Marshmallows in Germany

My guess is that blogs everywhere are going to be exploding with vignettes about family, food, travel and homecomings this week. Thanksgiving week is magical – more so than Christmas or New Year’s week because so much happens this week – the child who went away to college comes home for the first time. The estranged family member accepts the invitation to dinner and is on his or her best behavior. Mothers-in-law compliment daughters-in-law, most likely for the first time. Football teams are triumphant, as are fledgling cooks who meticulously followed Martha Stewart’s dozens of suggestions for the perfect holiday meal.  Mothers are demanding and critical, relatives get drunk (and become estranged), the college kid’s friends stop by sporting funny haircuts and using strange words (Hey! Mrs. C.!  How’s it hanging?), and diabetics eat way too many carbohydrates and jack up their insulin doses.


Ah, yes, Thanksgiving week. I have a few fond memories and stories to share.  One year, during our annual pilgrimage to North Carolina to see my mom’s sister and family, the temperature was in the mid-seventies, so a bunch of us donned bathing suits and laid out on the deck roasting ourselves not unlike the turkey. This was a huge deal to me because this Jersey Girl was usually eating her turkey while bundled up in GoreTex, welcoming winter’s wrath at Thanksgiving.


I’m sure of a year or two…or six…the boyfriend du jour joined my family for the feast.  In fact, it was, again, in North Carolina that I recall a chair breaking under the weight of a not-fat-but-tall-and-solid boyfriend. I didn’t laugh because I identified with his horror. A room full of strangers and the ‘new guy’ gets the broken chair. Even now it’s still not funny to me. After the dessert plates were cleared, and the incident long forgotten, it was time to play Bonanza.


Bonanza is a card game played after dessert by everyone in the house – age didn’t matter, the more players, the better.  Two decks of cards are shuffled together. A coffee can of pennies lands on the table with a thump. And every one throws quarters, nickels and dimes at the guy with the can in exchange for the pennies required for play. The young children in my family learn how to gamble and hone their skills during the annual game of Bonanza. During play, cards are dealt, pennies are thrown into the pot, pennies are taken from the pot, more cards are dealt, there is a countdown, and, at the end of each round, someone wins the pot. It’s a marathon card game that would incite my family to yell at the cards and at each other, cheering and jeering the winners and losers. Games typically would end when players started falling asleep at the table.


My ex-mother-in-law almost caused an International incident one year. A Fulbright Fellow from Germany was visiting the college where I teach. Frauke and I had formed a nice friendship, so I invited her to join us for her first American Thanksgiving. No one is more American than my ex-mother-in-law. She bleeds apple pie and judgment.  It was a roll of the dice, and I’m not much of a gambler, but I hoped the spirit of the Holidays would shine on this small-minded Majesty and move her to keep her damn mouth shut.


She didn’t. She lost it over the marshmallows that topped the sweet potatoes.  Frauke never heard of such a travesty – how could someone ruin a perfectly good root vegetable with marshmallows? Okay, so that was my point of view, but still, Frauke was so amazed at the marshmallows, she took pictures to send to her friends in Germany because they would never believe this stupid American could ever do this to the humble sweet potato. Okay, so I was the one who thought it a stupid American thing, but still, Frauke was amazed; she took pictures (after asking very politely if she could) of the dish and of her holding the dish, and she even tried some of the bizarre combination at dinner (deftly, I must say, hiding her disgust for the overly sweet baked dish of Type II diabetes).


However, ex-mother-in-law was having none of it. She talked about the family tradition that is the marshmallows and the many American recipes that use marshmallow. Throughout dinner, she made marshmallow comments. She asked Frauke if she enjoyed the marshmallows…twice. She made it her job to point out which foods didn’t have marshmallow in them, such as, the turkey and the green beans.


I was thankful that Frauke spoke and understood little English. Most of ex-mother-in-law’s snide comments passed her by as she smiled back at the woman smiling at her, insulting her.


I was even more thankful that I brought my own wine, a punchy Cabernet Sauvignon that I knew my ex-in-law’s palates couldn’t tolerate. I drank the bottle, but my drunkenness wasn’t enough to get me estranged. I’d have to work harder for that.



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