Everything depends on overcooking the turkey at least an hour - the argument over the carving, the traditional gravy skirmish (thick vs. thin) and making sure everyone has time to drink far too much whiskey before getting down to needling each other at the dinner table.
This is the key to holding a proper holiday feast in the style of America's most forgotten ethnics - the ones who describe themselves as "your basic Americans, I guess." By this they denote a gene pool of British Islanders, Germans, Scandinavians, the Dutch, the Danes, the Flemish, and so on - a Northwest European melange which is consistently slandered with the acronym of WASP - white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
These people, much like Byelorussians or Botswanese, have a holiday ritual of surprising subtlety. At least they have since I was a boy, watching it lumber toward the inevitable drastic conclusion.
Cousin Ned, say, defies Aunt Gwen and keeps feeding the cat under the table until it gags on a turkey bone. It's hard to ignore a gagging cat, try as everyone will.
Or Aunt Lucy repairs to a bedroom for her annual holiday crying fit (not to be confused with her annual vacation migraine), leaving the rest of the family to debate remedies.
"I'll just look in and see if she wouldn't like some mince pie, now," says the optimistic in-law.
"She won't. She never does," says a first cousin. "Asking only makes it worse."
Anyway, to begin at the beginning, back when all those cars pull up at Aunt-Gwen's-and-Uncle-George's with men wearing red vests and women carrying casseroles and children who rush the upstairs television: The turkey must be cooked, then overcooked till the skin puffs out from the meat as if propelled by static electricity, and the meat itself can be crumbled off like marzipan.
Of course, Aunt Gwen is determind it won't happen again this year. She has told everyone to arrive at 2, with time for just one drink before dinner at 2:30. Except that the turkey seems a touch . . . underdone, and soon she can hear the great whiskey bray rising in the living room, and Uncle George is showing his 11-year-old nephew that tearing a phone book in half is easy if you know the trick. (Which he doesn't, juding from a spasm of heart-felt grunts that have Aunt Gwen looking at the rescue-squad number next to the phone.)
So the walnuts and pecans all get eaten while everyone drinks and waits; and nobody eats the Brazil nuts or the candied dates because they never do. And the turkey gets overcooked.
"The whole family, together," says Aunt Gwen, with brave cheer as a numberless troop squeezes into the dining room.
They include: Cousin Ned, the cat feeder, who also never lowers his head for grace; lachrymose Aunt Lucy who watches him resentfully while Uncle George blesses, oh Lord, this food to our use; Uncle Drew who will argue about the carving with George; Cousin Edna, an old maid who is always asked to bring cranberry jelly from Marblehead, Mass., where they grow it, despite her protests that it's the same can of cranberry jelly you buy in any supermarket; and a crush of in-laws, college roommates, children wearing party dresses, football helmets, winter squash on their little laps.
Uncle George brandishes knife, picks up the steel and begins lashing them together, a gala reminder of the ancient usages of carving, which this ethnic group reserves for the head of the family or eldest sons, regardless of talent or alcoholic intake.
The problem here is Uncle Drew.
"I hope you're not tryiing to sharpen that knife with the steel, George," he says.
George tries to ignore him.
"You see, George, you can't sharpen a knife with a steel. You can only true it."
Uncle George wears the noncommittal but somehow desperate face of a man trying to set the world's record of holding his breath.
"Well then," he says. "Perhaps you could tell me why the knife always feels sharper afterwards?"
"It doesn't" say Drew. "It feels truer."
Aunt Gwen, who is Drew's sister, tries to smooth it all away. "Does it make any difference, Drew?" she asks, with sledgehammer sweetness.
"Only if you carve against the grain."
"AND ONLY A GODDAM FOOL WOULD CARVE ANY OTHER WAY!" George snaps.
The table crackles with hubbub, with Aunt Lucy's mournful obliggato rising above to claim: "I didn't come here to argue, I came to have a good old-fashioned holiday dinner."
This prompts a hearty chorus of yesses, aren't we lucky, think of all the people eating dinner alone today.
With that, George slices into the turkey and it crumbles, collapses, disintegrates like hash.
"I knew it," says Aunt Gwen. "Overcooked."
The table raises a levy of denials, except for Cousin Ned.
"I like it overcooked," Ned says, winning scowls from everyone.
"You'll like this then," says poor Aunt Gwen, who could use a drink herself now.
"Wonderful," says Ned. "The more overcooked it is, the better I like it."
Ned is also fond of drinking French wines, spending weekends in encounter as groups, and of other suspect practices, such as traveling in the Orient while not wearing a uniform. One year, in fact, he brought a Japanese girlfriend to the dinner, and Uncle Drew pinched her till she cried.
The food, at last, steams in front of everyone: turkey, winter squash, peas, not-quite-mashed potatoes, Parker House rolls and creamed onions which, when struck with a fork, squirt out in smaller and smaller segments, prompting grunts of "yucky" from the children's end of the feast.
It is now time for the annual gravy hassle which Gwen, in her infinite hope, has tried to avoid this year.
"I've decided to try something new this year: we'll vote on which kind of gravy we like."
The children's precinct reports with an immediate and loud: "Thin!"
This, of course, is discounted. Children like it thin to pour it into the irrigation systems they build in their mashed potatoes, whole farms with furrows lined by peas, with outlying swamps in the squash.
"Can't we have a choice, for once?" asks Aunt Lucy, getting closer and closer to tears.
"I, for one, want no gravy whatsoever," says Ned, and the whole table turns like startled hounds and barks: "Hush, Ned!"
"The thing is," says Gwen, "the turkey is so overcooked there might not be enough juice to make it thin."
"Aha! Election fraud!" Drew bellows.
Aunt Lucy leaps from the table with a yelp she tries to smother in her napkin, and staggers off to a bedroom for her holiday cry.
"Lucy always likes it thin," says Edna, to no response whatsoever.
Gwen is shaking her head now, over her plate, and wondering why she makes the effort every year; why it can't be all rosy cheeks and jocularity, as in the Norman Rockwell paintings. This sets her wondering, though, why everyone in Norman Rockwell paintings usually has a receded chin, like that damned Ned over there who knows so much.
All that's left now is the mince pie, with the hard sauce and brandy which never catches proper fire, no matter how many times Aunt Gwen takes it out to the kitchen to warm it. And then the twilight's blaze in the fireplace, which will back up, prompting a debate as to whether the flue is closed or the chimney is on fire.
Aunt Lucy will be brought in from her teary bedroom exile, burgeoning with apology, but only Ned listens, hoping to atone for his snarkiness. Nobody cares. Eevryone is asleep in a chair, or tossing the old football around outside till it's time to leave.
They trade hugs with relatives whose moist, careful kisses feel remarkably unfamiliar, reminding them all of how seldom they see each other, a thought which provokes small panics of nostalgia. The family locus has become no more than an overcooked turkey. (They was the old summer place on Lake George, but the shares in it got confused with all the divorces, so they sold it.)
Of course, talking about this would be mawkish, so they back down the steps into the leafless twilight.
"The food," everyone agrees, "was marvelous."
"If only the turkey wasn't overcooked," says Aunt Gwen, who is determined, as always, that it won't happen again next year.