The Bizarro Centerpiece
My mother was no domestic goddess. She was a golfing, blackjack-playing, martini-drinking sort who had little to do with cooking, sewing, or, God forbid, “crafts.” Throughout my childhood, we ate Thanksgiving dinner at the golf club. This was essentially my parents’ place of worship. Both my sister and I were eventually married there, and we recently scattered my mother’s ashes on the ninth hole. The best thing about Thanksgiving at the club, as far as I was concerned, was the magnificent centerpieces the staff assembled: towering assemblages of nuts, fruit, chocolates, and candles in the shape of Pilgrim children that made my sister and me twitch with acquisitive longing.
Once I left home, I did things rather differently. Starting at the age of 19, I cooked myself silly every Thanksgiving. Even during my vegetarian years, and on through brining and turducken and other frivolities, I compensated for my mother’s uninterest. This particular rebellion of mine was just fine with her, as she was widowed early on and happy to have a reason to visit me. She would come clear across the country if necessary, always bringing her contribution: the centerpiece, a creation soon known as Mr. Turkey. Mr. Turkey had a simple red-felt turkey head, with a black-bead eye on either side, and was attached to the butt end of a pineapple with straight pins. You laid the fruit on its side so that the leaves took the place of tail feathers and…ta-da! Faux fowl!
Even though the S-shaped seams of the neck were ironed together in the manner of a third-grade art project, I am quite sure my mother did not make the turkey head herself. Perhaps it was a gift from one of the ladies at the bridge table. When an eye fell off, we drew one on with a Sharpie. And it was charming, in an outsider art–meets–Lillian Vernon kind of way. I put it at the center of my table every year, always surrounded by a flock of hand-carved apple swans I had learned how to make in my early 20s from a chef friend.
We found Mr. Turkey’s head up in the closet with the wrapping paper after my mother died, its edges rotting slightly from seeping pineapple juice. Since she has been gone, I somehow feel less like cooking. Last year I stuck his head on a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau in the dining room of a nearby hotel. I ordered the smoked-salmon appetizer. I know my mother would have approved.
Marion Winik is the author of eight books, including, most recently, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead ($14, amazon.com). She lives in Baltimore.