Stirring the Pot
Read this essay at Tampa Bay Times
Stirring the Pot
Stirring the Pot
Gram learned early that she could keep me occupied—providing a quiet respite for the rest of the family—by assigning me to gravy duty. After snapping and stringing beans—my technique was lazy and inconsistent, at best—the twenty-two gravy-making minutes that it took to transform scalding stock into the world’s greatest and most versatile topping—a lumpless confection—was my holiday pastime. “Make sure your wooden spoon touches the bottom of the pan and don’t forget the corners; don’t stop until it’s thickened.”
I’ve been stirring the pot since decades before Facebook and Twitter. Dining room tables were our social networks. In the eighties and nineties, we didn’t “friend” or “follow” our family members, we gathered at our families’ homes, shoulder to shoulder and face to face. We passed two gravy boats in opposite directions until they met in a centrifugal logjam of our own making in front of one of us: indeed the luckiest of us.
Our interactions weren’t arm’s length and couldn’t be “snoozed” or turned off. We broke bread that was passed hand to hand, the same hands that we held in reverent thanks before eating. We interspersed comments about slight modifications in stuffing recipes with appraisals of the succulence of the current year’s turkey—or ham or corned beef or London broil—compared to the last. Each year, whether by design or out of respect for the process, was better than the previous. We were blessed with an optimism that, despite our last meeting’s bestness, this current familial confluence was even better; the next, we knew, would always be better.
We loved each other and we respected each other. We would bring boyfriends and girlfriends and best friends to enliven the discussions. Grampa, whose specific politics were known but unspoken, provided for the meals; his ideals were shaped and solidified by service in WWII and as the hardworking patriarch who built and paid off the mortgage on the family homestead 124 dollars-a-month for twenty years. Gram’s politics were less specific, but rooted in unmitigated love: she was invested in preserving the family’s restless perpetuity.
We argued. Often about Reagans and Bushes and Grahams and Clintons—there was little disagreement about the Seminoles and Dolphins; diversity colored our discourse. And when it got too heated between cousins or between generations, Gram interjected—laid down the law—that we should, “let our vittles fill our mouths.” And we did.
Holidays in the Twenty-teens—in the hyper-partisan and abrasive age of Trump, in the absence of grandparent regulations, in a culture that has tribalized families—have lost their savor. This Thanksgiving, even as I tried stirring the pot, I was passed a dry, store-bought biscuit to quiet me. Twice—as many of our generation, from a dualized family—I was quieted by the fear of discord. We, as a people, and even within our familial safe zones, are so easily triggered—so trained to divisive conflict from behind keyboards and amongst strangers—that we sit, silenced, where we should be most comfortable. Family dynamics are in a dangerous flux. Our nieces and nephews are being taught that, even amongst their most fierce defenders and proudest champions, their opinions don’t deserve a voice. They are being conditioned to hide behind avatars that are wholly divorced from us, we, who love them unconditionally.
When politics interfere with the bonds between brothers—and cousins, and aunts, and grandparents (especially)—then we are on the leading edge of national insurrection. If we can’t share our world views over family dinners, in the celebrations-of-family that thrive over fat-back-swimming-(twice)-strung-beans and silky-smooth gravies, then how can we expect to interact with neighbors whose own recipes are family-specifically-aural?
This December, when most everybody we know will gather for their own family feasts before their own gods, martyrs, and prophets, let’s consider the implications of silence. Even as moms have become Grams and Grams have become angels among us, let’s remember that our mouths are for more than eating, our ears are for more than keeping warm beneath hand-crocheted caps, and that hearts are more than distant, digital emojis. If implored to, “let vittles fill our mouths,” perhaps we should rebel against the silencing forces of fear and let our avatars emerge IRL; perhaps we should trade manners for honesty: talk with our mouths full: vittles spittled.
Perhaps we should be empowered to stir the pot.
A perfect gravy depends upon it; our families’ futures depend upon it; the future of our Union depends upon it.