For many people, Thanksgiving is a holiday that delivers on its promises. The table sags beneath platters of ham and turkey, bowls of mashed potatoes and yams, green bean casseroles, hot bread, and pies. Family and old friends gather together to swap lies, damn lies, and statistics, the last most often having to do with sports stats and personal poundage. Afternoon naps are the order of the day, with the promise that televised football games and vintage movies will greet us when we groggily wake for one more glass of sparkling cider or another slice of pecan pie.
And then there is the shopping.
Even in a recession, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the shopping season just as surely as April brings us baseball or November lures hunters into the woods. On Thanksgiving weekends stores throw open their doors in the middle of the night, and wild-eyed consumers spend both their time and money chasing bargains with the fervor of brokers baying in a bull market. Malls create traffic gridlocks; employees of the major retail chains must sometimes act as referees in customer squabbling matches; shoppers themselves return home in the dull twilight of Friday evening gasping for their favorite beverage and rubbing their tired feet as if they had just endured a legionnaire’s march in the desert.
Though some profess to love this bargain hunting — ”There’s nothing like the smell of wampum in the morning!” — others regard Black Friday as the one drawback to an otherwise perfect holiday, a pall covering with dark shadows that day and the entire month of days following, that span of Advent during which one question, and one question only, looms like a nightmare in the mind: “What will I get ’fill-in-the-blank’ for Christmas?”
Gift buying puzzles discerning givers. Our three-year-old nephew is easy enough to please — he’d be happy with a piece of duct tape on a string — but what about Uncle Charlie? What do we give a man who has everything? Or our own mother? She possesses every kitchen appliance made since the invention of the orange juice squeezer, she hasn’t bought a new piece of clothing since the Clinton administration, and she last saw a feature film in a movie theater when she was stuck in Knoxville during the blizzard of ‘93. Where do we begin?
In a bookstore, of course. When we pause to consider the matter, bookstores contain the widest variety of gifts of any store. You can’t buy clothing in a bookshop, but you can find wonderful books on fashion. You can’t buy food, but you can find dozens of tomes on cooking, nutrition, and entertainment. In fact, you name the topic — sports, big-game photography, timber-framing, Alabama vacation spots — and a bookshop will likely oblige your taste.
Take a book like Susan Colon’s Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times (ISBN 978-0-385-53252-5, $21.95), which will delight recipients in several categories: cooks, older friends and family who remember the Great Depression, and those suffering the effects of our own economic woes. A native of New Jersey whose own immediate family took a few blows from our current financial mess and whose grandmother during the Depression kept recipes mingling good food with thrift, Colon delivers a smorgasbord of anecdotes, inspiration, and tasty food.
These are not recipes, by the way, for those whose taste buds have grown fond of exotic foods. Colon’s recipes, acquired via her mother and grandmother, are American fare cooked in the style when Americans cared more for substance than style. Among these dishes are “Matilde’s Baked Pork Chops with Sauerkraut,” “Hot Dog Soup,” “Aunt Nettie’s Clam Chowder,” and “Yeast Dumplings.” Reading these recipes and the stories that go with them brings to mind images of the kitchen of the 1930s and ‘40s: steaming kettles on a white stove, open containers of flour, sugar, and salt, the merry bustle of bodies intent on putting a wholesome, stick-to-your ribs supper on a dining room table.
For those inclined to literature and the spirit, we might gift wrap a copy of The Best Of It (ISBN 978-0-8021-1914-8, $24), Kay Ryan’s collection of new and selected poems. Ryan, who is our current national poet laureate, is described in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry as “intense and elliptical as Dickinson, as buoyant and rueful as Frost.” In The Best Of It, we find that this high praise is well-deserved. Ryan’s words lie on the white page formally and forcefully as inscriptions on stone. Here in full, for example, is “Silence”:
Silence is not snow.
It cannot grow
deeper. A thousand years
of it are thinner
than paper. So
we must have it
when we feel trapped
Many of Ryan’s poems explore aspects of the self, mixing language both concrete and abstract to create verse that the reader can both contemplate and revisit with satisfaction. “Chemise” is one of many such poems in this panoply of verse:
What would the self
disrobed look like,
the form undraped?
There is a flimsy cloth
we can’t take off –
some last chemise
we can’t escape –
a hope more intimate
From the sacred to the profane, from volumes of lilting verse to recipes for quick apple cake, books offer choices for the boggled shopper, and the shops which sell those books are one of the best places around for one-stop shopping.
Next time we’ll continue our Christmas shopping with a look at two popular novels and the latest from Pat Conroy, My Reading Life.
Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times by Susan Colon. Doubleday, 2009. 224 pages