One of my earliest memories dates back to when I was 10 years old. I was in my New Jersey basement, rifling through my mother's cookbooks, when I discovered a copy of McCall's Introduction to Italian Cooking. Leafing through its pages, I happened upon a recipe for stuffed mushrooms that looked so good, I ran upstairs to try it. While I don't remember how my first stab at those mushrooms turned out, they must've been good, since now—more than 25 years later—my family still requests them.
I come from an Italian-American family with a curiosity about cooking that's practically hardwired into our DNA. In my 20s, I honed my cooking skills by hosting dinner parties in a West Village apartment that I shared with three roommates. And after getting married eight years ago, my favorite thing in the world was cooking dinner with my husband, John.
John shared my passion for cooking. After a pizza-making class we took at the Institute of Culinary Education (a Valentine's gift to each other), he jokingly suggested we open a pizzeria together. During the summer, he would proudly survey the fat, ripe tomatoes in our backyard garden and spend entire weekends picking, seeding, and blending them into gallons of sauce that would last us through the following year.
After I left the city for the suburbs, where John already lived, I found myself enjoying the simple domesticity of grocery shopping early on Saturday mornings, and planning our meals for the week ahead. Each weeknight, I would rush home from the bus stop after work to decompress with John over a bottle of wine as we cooked dinner together. Inevitably, his phone would start ringing as soon as the first onion was chopped. John was a teacher and a lacrosse coach, and it was right around dinnertime that the calls would start coming in: a scouting report from an assistant coach, a concerned parent, an opposing team's coach in need of directions to the game.
"I'll do the clean-up," he would mouth to me as he excused himself from the kitchen to deal with the barrage of questions he was fielding. Once dinner was ready, we would sit at our enormous farmhouse table (built for eight) and talk about work or our plans for the weekend. Sometimes we would joke about all the children we'd need to have to help us fill that table—the large Sunday family dinners we would someday host.
John and I had met through mutual friends about a year after we graduated from college. On one of our first dates, he laughed out loud when I told him I'd kept food diaries as a child, smiling as I proceeded to rattle off specific dishes I'd eaten at family weddings, christenings, and vacations. Looking back, what I liked most about him was that he was always so, well, happy. He was the happiest person I'd ever known. And in a world full of pessimists, I decided to hedge my bets on an eternal optimist. In 2007, six years after we started dating, we were married in the same church I'd attended as a child.
Given our mutual love of all things food, John thought it only natural that we start hosting family Thanksgivings as soon as we were married. It was his favorite holiday. He loved that there was no church attendance required, no need for gifts; he loved that—once the turkey was devoured and the sides packed away into their respective plastic containers—he could settle in for three or four hours of pure, unadulterated football.
Still, when John suggested we host, I answered with an emphatic no. Preparing such an iconic feast for our two dozen or so family members intimidated me. What if the turkey didn't cook through? What if the potatoes were bland? I didn't want the pressure or the possibility of undercooked poultry. I didn't want to mess up the stuffing or the cranberry sauce, the mashed potatoes or, God forbid, my grandmother's famous roasted carrots with olive oil and orange juice. "We'll host next year," I assured him. But when next year came around, I offered the same reply.
One holiday we did host was Easter. While Easter dinner was a paltry consolation prize for John, I saw it as perfect practice for the Thanksgivings we would eventually take on. Each year, we sat with our extended family—26 of them in all—at both sides of our farmhouse table (as well as an overflow table we purchased at Target in a last-minute panic) and served pork tenderloin stuffed with goat cheese, bread crumbs, and cherries in a port wine sauce; homemade stromboli; and manicotti—a family favorite.
Cleaning up the kitchen after everyone had left, John would once again suggest that we host Thanksgiving at our house. And while I had hesitated for years, in October of 2010, I finally gave in. John was so excited when I told him that he immediately started making phone calls to invite everyone, while I anxiously scribbled a preliminary menu on a napkin in front of the TV.
I set to work immediately. I bought Thanksgiving-themed paper plates and napkins to use for desserts. I ordered homemade pumpkin ravioli from my favorite pasta shop in town (yes, a pasta course is excessive, but for an Italian family it's also sacred). I perused turkey recipes online and printed out eight different options for preparing it. When I asked John which one he preferred, he chose one rubbed with a garlic and rosemary mixture, from a Cooking Light holiday cookbook.
"I'll take care of the bird," he told me. "You do the sides." And so I started planning the best ones I could think of, from my grandmother's roasted carrots to the green beans tossed in sautéed pesto, which we made to deal with our garden's overflow of fresh basil each summer. I delegated the stuffing to my parents, the sweet and mashed potatoes to my in-laws, and a pie to each of our mothers. The more planning we did, the more excited I became at the prospect of finally hosting. John couldn't wait to roast his first turkey—and when he found out his beloved New York Jets would be playing the Cincinnati Bengals on Thanksgiving night, he thought things couldn't possibly be better. Then, three weeks before Thanksgiving, on November 4, 2010, John suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 33 years old. Suddenly, he was gone.
A barrage of family, friends, and food entered my home during the weeks following John's death. I remember parts of those days vividly; some not at all. As Thanksgiving approached, everyone gently urged me to spend the day anywhere but my home. But I saw things differently. I know it might sound strange, but hosting Thanksgiving was the last big decision John and I had made together. I was determined to honor it.
On Thanksgiving Day, I woke up in my childhood bedroom at my parents' house and drove to the cemetery where John was buried. I whispered to him that I was going back to our house to host our first Thanksgiving. I told him I would need his help to see me through. Alone in our kitchen, I sautéed the Brussels sprouts, chopped the green beans, and sliced my grandmother's carrots in silence. No television. No music. No voices. When I went to the pantry to retrieve the Thanksgiving napkins I'd purchased back in October, I stood for a moment and looked at the contents of our shelves—the vinegars and olive oils, the pastas and the beans. The packaged shells for our taco nights. There were a hundred different ingredients for a hundred different meals John and I had planned together. And yet we would never make them. I lost my breath for a moment and started weeping, wildly.
I suspect John might have been amused at learning that paper napkins could elicit such strong emotions from me. But I also know he would have been touched by how our family and friends rallied around me that day. That he would have loved watching his mother and me labor over the rosemary and garlic turkey he was so excited to make. After some trial, some error, and many tears, it turned out perfectly. Later that night, the Jets defeated the Bengals, 26 to 10.
Of the many things I miss about John—our little routines and our intimate conversations, the dreams we dreamed at that farmhouse table of ours—it's the simple pleasure of cooking with him that I miss most. I miss the evenings when he would grill steaks out back as I prepared the sides and salads in our kitchen, popping out the screen of the window and passing platters back and forth through it. I miss making him my pan-seared chicken breast with pesto-tossed green beans and yellow rice, a dish he loved so much that he once snapped a photo of it—a photo I found while scrolling through his phone weeks after he died.
Time moves on, and as I slowly rebuild my life, I think about John whenever I brown some onions and garlic for a Sunday sauce, or grill hamburgers and hot dogs for our nieces and nephews at summer cookouts. Though he's been gone for five years, I am still cooking for John. I am still cooking for the both of us. As another Thanksgiving approaches, my sixth without him, I am thankful that I married an optimist, thankful that his optimism has carried me through all of the sadness, thankful that it always will.