For most of the past eight or nine years, Thanksgiving has happened at my partner’s parents’ house in Palo Alto, California, where dinner revolves around the frantic preparation of a Julia Child recipe for braised goose. Featuring an overprivileged bird, a sausage stuffing of veal, pork, and chestnuts, and a flavorful bath birthed from the union of goose fat, onions, carrots, stock, and a bottle of white vermouth, the goose is the perennial centerpiece, an opulent showstopper. Usually largely my responsibility, the sides vary. I start planning in September, never repeating a dish, trying to creatively complement the goose, hoping to play faithfully with the Thanksgiving ethos—one that traditionally begs for a symphony of oranges and tans, deep savory notes, and casseroles upon casseroles. One year, we made enoki mushrooms, butter, and black vinegar in parchment pouches, Brussels sprouts with kimchi and bacon, honey-glazed potatoes, and watercress-ginger soup. Another year, we did macaroni and cheese with kabocha squash and porcini powder, whipped sunchokes, and a pickled green bean salad with fried shallots and country ham.
The goose is my father-in-law’s domain. The shock of white hair undulating on his head, he ties on an apron, drinks a little Sapporo, and assaults the goose, skewering the vent, browning the neck, gizzard, and wing tips in a wide pan sizzling with rendered fat. Despite his years of goose-braising experience, he never feels confident taking the goose out of the oven himself. The murky braising liquid sloshes dangerously close to the edge of the pan. He’s always unsure of the goose’s doneness. His mise en place is a disaster. He never remembers to slice the onion and carrot before he needs them. Wrestling with half a dozen other dishes in the small kitchen, I always look up to see him desperately waving me over. “Onion,” he says, uncharacteristically curt in the midst of an emergency. I slice an onion. “Can you?” he suddenly yells an hour later, pointing at the oven door. I’m elbows-deep in sweet potatoes. I dash over to prod the goose. “Where is the vermouth?” he shouts. I stare blankly. The preparation is always a messy whirlwind, and I am caught in its eye. My mother-in-law laughs and slips downstairs to nap or play cello. Their daughters escape to take walks. Despite his self-doubt, the goose is done when he suspects it is. When it hits the table, it is glossy and crisp-skinned. Having exchanged its flavors with the bird’s, the stuffing tumbles out of the cavity in crumbly hunks, rich, slightly sweet, and addictive. The reduced sauce pools luxuriously under fanned goose breast slices. Absurdly satisfying in conclusion, satisfyingly absurd in preparation, the goose sums up the family’s approach to the holiday.
We may not eat it again.
In August 2014, on the fiftieth anniversary of my father-in-law’s arrival in the United States for grad school, my partner and I hiked around San Francisco with her parents to retrace his first steps on American soil: dinner at the Tadich Grill, a cable car up Powell, Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Cafe. He wore turquoise slacks and a pink blazer, ate a seafood casserole, and considered not paying for the cable car. At Fisherman’s Wharf, as was his habit, he energetically walked twenty feet ahead of everyone else, his disproportionately long arms swinging at his sides. He turned back sometimes to grin broadly. His steps were likely no lighter in 1964. In May 2015, my father-in-law returned from a trip to China with what seemed like pneumonia. Over the next two months, his condition deteriorated, with occasional, brief swings in the opposite direction. My partner and I had a baby in June. My father-in-law died in July.
Thanksgiving is in a few weeks, and replicating the goose would be easy enough. I can follow a recipe. I have helped wrangle many geese. The flavors would be within reach, but less so the process, which requires a near-catastrophic grease spill, abrupt demands for aromatics, and barked queries about the location of key ingredients of which only the master goose-wrangler himself would have clear knowledge. At the table, confidence renewed in the wake of the goose’s successful landing, my father-in-law, no longer frazzled, while reaching for a third plate, inevitably proclaims the obvious: that the goose is, in fact, “a really good goose.” My mother-in-law dryly thanks everyone but my father-in-law for the goose. With assistance, the goose poses for photos, preening, searching for the best light. Contagious laughter erupts around the table. This piece can’t be replaced. It would feel hollow, not commemorative, to continue with the goose. Likewise, my role—namely, obsessing over and preparing the accompanying dishes—seems so inseparable from my relationship with my father-in-law—the two of us, side by side in a kitchen somewhat bigger than a walk-in closet, cracking beers and barely talking, haphazardly conducting both melody and harmonies—that I feel like my usual contribution no longer fits either. The site of sad summer conversations, the Palo Alto kitchen promises claustrophobia. The prospect of combing through cookbooks for ideas is unappetizing. The family Thanksgiving no longer has its centers, and I’m compelled to see the story entirely rewritten, to find some fresh way to stoke the Thanksgiving spirit, to inspire conviviality without the iconic dish or a simulation of the hallowed preparation ritual in the absence of its high priest. Thanksgiving has gone from being an experience to which we return to one that is sought.
My father-in-law was a prominent economist. He had been a leader of student protests in his youth. Later, he was a respected Stanford professor, the author of many books, and a pioneer in the field of comparative institutional analysis. From his hospital beds, he worked to revise his last paper. He studied economic systems, corporate governance, and East Asian economies, but we didn’t talk much about these things. He loved Bob Dylan. He enjoyed Alfred Hitchcock films. There was a lot we could discuss, but food was a favorite subject and maybe his greatest passion. After all, a half-century after he came to this country, he foremost wanted to revisit memories of seafood and Irish coffee.
I’ve never met anyone who relished eating like my father-in-law. He ate three full meals a day, but fervor, not gluttony, defined his approach. My partner once proposed that his perpetual hunger was a response to having experienced, in his very early years, severe food shortages during World War II. He loved Japanese-style hamburgers, pizza, tempura, tasting menus of deconstructed New American classics, brasseries, beer halls, champagne, grilled eel, and tacos. He was an equal-opportunity epicure, as comfortable eating ramen in a market stall as he was digging into sumptuous Beijing banquets. We bonded over food. In the Bay Area or Japan, I was a reliably ravenous and appreciative companion for feasting and drinking. He appreciated my modest talent in the kitchen and sometimes introduced me to friends not as a teacher or writer, but as “a really good cook.” Thanksgiving was always a way for me to try to live up to that label. He liked that I liked to cook and that I enjoyed cooking for him.
“I believe I want pizza for dinner,” he once said at lunch, ostensibly to no one in particular.
“And who will be making this pizza? You?” his wife asked meaningfully, using the calm yet forceful tone grown-ups sometimes reserve for children struggling to accept adult logic. He paused thoughtfully. “Someone,” he said, taking another bite. “Someone will make.”
My father-in-law didn’t grow up with Thanksgiving, but he celebrated the holiday all the time. When his lungs seemed to improve for a few weeks in June, and he was transferred to a live-in rehab facility, he ate large portions of the dining hall’s bland offerings, smacking his lips over their virtues with the same gusto he typically reserved for Peking duck, lamb chops, or a stuffed, braised goose. Even when he was in the ICU, my mother-in-law would bring him artfully constructed bento boxes of delicious food in tiny portions. He was demanding, difficult, and yet endearing. There was always something he wanted to eat and, predictably, “someone” who could make it. Once, I made his lunch: a doll-sized steak sandwich consisting of a few ounces of grass-fed filet wedged into a little section of baguette. Over the course of his illness, as his capacity for indulgence decreased (and with it the likelihood of seeing Thanksgiving again), his zest for the act of eating and love for the occasion of mealtime didn’t wane. Noting his enthusiasm for the pedestrian fare, family members chuckled that his steroid dosage had affected both his appetite and palate. Maybe he was also facing the end in a Thanksgiving state-of-mind, the one he’d honed from childhood to his arrival in the United States to his last weeks in the hospital: seeing every meal as a gift and devouring it gleefully.
Too often, Thanksgiving’s celebration of survival becomes a tribute to excess that doesn’t include an acknowledgment of privilege. The attendant opportunity for collaboration and togetherness encourages the upwelling of deep-seated family tensions. It’s easy for the point to get lost in colossal gravy-drenched portions and squabbles over the texture of the mashed potatoes. In a departure from tradition, to cope with loss, I’ve accepted that the menu may be an afterthought, and that the once-fixed ceremony of planning and cooking must be fluid, perhaps even random. I’m as excited to cook as I am happy to do nothing at all. This Thanksgiving doesn’t need to be fixed or found; it can materialize in a pile of crabs, a quick curry, or a box of Chinese take-out. It can be prefabricated or made-from-scratch. It can happen in Palo Alto or another kitchen on the other side of the country. It can feature a goose or a turkey or a slab of tofu. Being able to eat, and to do so with those you love, is enough. This summer, in a hot room with one window, meeting his granddaughter for the first time and awaiting the arrival of stuffed, once-frozen shells in a watery tomato sauce, my father-in-law, who embraced Thanksgiving unencumbered by its Pilgrims-at-Plymouth mythology, reassured me of its place and purpose.