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Triple-Sausage Stuffing with Sausage Sauce
Recently my younger sister Heather decided to paint her fireplace white. This would be minor news in most families, but not in ours. All day the phone calls flew back and forth. My mother suggested cream instead, which she said was softer. My retiree father phoned from the golf course to warn that painting the fireplace would decrease the property value. I debated the pitfalls of the “wrong” shade of white. My other sister, Dinah, requested a photo of the fireplace before weighing in.
My family does everything by committee, so that the most trivial dilemma is debated with the zeal of Talmudic scholars. (As Dinah puts it, “No one in our family ever says, ‘I don’t know,’ even when they know absolutely nothing about the subject.”) We all live within an hour’s drive of one another—I’m in Brooklyn, Dinah and my folks live in our home state of New Jersey, and Heather is in a small town in upstate New York—but we can never seem to save these conversations for get-togethers. They require an immediate blizzard of phone calls, so we all signed up for a “friends and family” plan to do it on the cheap.
Dinah, a mild-mannered editor and mother of two, is the most agreeable of our group, and thus most apt to get flattened by the familial steamroller. When she wanted to redecorate her TV room last year, she made the tactical blunder of enthusiastically sharing the plan with Heather and my mother. After weeks of research, she told them, she had picked out two brown couches, a dark brown rug, and, instead of a coffee table, two large tan ottomans.
A short, deadly silence ensued. “Huh,” said my mother, a former Southern beauty queen not known for holding back. This is code for I hate that idea.
“It’ll look like a padded cell,” said Heather, the youngest sibling and an elementary school teacher. When I got my first job in New York City, at Rolling Stone magazine, a teenage Heather used to covertly run my life, advising me on my career and dating travails, despite having scant experience in either realm.
Dinah, in mid-shrivel, valiantly moved on to plan B. “Okay, instead of the ottomans, how about two little coffee tables that I can move around? That would look kind of cool. Right?” For Dinah, this was a radical proposal.
“When are you going to move them around?” wondered my mother.
“The only time they’re going to move,” Heather said, “is when your kids run into them and knock them over.”
By the end of their little chat, Dinah had been persuaded to get two cream-colored couches, a cream rug with red accents, and a conventional coffee table with clean, modern lines. I saw the results a few weeks later, and while the room looked great, it was leagues away from her original idea.
“Why did you feel compelled to tell them you were redecorating?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Because I really wanted to know what they thought. Sometimes it’s nice to be told what’s best for you by people who are absolutely sure of their opinions.”
“But some of those opinions are half-baked! They just use an emphatic tone of voice so you think they possess some secret knowledge. Hell, I use the same trick. Sometimes as I’m holding forth, I’m thinking, What the hell am I even saying?”
Unfortunately, Dinah does not have the lawyerly power of persuasion that the other females of the family specialize in. The longest I’ve ever witnessed her hold out was twenty minutes. “I never win in family committee meetings,” she told me glumly. “Remember my wedding? I kind of remember thinking I don’t know if I want this a lot. How about the bridesmaids’ dresses? You guys wanted red velvet with black trim. I thought you looked like waitresses at Steak and Ale. And Dad insisted I get my hair done at the Penney’s beauty salon, and I hated it.” My father used to manage the JC Penney in Wayne, New Jersey. “It was poofy and I had ringlets alongside each ear.” She sighed. “Ringlets! But I end up conceding. I don’t know why. I get on the phone with everyone, and when I hang up, I think, Whatever. There are a lot of whatevers.”
I had to halt the gloomfest. “It’s only my wedding,” I imitated in a morose voice, ever the domineering eldest sister. “It’s only a once-in-a-lifetime event.” Why couldn’t I resist needling her? Did I always have to revert to being a teen?
“I know what you’re trying to do,” she broke in. “You’re using an Eeyore voice! I am not Eeyore!”
I informed her that she was indeed Eeyore, and she didn’t argue with me. Proving my point nicely.
I told her the trick to averting the typhoon of family opinion was to hold off making an announcement until a deed was already done. When Heather found out she was pregnant with her second son, she sent us all an email saying, We will tell you the baby’s name after he is born. In the meantime, we are not accepting any suggestions. She was still exhausted from the debate around her first child, when names would be glibly rejected for the barest of reasons. We all felt free to condemn any name that reminded us of a classmate from the fourth grade who smelled like fried eggs, or a co-worker who always had crumbs lodged in his goatee and wore stretched-out Shaker-knit sweaters, or someone’s cousin who was in the East Jersey State Prison for aggravated assault.
Every name suggestion Heather made was answered with my mother’s Huh, a sound Heather grew to dread. After a dozen group disputes, Heather and her husband, Rob, warily settled on Travis, which they secretly suspected no one liked. (“Not true,” said my mother, reached at home in New Jersey.)
Why do we all allow this boundary-free judgment? It’s become a compulsion, one that has grown worse with time so that we now offer our views without any solicitation whatsoever. Who needs an invitation? When my father paid a visit to Dinah’s house not long ago, he silently assessed the surroundings, his arms folded across his chest. Having recently ended his thirty-five years of devoted service to Penney’s, he had turned his attentions toward preparing his loved ones for anything that could possibly go awry, from financial disaster to termite infestation to scams (“Girls, listen carefully: If someone squirts ketchup or mustard on you, you’re being taken for a ride. I saw it on 20/20”).
Dinah braced herself as my father finally cleared his throat. “You know,” he began, sounding regretful but firm, “you really need to get these floors redone.” Dinah followed him as he walked outside and grimly inspected the grounds. He pointed to the side of the house. “Why haven’t you power-washed this area here?”
“Because nobody looks at the side of the house. Including me. I’ve told you ten times that I don’t care.”
My father wasn’t listening, because he had moved on to the deck’s support system, which he deemed “insubstantial,” and then to a concrete patch near the garage, which was “crumbling.” Before long he had given the place a thorough evaluation and made it clear that it wasn’t up to code. His code. He did everything but write up a citation.
“I just invited him over to have lunch,” Dinah lamented on the phone to me that night.
Our family opinionfests are the most heated right before Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the holiday menus are negotiated. The calls begin in late October and build to a crescendo by mid-November. Our menu follows the same template every year, but there is just enough variation—a new recipe proposal here, a side-order addition there—that we all feel we must frantically get our bids in, hollering as if we’re on the stock market floor. As Heather put it with her usual calm, “If somebody made menu choices without a group consultation, it would be devastating.” Three years ago, when it became clear that the Magna Carta was drafted with less effort, I announced a streamlined new system: We three siblings would hash out the details in a conference call and report them to the folks. All cautiously agreed.
This year’s call clocked in at two hours and twenty minutes. It would have gone longer but Heather’s portable phone began to die.
“Why are we doing this?” Dinah complained. “Thanksgiving is always the same damn thing.”
“Do you want Heather and me to do this then?” I asked crisply. Order had to be maintained.
Then Dinah threw a bomb. “I made an executive decision without telling anybody,” she began. “I bought the gravy.”
Silence from Heather and me. “Why did you not clear it?” Heather said finally.
“Because the gravy is fancier than what we normally buy. It was from Whole Foods rather than the crap that Dad buys from ShopRite.”
Tempted by the word fancier, we assented and moved on to stuffing. There were eight adults at our Thanksgiving table, but no one could agree on flavors, so we had three varieties: traditional bread, corn-bread, and a wild card.
“Patrick wants to make wild-mushroom and chestnut,” Dinah ventured.
I snorted. Dinah’s meat-loving husband would never make anything vegetarian.
“Please,” I said. “Last year he made triple-sausage stuffing with sausage sauce, made from a whole barnyard of different animals. There were maybe two shreds of bread in the whole thing.”
“It was not an entire meat stuffing,” said Dinah indignantly. “It wasn’t a turducken.”
After ten minutes we were still deadlocked. “Maybe we should bring a custom stuffing blend for each person,” said Heather in exasperation. Finally we agreed on mushroom with a light dose of spicy turkey sausage.
Next we tackled the one lonely green vegetable we would feature. I proposed a new recipe of raw shaved Brussels sprouts with a vinaigrette and Manchego cheese I had seen in a magazine. The girls enthusiastically agreed, murmuring that something fresh and healthy would offset the heaviness of everything else. Then doubt set in.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s much cheese,” Heather pointed out. “No buttered-crumb topping? Maybe we should have creamed spinach instead.”
“With lots of cream and cheese,” added Dinah. “I want that spinach to barely be green. More like a spinach smoothie.”
I sighed. Done. Twenty more minutes were devoted to potatoes (mashed and sweet), rolls (fresh-made and canned crescent rolls, which my father always bought as a backup and then somehow they, too, would make it to the table, so that each person ended up with a pile of a half-dozen rolls). We voted on our usual three pies—chocolate, pecan, and pumpkin. Then Dinah pointed out that my normally recalcitrant husband once agitated for apple pie. “How come he never gets what he wants?” she said. “We have three. Who cares if there’s another?”
“It’s a little obscene,” said Heather. “Four desserts for eight people? That’s half a pie for each of us.”
“I don’t get it,” Dinah countered. “If you wanted to make an apple pie for Tom, I wouldn’t care. Who cares?”
“Because it’s not the way we do it,” Heather returned calmly. “Our Thanksgiving would be ruined if there were fruit pies. It’s not appropriate. It’s not . . .” She searched for the right word. “. . . autumnal.”
“Apples aren’t autumnal?”
“Why don’t we just hold Thanksgiving dinner inside a supermarket?” I broke in. “Then we’ll have endless variety.”