Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Quarter Century: I am a selfish yam-eater

It took me about an hour looking through my parents' old photo albums to find a legitimate Thanksgiving photograph. And once I did, well, it was this one.

Thanksgiving 1992, a few weeks after President Bill Clinton's first election, one and one-half months before my 6th birthday and about 8 years before we all realized how awful the 90's were. In case you can't find me, I'm the bright blue Macaulay Culkin impersonator in the bottom left corner.

XGiving 1992, as with all XGivings since then and a few before, was spent with the Wood side of my family -- or to be more specific my father's siblings -- at the home of my uncle Scott. It's actually somewhat fitting that my 25th XGiving fell on this year, as it appears to be the last time the turkey dinner (technically lunch in my family) will be so hosted.

I've always held a particular affinity for XGiving, which I mentioned in my Halloween post. In fact, one of the first things I ever had published was a column in which I professed my love for the turkey and potatoes holiday. It is, in my humble opinion, the Greek ideal of holidays: simplicity, perfection and order. Unlike other celebrations like Christmas and Easter that get all tied up in some boring religious undertone, Thanksgiving is nothing more than a day to gather with your family, eat copious amounts of delicious food, watch football, then eat again. Plus, since it lands on a Thursday, it almost always ends up in a 4-day weekend. Give thanks, indeed.

Perhaps that's why there's really not much to chronicle, as little has changed over the years. I remember when I was a kid, we would eat and then my cousins and I would immediately retreat to either  the back yard (during Indian Summers) or the basement (during early winters) to roughhouse, rabble rouse, and otherwise engage in childlike tomfoolery. My uncle lived in a different house back then, and all I can remember of it is that the basement had a room tucked away in the corner which seems to have had no decorations but a really comfortable couch -- the perfect play room for 6 rambunctious boys. I also remember that they had one of those plastic play-house things in the backyard, the kind with the 3-foot red slide and the yellow Swiss cheese wall. And there was a bumper pool table. I don't think we ever bothered to learn the rules of bumper pool, instead electing to just bounce balls around.

In my adolescent years, my uncle's family -- and the festivities -- moved to a home a stone's throw away from my high school. Between the main course and dessert we would run up to the football field to play a quick game of two-hand-touch. I remember loving how it was the one time of the year when our dumb backyard football games had yardage lines and the possibility of an extra point.

We had maybe 3-4 years of decent games before the elder among us began getting married and, even worse, having children. Our rosters dwindled and we took to just throwing a ball around in the street. Now, we're all old and decrepit so we just find a spot on the couch, eat more pie, and forget about any notions of physical activity.
When I was a kid I loved watching the Macy's parade. I'm fully aware that my memory of this is completely inaccurate, but it seems to me like each year we would wake up at some unholy hour and stand in the kitchen for what felt like ages peeling potatoes. I remember the gross sensation of a kitchen sink full of brownish-grey, opaque water and floating potato skins and the longing that I felt to get the stupid potatoes over with so I could run into the party room and watch the parade.

I was able to go to the parade last year, which fittingly involved waking up at an unholy hour and standing for ages in the cold on some crowded corner of Manhattan sidewalk. Still, there is something undeniably charming about watching giant balloons navigate the canyon-like avenues of New York City. Do it at least once if you get the chance.

The rest of my XGiving in New York consisted of a lovely dinner pot-lucked by my friends and serving as the sober designated walker (we weren't driving), looking after a herd of inebriated cats in a city that was still somewhat foreign to me. For dinner I made candied yams, which has been my favorite XGiving dish since discovering them in my early teens (more on that in a bit), borrowing a recipe from my sister that uses actual sweet potatoes, not the canned stuff, and caramelized pecans. Tres Magnifique!

As for the title of this post. There was once an animated cartoon called "Pepper Ann," -- she’s too cool for 7th grade -- which had a special Thanksgiving episode where a secondary character is found huddled in a ball under the kitchen table surrounded by empty cans of sweet potatoes mumbling "I am a selfish yam-eater, I am a selfish yam-eater". Me and my sister are both selfish yam-eaters and the reference has seemed to stick with us over the years.

It's also become something of a mantra for me because I have Thanksgiving, and specifically yams, to thank for my open-minded attitude towards food.

When I was younger I downright refused to eat the candied yams. "They look gross" I would say. "Ewwww!" I would moan. My mother would try to encourage me, telling me that I would like them, explaining that they were covered in melted marshmallows and pineapple and honestly what's not to love?

Then one day, I decided that I was going to try the yams. With one bite I realized how foolish I had been, how I had wasted so many yam-filled years of my life, blinded by prejudice. I had denied myself a decade of sensory pleasures all because I couldn't look beyond my preconceptions.

I would have wept, if I wasn't too busy shoveling spoonfuls into my mouth.

From then on, my entire outlook on culinary self-selection was changed. Never again, I vowed, would ignorance stand in the way of my stomach. And I have this paradigm shift to thank for my love of Hummus, Pad Thai, Ethiopian food, Chicken and Waffles, Capreze salad and those weird asian drinks with the gummy balls in them. Delicious!

In my comings and goings, I've encountered many people who pass judgement on a food they have not yet tried and I plead with them, I beg them to consider what joy they may be depriving themselves. "The YAMS!" I beg, "think about the YAMS!"

Some listen, others don't, there’s only so much you can do. But as for me, I bite first and ask questions later. Yams changed my life, as did the beautiful holiday of XGiving.

And for that, I am truly thankful.

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