Messing With Tradition


(by Alice Lowe)

Holiday Story Contest Winner


“You and me against the world,” we used to say. Jenn’s father died when she was four, and from then on, it was just the two of us, mother and daughter, indivisible. We didn’t have much family nearby, so we were usually on our own for holidays. I tried to make Thanksgiving and Christmas festive and fun, but my efforts couldn’t live up to her expectations: She longed for the big family gatherings—like the Partridge Family and the Waltons—that we watched on TV.


Fast forward, circa 1997: I’m recently remarried, and Jenn’s in her twenties, a single mom with a young son. She had a taste of her dream—several holiday gatherings—with her ex's family, but this year my grandson is spending Thanksgiving with his father’s family, and Jenn joins us for a pared-down threesome.


I haven’t cooked a Thanksgiving dinner since she left the nest, and I haven’t missed the hassle. I tell my spouse, “I want to do something different. We’ll get a turkey, but who needs mashed potatoes and gravy and all that?” His raised eyebrows tell me that he does, but his response is noncommittal, so I ignore the nonverbal sign and start scanning my cookbook shelf. Something that will complement turkey, something elegant and exceptional, something un-American. My eyes land on a small, brightly-covered book, The Best of Spain. Flipping through the pages, I know it when I see it: Paella a la Valenciana. I’ve never made paella, but I’ve had it several times at a restaurant in Tijuana where it was the specialty. A rice dish with sausage, seafood, and vegetables would be perfect with roast turkey, an exquisite showpiece of a dish.


Thanksgiving day arrives, the turkey is in the oven, and I assemble the ingredients: various shellfish, lingüiça sausage, an array of vegetables, garnishes, and seasonings, including a precious packet of silken saffron threads. Exotic aromas permeate the kitchen as I start sauteing onions and garlic, sizzling the rice, adding wine, and it’s ready, covered on the stovetop, when my daughter arrives.


“Something smells good,” she says.


“You’ll see,” I say, and beam, puffed up with my success, anticipating her delight.


The three of us gather around our small table, a bottle of the year’s just-released Beaujolais Nouveau open and poured. The food is on the counter—a platter of moist and tender turkey, a salad of mixed greens with oranges and pickled red onions, a basket of hot rolls, and my masterpiece, the paella, studded with clams and mussels in their steamed-open shells, Spanish olives and artichoke hearts, in my cast-iron Dutch oven.


“What’s this?” Jenn asks. Her face shows confusion, the dawning of displeasure. “Where are the mashed potatoes, the stuffing, the gravy, the cranberry sauce…?”

I tell her, excitedly, about the dish, the brainstorm that inspired it, how it’s the perfect complement to turkey, the perfect balance between traditional and adventurous, how I was sure she’d love it.


“Mo-o-om,” she says, in three syllables, resurrecting the familiar whine of her childhood, “how could you? Not on Thanksgiving!”


I plead best intentions: “I wanted to surprise you … I thought you’d be impressed … and there’s turkey….” My self-defense falls on deaf ears until we declare a truce, fill our plates, and have a pleasant meal despite her and my disappointment. She likes the paella, likes it enough to have seconds, but that doesn’t change her plaint. “Jeez, Mom. Why did you have to mess with tradition on Thanksgiving?”


Over the next few years, she tells the story, at first with eye-rolling frustration (“She just doesn’t get it,” meaning me), until it becomes a joke, exaggerating my cluelessness and her horror.


Until, culinary sophistication on the rise, she starts to recall the occasion with a different perspective.


Now she makes herself the butt of the jokes: “I can’t believe I was so immature.”


Now she brags: “One year my mom made paella to go with our Thanksgiving turkey. It was brilliant.”


Now she asks: “Will you make paella again sometime? But not on Thanksgiving.”


Last year we had Christmas dinner together with her boyfriend’s family and friends, a cheery, noisy crowd around a big table. Just the way she likes it. She served a succulent ham—and her outstanding lasagna.


Now who’s messing with tradition?

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Alice Lowe writes about life and language, food and family. Her essays have been published in more than 80 literary journals, this year in Bacopa, Change Seven, ellipsis, Epiphany, Burningword, (mac)ro(mic), and Superstition Review. Her work has been cited twice in Best American Essays “Notables” and nominated for Best of the Net. She lives in San Diego, California, and can be found at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.

Paella a la Valenciana de Luz de Alice


I modified the original recipe in subsequent makings, then veered further afield when Luz, my dental hygienist, gave me hers, which I’ve also modified. I make it with shellfish and sausage, but you can use chicken in addition or instead, or make it vegetarian. None of the measurements are precise except the two-to-one liquid to rice—I change it up every time I make it.


1/2 lb. mussels

1/2 lb. clams

2 T. olive oil

1 small chopped onion

1/2 bell pepper, diced

3 - 4 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 lb. spicy sausage (lingüiça, chorizo, andouille), sliced

2 c. Arborio rice

1/2 c. white wine

salt and pepper, to taste

1 c. fish, chicken, or vegetable broth

1/4 t. saffron

1/2 lb. calamari, cleaned

1/2 lb. shrimp (shells on or off, optional)

1/2 c. fresh or frozen peas

7 - 8 oz. canned artichoke hearts

1 large fresh tomato, chopped or 7- 8 oz. canned tomatoes

1/2 c. Manzanilla olives (and a little of the olive brine)

smoked Spanish paprika, to taste

Tabasco sauce, to taste

lemon wedges

chopped parsley


Bring a pot of salted water to boil, add mussels and clams, cover and steam until open (about 4 or 5 minutes).

Set aside and reserve water.

In a large pan, heat olive oil.

Sauté onion, bell pepper, and garlic until lightly browned.

Add sausage and cook until browned.

Add rice and stir until lightly browned.

Stir in wine, salt, and pepper.

Add broth plus 3 c. reserved cooking water.

Add saffron.

Cover and bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes.

Add calamari, shrimp, peas, artichokes, tomatoes, olives, and brine.

Continue to simmer until rice is tender.

Add steamed clams and mussels, reserving a few for garnish.

Add Tabasco, to taste.

Sprinkle with paprika, and garnish with lemon wedges and parsley.