. She could read, married a doctor, and drove a Cadillac--in their eyes her life was over because there was nothing left to accomplish. Then she says by 52 she ruined everything by being divorced and living in sin with my grandpa. Lin fought the power and burned the bras and is truly a Renaissance woman. She is so smart, so funny, loyal, and because everything was good with my grandparents’ divorce, she is totally a bonus grandparent. She was always there and is just as much my grandma as my grandma was. Though my grandma was married, her husband wasn’t invited along. We invited him, but she didn’t. My grandpa, his ex wife, and his live-in girlfriend frequently traveled together. This, naturally, confused people. When explaining the web to people, he would say Well this is Nancy, my ex-wife and mother to my three children. And this is Lin, my slut. My grandma would giggle and Lin would nod matter-of-factly.
|That headline reads "The Good Divorce".|
Now, I know. I know, I know. We shouldn’t say slut. I don’t go around calling anyone a slut except myself. But this was a time when people were still allowed to have senses of humor. My grandpa and L both have very raunchy senses of humor, so they thought this was hilarious. My grandma had a very sweet, no bad words sense of humor.
My grandma was always the driver. She had a keen sense of direction, and could stay awake easily for hours on end. She could have segued from model to truck driver if she had been so inclined. My grandpa once infamously stuck his 16 year old daughter in the driver’s seat, told her to drive to Atlantic City, and fell asleep within five minutes. The joke was on him when he woke up in Maine. Even though she had her rather barbaric-looking metal rod device on her arm, my grandma still drove. Another uncle, his wife, and son would go down around the same time.
Next to barrel down I-77 was my aunt and uncle. Not only did they have two boats, but they had an RV. And of course they had a giant RV. And from the giant RV, they would tow a giant Ford Excursion. And from the Excursion, they would tow go-carts or scooters or mopeds. I am positive his caravan tow was illegal, and every time I drive the windy mountain stretch through West Virginia I cringe thinking about him. Now on the drive down to Hilton Head, you go through a densely wooded stretch in the mountains. On this leg, there are not a lot of stops or signs. The ones you see grab your attention. Especially when they are for a strip club. The rural mountain strip club, Southern X-Posure, is included prominently into our family lore. We told people that my grandma retired from there and that my four year old cousin was apprenticing there. Once my grandpa told someone that he had worked there too when he was a woman. Again, I know. We shouldn’t have. But we did. The reason we told people that about my cousin is because she had a habit of flashing people. She was the cutest little girl and was always dancing. People would find this adorable! Until she had plenty of attention, at which point she would lift her top. Some people were absolutely aghast. While we, her family, would be unsuccessfully laughing under our breath trying not to reinforce it. How she learned this? Probably from her dad’s Playboy calendars, air fresheners, etc.
|Luckily I found a trove of my grandmother's photos from this trip.|
|How sweet! A little girl dancing!|
|...notice how her crowd over the hedge cleared.|
And then, finally, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, my family would leave. This is before I was in charge and shit was a mess. We would plan to leave at noon and sometimes not leave until 10PM. Once we turned around in West Virginia because my sister forgot her homework. Once we left four hours late because my mom was ironing her sheets so she’d have a nice bed to come home to. This was before cell phones and navigation systems, and my dad kind of navigates like Christopher Columbus. We would wind up with long, circling tours of Appalachian foothill farmland. Only to realize this when we saw the same McDonalds again. And then, obviously, we had to stop at that McDonalds. An 11 hour drive often took 16. But we made it. So we would finally arrive--luggage racks, bicycles, and a yellow Labrador in tow--sometime Wednesday morning. It was a short trip for us, but was nice to arrive with everyone else in full vacation mode.
|I think this is the year before the tooth incident. I love what an absolute mess this photo is.|
My grandparents absolutely loved to go listen to live music together. L was happy to stay home and read one of her twelve thousand newspapers (she likes to be very informed). But as they would head out the door, she would say Nancy, watch his hands. With his glaucoma all blondes look the same to him after 10PM. They would go from bar to bar. My grandma didn’t drink at all and my grandpa only drinks if it’s really expensive for someone else but free for him. They just loved the music and spending time together. I think they regretted their divorce. L was always gracious and secure enough to let my grandma borrow him sometimes. Getting to keep the best of him without the day to day problems that drove them apart. Lin is a saint. Anyway, they called this bar to bar agenda rolling. Not like rolling on ecstasy but more innocently because they rolled from place to place.
One night, my sister and I decided we were going to roll with them. My two aunts were supposed to come but each decided not to at the last minute. Just the four of us in one car with absolutely no common sense aboard. I think I was 10 and my sister was 13.
I think we tried the Hilton first. There was a pianist and a singer at the hotel bar. We walked in and sat down at a table. This would have been fine if my grandma could have stopped laughing at the pianist. You know how some musicians make those incredibly weird faces when they play? Well this guy made a face that kind of looked like a fish smoking crack while he played piano. My grandma did not like potty humor, but weird-ass physical comedy like this was her golden ticket. So as she’s trying to discretely giggle, my grandpa turned around in his chair toward her and started imitating this man’s facial expressions. Well this was too much for her to bear. Her relatively quiet giggle turned into tears streaming down her face she was laughing so hard. About this time, my sister got up to go to the bathroom. I have said this before, but she has an uncanny ability to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. As she was turning the corner out of the bar toward the lobby, her shoulder clipped the handle of a mop in a bucket just enough to drag both the mop and the bucket down. Now I can keep a straight face through almost anything except my sister’s misfortune. Up until this point, I had been trying to maintain a shred of dignity while sitting at a table with these baboons making faces and laughing. Well the sight of the mop, the bucket, the flow of dirty water, and my sister all going down absolutely broke me and I began to howl laughing. My sister apparently does not understand the wily ways of the mop and bucket system, so she repeatedly tried to put the mop back in the empty bucket. Rather than prop the mop handle up against the wall, she kept putting it to the other side where it fell over and over again. By this time, my grandma and I are laughing so hard we are practically convulsing. All while my grandpa has his head turned toward the stage and is nodding along. The joke has always been that my grandpa is borderline narcoleptic. Because he can be in a conversation, finish his thought, turn over the floor, and be sitting up straight but out cold before the next person has uttered two syllables. As my grandma and I go to help my sister, she takes two napkins off a table and hangs them on her arm rod like it’s a towel rack, the sight of which had us all dying. In this span of about three minutes, we had started to get glares from within the room. I notice someone from the bar walk to the front desk and point at us, all while I’m trying to wipe up this dirty ass mop water with two overly starched polyester napkins. The lady from the front desk approaches and sternly asks my grandma did you give this girl ALCOHOL? And before she could answer, the guy from the bar is back and says and that guy is in there either passed out or DEAD! To which we had the obvious and natural reaction to laugh harder. Luckily my sister explained that he probably wasn’t dead. To which the woman advised we wake him up and leave. So that’s how we got kicked out of the first bar.
On the way to the next, we were taking stock of all that had happened. Laughing hysterically, we tried to go into The Jazz Corner. They absolutely would not let my sister and me in. My selfish, only child grandpa suggested maybe my sister and I go wait in the car for a while. To which the host said What the hell kinda grand-dad are you? If we were sensible, we would have just given up and gone back home. As we headed back out, my grandpa asked my grandma to stop at a gas station so he could get one of those little touristy booklets vacation destinations used to sell before the internet and cell phones that listed events and activities. While in there, he picked up some black licorice. I have a theory that no one actually likes black licorice, given that it is so fucking disgusting, but that people eat it just because they don’t want to share. As in their desire to not share is so strong they will eat something vile just so they can keep it to themselves. Anyway, after we all refused a piece, he began scouring the booklet for somewhere else with live music. There was another place a few miles down the road. It turned out to be a bar and restaurant that is just on the other side of the bridge one takes on or off the island. We finally get there, walk in, and sit down. My grandpa has his booklet and his black licorice. Just as my sister and I finally think we’re going to get a damn diet coke and see all this fun our grandparents allegedly have while rolling, someone comes over and tells us we can’t be in there because we’re too young. By now, we are kind of annoyed. With the exception of my grandma who still found it all hilarious. Reluctantly, my grandpa admits defeat and says we should just go home. He also slips in a little accusatory Well, I had really been looking forward to hearing some live music and looks at us like we ruined it. My sister felt bad and apologized and I probably gave him a look that said go fuck yourself because I was 11 and don’t think I talked like that just yet. My grandma didn’t like this and said Oh Bill! You’re full of it. You would have slept through half of it. He was chomping on his black licorice like the disgruntled five year old that he is when he said Uhh, Nance, can you pull over? Sometimes karma moves quickly. No! I can’t pull over! Look! There’s nowhere to stop. He said I lost a tooth. I need to find it. We assume he is joking and trying to recover the mood from his little tantrum. He insists No! I really lost a tooth! I need to find it! To which she says Show me! I know you didn’t lose a tooth, Bill! He gives her a big grin and appears to be missing a tooth. We all begin to roar, laughing at his missing-tooth smile. But we thought he had stuck a piece of black licorice over one of his teeth and was joking. Finally over the bridge, with a parking lot to pull into, my grandma stops the car to investigate. She was a nurse so it’s unsurprising that her method for checking the authenticity of the missing tooth was very direct. She told him to smile and she stuck her finger into his smile, clearly assuming this would put an end to the joke. When her nail went right through she shrieked BILL! You lost a tooth! He answered Damn it! That’s what I’ve been saying! To this day, I don’t think I have ever laughed harder than I did in the next half hour, driving back over the bridge, looking on our hands and knees in the parking lot for the tooth, when my grandpa asked the host at the restaurant We aren’t trying to come back in with minors, but I was wondering if anyone has found any teeth since we left? And no one was laughing harder than my grandma. All of her makeup had run because she was crying from laughing so hard. My sister and I kept making him smile and it was just as hilarious each time. Finally we gave up on the tooth hunt and headed home. The next morning, Thanksgiving, my grandpa got ahold of his dentist who assured him he would be fine for the remainder of the trip and that it could be fixed when he got home. When we all went for Thanksgiving dinner at the Hilton Head Diner, almost the only thing open back then on Thanksgiving day except for the awful Quarterdeck, the waitress said Uh oh! Looks like all grandpa wants for Christmas is his two front teeth! He then asked You wanna know how this happened? She took the bait and asked how? Well, it was a sex injury. And because my grandpa has sterling comedic timing, he just left it at that. My grandma would laugh so hard and so awkwardly that it came off like it was true. We all just shook our heads and the waitress gave us a what the fuck is wrong with you people? look of disdain and went about her shift. So for the rest of the trip, he would tell anyone that would listen that he lost his tooth in a sex injury. How lucky I feel to have such vivid and ridiculous memories with my grandparents.
|By Black Friday everyone was looking a little rough|
The Thanksgiving Hilton Head trip could never be the same without my grandma, but we did revive it in 2013. It was a bit of a tumultuous trip. An ice storm complicated travel for some, cold weather on Hilton Head ruined the trip for others. Cold doesn’t bother me, but it bothered everyone else. So everyone was experiencing a bit of vacation cabin fever all while I’m cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Things got a little tense in my rental house’s bottleneck kitchen. On Monday, I threatened to lock everyone out in the cold if they didn’t stop complaining. My mom brought me a piece of chocolate cake and told me to calm down. So Wednesday night, I finally get to the pies. My favorite moment of Thanksgiving prep. Everyone was in good spirits because half of us were loaded. My sister was DJing and tailoring the selections to my tastes because she is smart. While she was dancing to Rhiannon with her whiskey in one hand, I was chopping apples and swaying with periodic sips of my cranberry+gin+sprite zero. I get the pie finished and go to make the crumble topping. I love a traditional double crust apple pie, but I think I like a crumble topping even more. SHIIIIIIIIT! I exclaim between sips staring into the pantry I forgot the fucking oatmeal! My angelic mother pops in and says your dad and I are going to run out anyway, we will get some. Hallelujah! Thanksgiving is saved. Well about two hours later (my mom does nothing fast, except engage in a political argument), they roll in with steel cut oats. My dad nervously asks Now this is the right thing, right? No one is more clear direction giver than I. I wrote QUAKER OLD FASHIONED OATS. Well apparently my dad thought he should find the oats that seemed the most old fashioned. So he brings home like some fucking $45 Bob’s Red Mill Steel Cut Oats. I didn’t have the heart or energy to tell him it was wrong. So I said yeeeeeeeeeeah, just perfect. Steel cut oats would never soften in time and I wanted to get this fucking pie in the freezer and ready to bake so I could go to bed. Another pantry stare gave me an idea. I had panko breadcrumbs. Hmmm. I hadn’t heard of them for dessert application, but why not?
|I will readily admit that traditional pumpkin pies are much prettier than my version|
Panko makes the best crumble topping for a pie. It is so good, so crisp, and doesn’t get too brown too fast. You can throw it together in a bowl without any fanfare, as opposed to some crumble topping recipes that are more involved like a biscuit dough. It is important that the butter is melted. Panko is designed to go a long time without burning, but sometimes that makes it reluctant to color. By mixing in melted butter, that assures the panko is hydrated with fat and will evenly brown. Because this has no leavening like egg or baking powder, it pretty much stays where you put it, meaning it does not rise. Also you have a good chance of cutting neat slices, which can be a little tough with some crumble toppings.
Panko Crumble Topping for Pies
3/4 cup (1.5 sticks) butter, melted
3/4 cup Panko bread crumbs
3/4 cup Old Fashioned Oats
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
1/4 cup AP flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Combine all ingredients and press onto unbaked pie.
When we dream of holidays, we tend to dream of perfection. Just the right things happening at just the right time. But the reality is that often the most exquisite moments are found when things start going wrong. Like verge of killing everyone wrong. As we ride those waves of chaos and temper, we build identity, our favorite stories, and new traditions--from sex injuries to Japanese bread crumbs.