My only thought as we opened the front door and came into the house was, "I'm going to ruin these poor people's entire Christmas."
I did feel bad.
There was really no other option.
They weren't expecting me, and knowing my boyfriend, he had told his family the bare minimum in preparation for our first meeting.
On Christmas Day.
The night before, he had met my family for the first time, and was taken aback by our traditional holiday antipasto, claiming that we were just eating hoagies without the bread. Which, in a way, we were. Only then did he mention the possibility of canned vegetables at his mother's house, and again, left it at the bare minimum about the components of Christmas dinner.
Which left me panicked. Should I keep some prosciutto in my pocket in case things got a little rough over there? What if dinner really was canned vegetables and sliced turkey from a package? Should I try to stuff it down to make a good impression, or should I claim to be full from the night before?
And before I go any further with the story, I really need to set the stage here.
Sure, my boyfriend met my parents only the day before, with his long hair and Chuck Taylors. But he looked like a congressman next to me. My hair was dreaded in parts and a multitude of colors. I was most likely wearing a vintage dress, velvet stapled at the hem with tears at the armpits. Bright red lipstick. Army boots. And it gets better. I smoked. More than the average bookie. I carried the scent of an entire AA meeting all by myself. Once I remembered that, it became apparent to me that I was going to eat canned turkey if it came down to it.
My boyfriend's family traditions and cuisine were quite different from my own, as different as Appalachia from Italy-via-Brooklyn could be. No one gathered around the table to sit down at his house; you grabbed a plate and the first one through the line claimed the favored La-Z-Boy, then the second favorite, third favorite, et cetera. The food was like a rainbow; bright yellow for the potato salad, flaming orange for the yams, and then there was a bowl of murky-colored vittles that looked like it had just been pulled out of a very old mattress. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the turkey actually had legs and that the promise of canned food was correct in the ribbed, jiggly cranberry sauce.
I was invited to help myself, and I did, scooping all of the primary colors onto my plate. This is where I get cancer, I told myself. Dig in. I found an arm rest that was free and tried to perch quietly on it, but a dinner roll flipped off my plate and hit the floor within three seconds. I picked it up and bit it, smiling, not wanting to insinuate that my boyfriend's mother had a filthy floor.
I did not want to eat what was on my plate. I did not. How did the potato salad get so ... bright? I wondered, squinting at it. But his family was nice, and they were all doing a very good job of pretending to be happy to meet me. Sticking my fork into nuclear potato salad was the least I could do.
So I did it, and I took a bite. It was potato salad, no better or worse than any other potato salad. I ate it all. Then I moved on to the orange yams or whatever they were. No marshmallows. I wasn't impressed. But I'm an asshole, and as soon as I took a bite, I wasn't done swallowing before I asked for the recipe. It turns out there was chocolate, heavy cream, cream cheese and brown sugar in it. Seriously. You could put that into any Russian dish and it would become edible.
I was beginning to like Hillbilly Christmas. But then I was faced with the mound of mattress fluff, and I was beginning to struggle. It just looked awful — soggy and, honestly, vulgar. I was able to identify a piece of celery on it, but I couldn't jump in without at least some hints of what I was eating. Entrails? Cheeks? Boiled hooves? Hillbillies are crazy people. They'll throw a rock at a squirrel they've already named and two seconds later, they're gnawing at it on a spit. Nibbling meat off of squirrel toes. These folks were from Kentucky; nothing is out of bounds.
Finally, I caught my boyfriend's eye as he sat on a lone piano bench across the room and mouthed "What is this?" pointing to the scoop of the unknown.
He laughed at me and shouted out, "IT'S STUFFING!" but before I could mouth, "Are their gizzards and butts in here?" every single one of his family members, including several second cousins, turned their heads to watch me as I raised the fork, quivering with what very well may have been turkey colon, and deposited it into my mouth.
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Here we go, I thought to myself as I began to chew on it, just hoping that it was swallowable and there were no rubbery bits in it that would activate a gag reflex that only little Catholic girls who hate fish throw into drive every Friday.
And guess what?
Do you know what's in Hillbilly Stuffing? Cornbread, TWO sticks of butter, chicken broth, onions, sage and celery.
Not one single squirrel toe.
I should know. I make it for my boyfriend, now husband, every single Christmas.