On Thanksgiving, Mom broke the mold.

The time of year when we all take a day off and reflect upon what we are thankful for (not being born a turkey is always a good place to start) is almost here. I am thankful for many things, not the least of which is that there will be no broccoli mold on the Thanksgiving table at my house this coming Thursday.

Last year in this column I shared with you my mother’s annual contribution to the festivities and some readers questioned why anyone would bring a dish to the Thanksgiving table that looked like a Bundt cake made of puke. These readers told me good-naturedly that I was exaggerating. No, I wasn’t. The very term “broccoli mold” is my own personal culinary “Silence of the Lambs,” two words that instantly catapult me back to the Thanksgivings of my childhood and the great horror that my mother — with only the best intentions — would inflict on our large extended family.

I should note that a friend of mine even suggested that I made up the dish. I didn’t. Google the words “broccoli” and “mold” and tens of thousands of recipes appear. Fortunately, none of them are my mother’s. Hers was pretty basic: frozen broccoli, frozen creamed onions, and Jell-O. (If frozen Jell-O existed, my mother would have used that. In her kitchen, foods came either frozen or canned.) Swirl it together in a food processor, dump it all into a Bundt cake pan, chill and serve.

Now, my mother was gifted in myriad ways, but she would have been the first to admit that no one was going to mistake her for a chef. She was smart and funny and generous. She was also completely incapable of making toast. That’s not hyperbole: Among those Proustian sounds I equate with my boyhood is the scraping of a stainless-steel knife on a piece of white bread that looks like someone just tried to toast it with a blowtorch.

Usually our family held Thanksgiving at my aunt and uncle’s massive Victorian not far from Manhattan. My aunt would handle the lion’s share of the Thanksgiving preparation and this was no small task since there were between 19 and 21 of us in attendance most years. But my mother would insist on bringing the broccoli mold, despite my aunt’s reassurance that she needn’t bother. In hindsight, it’s pretty clear that my aunt wasn’t being polite, and I have always imagined the phone calls between my mom and my aunt went something like this:

MOM: I’ll bring the broccoli mold.

AUNT: You don’t have to.

MOM: It’s no problem!

AUNT: It is. It’s a huge problem. Even the dog won’t eat your broccoli mold, and he eats his own poop.

As I said, this is an imaginary conversation. In the real one, after my mother said, “It’s no problem,” my incredibly sweet aunt would have capitulated and said, “OK, thank you,” while thinking to herself, “Maybe she’ll drop it on the front walkway while carting it into the house.”

Absolutely none of us wanted to eat a single bite, but neither did we want to hurt my mother’s feelings. She took such pride in her contribution.

Besides, it was Thanksgiving: A holiday when we are all supposed to remember how fortunate we are that we have a bounty before us. Given the plight of the world then (and now), the idea that we should complain because a vegetable smelled like a bus station bathroom seemed a tad ungrateful. And so as a family we would give thanks for all the food on the table, even the broccoli mold, and we would scoop some onto our plates. Then we would smile and smack our lips … and see how much we could hide under Mini Cooper-sized dollops of mashed potatoes.

One final thought: This holiday there will be more Thanksgiving tables looking Spartan than past years. If you can, please be sure to give generously to your local food shelf.

* * *

Last week I said that Addison County was the only Vermont community participating in the Imagination Library. Nope. Kind reader Tracy Stolese tells me that the Burlington Sunrise Rotary Club is, too. My bad — and my apologies. Props to them!

(This coluumn originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on November 23, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

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