BOSTON -- One aunt has called the other to ask for a Thanksgiving dispensation. Surely, she pleads, 20 years of lemon pies are enough for one family. She wants to make a new dessert. She has an entire Rolodex of recipes.
The senior woman (we may call her Number One Aunt, since this is her family position) recoils, as if her sister-in-law had suggested rap music instead of Mendelssohn for a wedding ceremony.
Number One Aunt is, you see, the anointed keeper of the family Thanksgiving ritual. It is her job. The event takes place under her roof and her ministry. And she follows the book. Indeed, she has a generation of Thanksgiving dinners inscribed in a notebook that she guards, you might say, religiously.
There has never been a kiwi or Rock Cornish hen at her table. There shall be no nouvelle cuisine, no wild-rice stuffing, no chocolate raspberry terrine. There shall be turkey and bread stuffing and sweet potatoes. And lemon pie. Thus it is writ.
Listening to this, I wonder: Does it sound like some ceremonial dictate? Is this a totem and taboo more fitting for the holy day of an ancient religious sect than for the celebration of a modern American harvest?
Thanksgiving is, after all, our most ecumenical national holiday, the most secular feast. Yet each gathering family, freed of scripture, seems to produce its own private set of traditions. The menu becomes a culinary liturgy, with 10,000 tribal variations on the theme of turkey.
Our particular family is not, I hasten to add, an authoritarian sect. We have had internal disputes about the ritual meal. There have been vast and uncompromising disagreements between the jellied cranberry and the whole cranberry factions. That divisive issue was barely muted by the acceptance of a two-sauce policy.
There has also been some debate over the occasional appearance of broccoli and string beans. But we have remained flexible on the subject of mincemeat and bundt cakes, adding and subtracting at the request of the membership.
Different opinions are even accepted on the matter of the prime Thanksgiving icon, the turkey. Some of our members regard it only as a decorative centerpiece, others as the culinary highlight. Although the majority of our sect consists of dark-meat eaters we are open-minded enough to look favorably on acolytes -- fiance's, guests, roommates -- who profess to like white meat.
But the core, the absolute center of our traditional offering, doesn't waver from one year to the next, or one decade to the next. Untouchable recipes handed down from one generation to another arrive on the table bearing the names of these ancestors. We dine with their shadows and sauces.
Indeed, each year the Number One Aunt replicates in exquisite detail her own mother's stuffing. She produces it in a tearful ceremony brought on by equal portions of onions and memories.
Why does such a passion for sameness go on in this and so many other family menus? We have had our share of personal changes. I imagine we've seen the membership of our sect turn over by a half. We know our differences. We allow members to come bearing new points of view and husbands.
There is something in favor of a feast that goes on proclaiming in the midst of change: This is our family. This is the way we do things. This is our Thanksgiving. We are the people who put gingersnaps in our gravy. Like it or not. We are the people who like crisp sweet potatoes. We are the people who prefer lemon pie to pumpkin.
We savor, literally, our togetherness. And if we go somewhere else for Thanksgiving, it will never taste quite right. It won't be home. Who else will serve grandma's stuffing?
We create our own traditions for the same reason we create our own families. To know where we belong. We like our holidays the way children like bedtime stories: predictable. We don't come together for something new. Families prefer the familiar. And that is why our Thanksgiving will have the same old ending: lemon pie all around.