The battle began at the Myrtle Beach Costco.
I was steering a cart with enough food to stock a doomsday bunker when I saw a bag of spinach.
“We could make a salad,” I suggested.
“You can make a salad,” my mom answered. “I’m not gonna have any salad.”
First blood had been drawn.
I was raised on a steady diet of cheap carbohydrates designed to fill stomachs and silence mouths. Hamburger Helper, Beans and Weenies, Mashed Potatoes, Chicken Pot Pie, Chicken & Dumplings. Southern moms seem to say with their recipes, “We’re gonna die of heart attacks as a family.” So for a city slicker to come home at Thanksgiving and suggest a change to the menu was an act of war.
It had already been fight for my mom to get her first-born son home. I have chosen family in New York, and Thanksgiving is less than Christmas in the holiday hierarchy. And the flights! The flights, Mom, are way too expensive because I waited until they were way too expensive. But this year, my mom started her campaign early. I had no excuse left except the truth, which I’d never say: going home feels like going backwards. After a five-year hiatus, I booked a Thanksgiving flight home.
I arrived in my mother’s kitchen to assemble my salad.
I put my ingredients on the counter, and watched my mom orchestrate the meal she’d made for over 30 years. Growing up, chores were gendered in my house: my mom did the cooking, washed the dishes, cleaned the bathroom, kitchen, and living rooms, and ironed our clothes. I mowed the lawn. The only helper my mom had on Turkey Day was Cracker Barrel, who had recently taken over pecan pie duty. Now I know that Big Food has been pouring sugar into our packaged goods for years. What I did not know is that Patty Zimmerman has been putting more sugar on top of that: into the deviled egg mixture, the corn pudding, the stuffing. Even the savory dishes weren’t safe.
I bit my tongue.
“Should I put the dressing on the salad now?” I asked.
“Yeah, put it on there,” she answered. “And stick it in the fridge so it stays cold.”
Maybe my mom was warming up to a collaborateur in her kitchen, a grown man doing a woman’s task, her queer son bringing his green salad into her Southern heart attack. On the TV was the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Broadway showtunes, the only undercover queer culture I’d consume as a kid, snuck between Spiderman and the Hulk. My annual microdosing on the world I’d one day call my own.
“Think you’ll have any?” I asked, sticking the final dish in the fridge.
“I’m not gonna have any salad.”
When dinner was ready, the family sat at a table that is used once a year. Dad said grace. I didn’t close my eyes. My nephew outed me for not closing my eyes. We passed dishes. We ate. We fought. The core Zimmerman Family traditions were intact. We managed to avoid the worst of the conversational landmines, still battle-scarred from 2016, and then it was time for dessert: a slice of the outsourced pecan pie and a slice of Mom’s no-bake cheesecake (store-bought whipped cream, cream cheese, and enough sugar to start a cartel, all in a pre-made graham cracker crust, left in the fridge to harden and eventually overpower your taste buds). When dessert was over, Dad retreated to his recliner to watch football. My sisters cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher. Everything appeared to be in its place.
It wasn’t until I started putting the leftovers in the fridge that I saw the carnage. My salad. I had completely forgotten. It had sat orphaned in the fridge throughout dinner and dessert, soaking in ranch until it was unrecognizable. How did this happen? And should I eat some now? After Mom’s no-bake cheesecake, would my tongue even register the flavor?
“Oh no,” my mom said when she saw the bowl. “Guess none of us are having salad.”
She had won. Her subtle yet effective smear campaign against something green on her Thanksgiving dinner table was a success. She didn’t have any salad. None of us had salad. We’d all die a little sooner as a family.
I’m back home for Thanksgiving again this year. I’ll watch the Broadway numbers in the parade, and my eyes will stay open during grace, scanning the table for something green.
Update: On November 28, 2019, there were two green salads on my mother’s Thanksgiving dinner table. I had no hand in preparing either of them. When asked for comment, my mom explained they were store-bought salad kits. “They were gonna go bad.”