Sweet Potato Thanksgiving
AlamyThanksgiving is supposed to be a family holiday, but one Thanksgiving, I found myself alone. My mother was off to a relative's, my sister and her family had been invited elsewhere, and there I was, alone in New York City, having recently left my husband (okay, the truth is, I was booted out). I was scared and lonely and living in what surely was the tiniest apartment in all of Manhattan, a shoebox on 24th street with thick bars on the windows and a slant in the floor that was so pronounced that if you dropped a pen on the floor, it would roll to the other side.
My idea was to ignore the holiday (which would have been too bad, since it had always been one of my favorites) and spend Thanksgiving at the local triplex, going from movie to movie and grabbing pizza afterward. But that morning, as I headed out, I ran into Beth, my neighbor across the hall and she intervened. Single and alone like me, she suggested that we host our own celebration, that we make it special. "I'm talking about candles, tablecloth, wine," she said. "Why shouldn't it be special for us, too?"
Neither one of us knew how to cook (in those days, my refrigerator was usually filled with yogurt, bread, cheese and fruit), but because I didn't eat meat, Beth decided we should cook a sea bass in black bean sauce and baked sweet potatoes. "Sounds delicious," I decided. I kept imagining the tender flaky fish, the silky potatoes. We went outside to shop and our usually busy neighborhood felt dead. Where were the throngs of people? The drug dealers? Even the hookers were gone. But the supermarket was open and though we had no idea what made a good fish, we bought one and a can of black beans and two sweet potatoes and brought it home.
We tried to make a sauce to cook the fish, mashing and cooking the beans and adding garlic and oregano, and then we drizzled it over the fish. We poked holes in the potatoes, and then popped everything into my tiny oven. We put a white lace tablecloth on my thumbprint of a table, set up the candles and lighted them and poured wine into mugs.
"We need music," Beth said, and put on the Beatles. I kept remembering Thanksgiving at home in Boston, the smell of the turkey, which I had loved at the time, the cranberry sauce and the pie, but after a while, I noticed that the scent here was...well wrong. It smelled acrid and smoke began to billow out of my oven. "Help!" Beth said weakly, and I turned the oven off and hesitantly opened the door. A plume of smoke wafted out. The fish had burnt.
That Thanksgiving, we ate the potatoes drizzled with maple syrup and dusted with cinnamon. The jackets were burnt, but inside, the flesh was moist and sweet. In the glow of the candles, we talked happily about our lives, and the potatoes, if I say so myself, were absolutely delicious. When I think about it, that evening was one of the best Thanksgivings I ever had because it proved to me that being alone doesn't have to be lonely, that Thanksgiving is what you make it, and that with the right company, even a baked sweet potato can be a feast.
Caroline Leavitt's ninth novel, Pictures of You, will be published by Algonquin Books in January 2011. She is a book critic for People and The Boston Globe. Read her blog on Red Room.
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