There's a song by Australian singer/songwriter Paul Kelly about a man calling his family from prison a couple of days before Christmas. In it, he asks his brother to kiss his kids for him, expresses deep regret about screwing up, and worries about his wife's fidelity. All of this is wrapped up in the chorus refrain: “Who's gonna make the gravy? I bet it won't taste the same.”
The song has always resonated with me, not just for its bare humanity but because I think that's how I'd feel if I were taken from my family for some reason. Who's going to make the gravy? Even now, with brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers scattered all over the world, and with my small family on the opposite side of the country from any family for the first time in years, most of my anxiety in being away from those I love on Thanksgiving can be channeled into me worrying about who will make them good gravy, if not me.
In the days leading up to the birth of my son, when the serious nesting instinct set in, I didn't begin furiously cleaning or setting up the nursery for the 3rd time — I roasted chickens and made gravy. There's a photo of me the day before my son was born, resting a bowl of gravy on my massive tummy as if it were a table.
Likewise, five years later when my family and I survived a terrifying car accident, all of us stunned into that bizarre emotional state in which you still aren't quite sure if you're alive or dead, I walked into the house and turned on the oven. In went the chicken. I felt that gravy was the way to bring us all back to life, to root us firmly back in this dimension.
As always, the chicken (or turkey, or lamb) is almost the byproduct for me, not the other way around. It is a way and a means to make gravy. The bird is easy: hot oven plus time equals roast chicken. Gravy is much harder, and it feels as close to alchemy as anything you can do on a stove top. Yes, there's some technical skill required in making a roux, in the timing of the enterprise. But there's something else as well. I couldn't tell you how I make gravy because I don't know myself. I know what ingredients are needed, but the rest of it springs forth from my heart. Something happens, magic takes over. I work over the pan without consciously really knowing what I'm doing.
It's ridiculously cheesy, this notion that love makes food taste good, but I'm telling you that when I make gravy I can actually feel it happening. I can feel that ingredient come through me.
And every year, when my mother forced me (cynical me — I know from this essay it's hard to believe, but it's true) to say at the Thanksgiving table what I'm thankful for, I would always say “I'm thankful for gravy.” It sounds like a way out, like a way to avoid the honest task of being thankful. It sounds like nothing. But really, it's everything.