Thursday, November 26, 2015

Bell’s Seasoning & The Key to Thanksgiving


Can any interesting new sentence be formed using the words “holiday” and “tradition?”  Probably not, so I’m going to chuck the junior high writing guidelines, skip the topic sentence, and just dive right in.


In my family, the run-up to Thanksgiving always involves some eye-rolling by my wife.  She almost never rolls her eyes at my utterances, with a few notable exceptions.  If I use certain automotive terms (e.g., “synchromesh,” “constant-velocity joint”) she rolls her eyes … or when I start going on about Bell’s Seasoning.

If you’re not familiar with Bell’s Seasoning, your mother probably doesn’t love you.  I’m sorry to be so harsh, but it needs to be said.  There is only one use for this product, and that’s as an ingredient in stuffing.  (If your mom calls stuffing “dressing,” she probably hates you and you’re at some risk for Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.)  I say Bell’s Seasoning is “an ingredient” but really it’s the ingredient (although it’s also critical that your mom bake fresh cornbread, which she then cubes and sets out to get just the right degree of stale, to mix with other stale bread for the stuffing).

If your mom doesn’t cook your Thanksgiving dinner, things get much more complicated.  More on that later.

How crucial is Bell’s Seasoning?

Bell’s Seasoning is easy to find in New England and the Northeast, but elsewhere it can be tricky.  My mom can’t find it in Oregon, where she lives now, though she never had any trouble when we lived in Boulder (where I grew up).  I had to really hunt for it when I lived in San Francisco, but it’s not too hard in the Berkeley area.  Still, I get a little nervous every year when I need to buy it.

A few nights ago my wife and kids joined me for a Post-Prandial PromenadeTM to Andronico’s Park & Shop, the store that had Bell’s last year.  This place is so expensive I cannot normally go in there.  (I once encountered this hippy-dippy woman there who was buying a foil pan of grilled asparagus that cost over $70.)

During the walk I fielded the inevitable question, this time from my daughter, “Is this seasoning really that important?”  I said, “Suppose you were an astronaut about to go on a spacewalk.  Would you think of going out there without your space suit?  Would you get bored of the same old space suit routine, and say, ‘You know what?  I’m just going out with a SCUBA mask this time.  I’ll probably be fine’?”  Before I had a chance to finish my little analogy, I realized that nobody was listening.

My wife has either heard it all before, or feels like she has.  It’s become something of a holiday tradition for her to grouse good-naturedly about how much dialogue surrounds this Bell’s Seasoning.  She has a point; in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving I always have several phone calls with my mom about Bell’s.  A typical call might go something like this:

            I’ll say, “So, I don’t have the Bell’s Seasoning yet—Safeway doesn’t have it anymore—but I’m sure I’ll be able to get it.”
            My mom will respond, “Well, I actually have two half-boxes of it in the freezer.  So if you can’t find it that’s no big deal … I think these will work.”
            “No, no, I don’t want to risk it.  Don’t worry, I’ll be able to find it.”
            “I think it does okay in the freezer.  I think I’ve done that before.”
            “You know what?  I just discovered have a box of it here, but it’s only half-full and it’s been in the spice rack, not the freezer.  No, I just smelled it and it’s no good.  I think it’s from last time we hosted Thanksgiving here.  Don’t worry, I’ll be able to find a fresh box.  I’ll definitely bring one.”

Perhaps I derive excessive pleasure from this subject because procuring Bell’s is basically the only thing I do to help out with the Thanksgiving meal.  As a modern husband/father who does a lot of the housework (and even a modest amount of the cooking), I take great pleasure in being almost useless on Thanksgiving Day.

The secret of Bell’s

So what’s Bell’s’ secret?  That’s a tough question, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, I’m not at all sure about the apostrophes I’ve just used.  I could have put “Bells’” but the mere act of suggesting it has caused another problem, that of running an apostrophe right up against a quotation mark, which is grammatically fine, but which (at my age) I realize lots of people have trouble with, due to spotty eyesight, so I try to go easy.  The other problem with “Bells’” is that it connotes “belonging to or associated with the Bells,” which isn’t at all what I mean.  And “Bell’s” connotes “belonging to or associated with Bell,” which is probably worse.  I need to convey “belonging to or associated with Bell’s [seasoning].”

The other problem is, I’m not a chef.  I know enough to say, “This food would taste better with more salt,” but when we’re talking about what to add to a bunch of dried out bread to achieve that amazing apotheosis into a food as uncannily delicious as stuffing, I’m completely out of my depth.  And yet, I think I do have one theory about why Bell’s is crucial.

The fact is, Bell’s imparts a flavor that is not only pleasant, but totally unique.  Stuffing itself doesn’t taste like anything else we eat, and my mom’s stuffing doesn’t taste like any other stuffing I’ve ever had.  (Don’t take this for granted.   Consider those ten-page Chinese menus where the same sauce is presented in the poultry, seafood, beef, and pork sections.)  This morning I waved the open box of Bell’s in front of my daughter’s nose and she said, “Mmmmm, that so smells like stuffing.”

So, had my mom used Mrs. Dash in her stuffing since I was a kid, would I be blogging about that product instead?  Of course not.  That stuff is a) inferior, and b) used in various foods, not just stuffing (at least, by those who use it, whoever they are).

What is at stake

Okay, Bell’s makes stuffing yummier and more familiar.  So what?  Well, there may be people in this country who can tinker with the Thanksgiving formula every year and haphazardly try some new recipe or introduce some new side dish, or allow guests to bring a dish, but I’m not one of them … I’ve been through too much tumult for that.  It’s bad enough that a divorce ripped my family in half, but on top of that, I’ve had to deal with a stepfather and two different stepmothers.  Throw a neighbor’s stepmother onto the pile and you’ve got some hard times.

Pre-stepparent, Thanksgiving was hard enough because my parents would fight over who got my brothers and me for the holiday.  They never communicated directly with each other on this; my brothers and I were used as arbitrators.  This is a horrible task to take on, so more often than not we’d just lie, and tell both parents they’d won out.  This only worked because each parent (for some reason) wanted to serve the meal at a different time.  So we’d dual-dinner, which took the traditional gut-busting Thanksgiving tradition to a new level that might have actually been physically dangerous.

Did my dad use Bell’s seasoning?  Nope.  He either didn’t know about it, or refused to turn his culinary effort into facsimile of my mom’s.  I can respect that.  (Adopting her formula would be like a new rock band doing nothing but covers.)  There was nothing unpleasantly foreign or alien about my dad’s Thanksgiving dinners because they captured his odd, sometimes scientific approach to cooking.  He had occasionally cooked dinner for us pre-divorce and it was usually something he invented; he tinkered at length over this wacky savory skillet-fried concoction halfway between an omelet and a pancake which he called a “doormat.”  For Thanksgiving he put the turkey in an oven-cooking bag which he called the “Buzzard Bag.”  It did come out more tender, though it tended to fall completely apart, like a gastronomic embodiment of deconstruction.

Stepparents hugely complicate this holiday meal tradition.  There was the stepfather who thought the turkey should be carved in the kitchen and served buffet-style, and the stepmother who actually served the meal without any f’ing gravy!  Can you believe that?  For all the grisly detail on these two meals, click here.

The other stepmother experience wasn’t as jarring, but still unhinged my brothers and me a bit.  This stepmother was (and is) actually a very cool lady.  My brothers and I liked her just fine, which is saying something given the unavoidably difficult dynamic of these bolted-on, imposter-ish fake parents, whose very existence creates a situation which cannot exist anywhere else in the animal kingdom except perhaps in brood parasitism (click here and search on “brood parasitism” for details).

This stepmother’s Thanksgiving dinners were basically okay except that she served these weird onion balls.  I don’t know the real name, but they were silvery onions, the diameter of a quarter, in this strange pearl-colored sauce with the exact viscosity of human saliva.  This was an important enough side dish to our stepmother that she had two platters of onion balls going around, and since we tended to pass them along pretty quickly (not really wanting to engage), they seemed to be constantly bobbing up in front of us, like there was no escape.  They didn’t taste bad or smell bad or anything, but they were just weird, like if James Bond’s suit had epaulettes, or Natalie Portman had a tail.  I thought I was the only one vaguely creeped out by this side dish until after the meal when one of my brothers said, “What the hell were those onion balls?” and we all immediately joined in, puzzling over them and bonding in our mutual bemusement.

The wilderness years

During my college years, it wasn’t always possible to make it home for Thanksgiving, and that’s where things got really rough.  One year, when my brother and I were renting an apartment in San Luis Obispo, our friend in the apartment next door came to our rescue.  Knowing we had nowhere to go, he invited us home with him.  Problem was, his home was broken, too, and this was his first Thanksgiving with his new stepmother.  She really couldn’t cook worth a damn—I think her stuffing was made with Wonder bread (that weird plastic-y white bread from the Rainbo Baking Company).  I mean, I’m not a fascist about good cooking or anything, and if a master chef who was not my mom made a great Thanksgiving meal, I could probably enjoy it, but this was pretty foul.  Even worse, the dad, whom my dad would certainly have labeled a “knuckle-dragging cretin” (or “KDC” for short) was watching football on TV the whole time, even during the meal.  I’m aware that millions of Americans do this every year, but that doesn’t make it okay.  I’d rather have a street mime performing in the dining room … at least they’re quiet.  The worst part was that our friend was in agony, between being ignored by his silent father and unctuously doted on by his stepmother, whom he clearly despised.

The next year, another neighbor friend—a guy old enough to be our father—promised to take us out for a gourmet Thanksgiving feast at The Cliffs At Shell Beach, a fancy resort.  His treat!  The idea of eating this family meal at a restaurant seemed a bit off, but at least (we figured) the food would be good.  Well, the afternoon dragged on as we all waited for this other kid our neighbor had invited, who had the car.  When it became apparent that this friend wasn’t going to show, we had to punt and head over to the nearby Sizzler Steakhouse.  They had a “special” buffet meal that did feature traditional Thanksgiving foods, but with a special Sizzler twist:  all the foods were loaded up with staggering amounts of salt.  On top of the bad food we suffered a low-grade bitterness:  the neighbor was bitter that his friend had flaked, and my brother and I were bitter at our friend, whom we suspected of hatching a half-baked scheme without getting actual buy-in from this (perhaps mythical) car-equipped friend.

The next year after that, another San Luis Obispo pal invited us home for Thanksgiving, and even drove down to pick me up from UC Santa Barbara.  Though I don’t remember anything about the food—which probably reflects well on it, under the circumstances—my brother and I experienced a new kind of pain.  Not only was the host family still intact, but they’d invited another unbroken family.  After the meal we all sat in the living room talking, and everybody was so convivial and non-dysfunctional, it kind of rubbed Geoff’s and my noses in the fact that our own family would never be together again.  (Even at gatherings of all the brothers plus one parent, there was no escaping the shadow of who was missing.)

So, the next year I said screw it and made a meal for my two UCSB roommates.  This was okay except the food sucked.  I wasn’t about to roast an entire turkey, so I did some chicken legs with canned cranberry sauce dumped over them.  I made Stove-top stuffing and used canned gravy, which I thought would be edgy and ironic but turned out just salty and MSG-y, taking me right back to that awful Sizzler’s meal.  On top of that, one roommate realized to his horror that he’d lost the ability to eat an entire meal in one sitting.  All his body could handle anymore was little snacks.  (He seemed to subsist almost entirely on sunflower seeds, which he ate like a little bird, flinging the shells everywhere until I trained him to store the seeds in one margarine tub and drop the shells into another.)

Return to normalcy

Now that I have a family of my own, I’m determined to get it right, and to build up traditions and institutions that provide the supreme comfort of predictability and reliability.  There’s a wonderful continuity in having my mom make the meal, the old way, not just to close up old wounds but because she’s such an awesome cook.  (Has my wife ever cooked the Thanksgiving meal on her own?  Yes, but she had the kindness and good sense to consult at length with my mom on the phone.  She completely nailed it, even the stuffing with its perfect blend of stale bread, stale homemade cornbread, celery, nuts, and—of course—Bell’s seasoning.)

So will I tolerate any innovations at all when it comes to this special meal?  Sure, as long as they’re introduced gradually and by an authorized family member.  Some years ago my mom introduced a relish tray which includes pickled herring in sour cream, and I now consider it non-optional.  And more recently she took to complementing her own homemade cranberry sauce and raw cranberry relish (both mandatory) with one little saucer of canned cranberry sauce, slid right out of the can so the corrugations of the can remain intact.  I don’t know how or why this innovation was adopted, but I’m completely okay with it, as long as I can wave an open box of Bell’s Seasoning in front of my daughter’s nose and have her say, “Mmmmm … that so smells like Thanksgiving.”

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