CHENOWETH: An Oregon tale of Thanksgiving

Marilyn Chenoweth

Like millions of other Americans, I flew home to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family this year. Horror stories of traveling on the Wednesday prior to the famed holiday raced across the morning headlines and naturally, I anticipated a long and arduous trip from Philadelphia to Chicago and then from Chicago to my hometown of Portland, Ore.

To my surprise, with the exception of a mile-long line at airport security, my trek across the country proved relatively easy, with no major crowds or delays. I thought the difficult part of my Thanksgiving weekend had ended.

I was wrong. As my mother, father, grandmother and I enjoyed hot bowls of vegetable soup for lunch on a particularly wet and dreary Thanksgiving Day, the warm glow of our home was suddenly snuffed out as we looked around to find ourselves in a dark abyss. The electricity went off. Stunned, we all glanced at the oven where our 14-pound free-range turkey was simmering. Now the oven became an increasingly cool and hostile home for the bird.

The electric company reported dismal progress in finding the source of the power outage. Incessant rain is characteristic of the Pacific Northwest, and it was thought that too much rain had saturated the ground and caused a tree to topple over a power line. As Oregonians, we are used to surviving power outages. I clearly recall a storm in 1995 that caused us to lose electricity for three days.

Like all of the other neighborhood children, I could not have been happier, since school was cancelled, and I spent my days in the company of my next door neighbor performing elaborate shadow puppet shows aided by flashlights and the dim interiors of our homes. The present power outage proved different, however, since it was Thanksgiving and almost everyone around was in the process of preparing an abundant feast when their homes went dark and their appliances shut off.

Determined and resourceful are perhaps the best two words to describe my mother. In a matter of minutes she thought to transfer our turkey from our electric oven to the barbeque outside. I believe I looked at her as if she were crazy, and for a brief moment, I considered dining out for Thanksgiving. It then dawned on my family and me that surrendering was simply out of the question and that we would prepare and devour our traditional feast regardless of the lack of electricity.

My father retrieved his two single-burner camping stoves, on which we proceeded to cook the cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy. Our turkey and sweet potatoes baked beautifully in the barbeque under the careful watch of my father who was equipped with raincoat and flashlight. Our pumpkin pie was purchased but rendered inedible, since it lacked the necessary whipped cream topping. Without a can of Redi-Whip in sight, we were faced with the seemingly impossible task of beating the cream by hand.

Fortunately, we were equipped with a hand beater, and we commenced the whipping of the cream in a community effort, trading off when our forearms and shoulders could no longer bear the effort. After about 15 minutes, the cream became rich and frothy, the picture of perfection. As darkness quickly approached, we found ourselves in a race against time, because it became increasingly difficult to cook without daylight. Luckily, five candles and two fluorescent lanterns made our task a bit easier.

At around 5:30 p.m., each component of our feast was prepared and we joyfully gathered around an elegantly set table. As the temperature of our house hovered in the low 60s, we traded in our formal Thanksgiving attire for down jackets and sweatpants.

Needless to say, our clothing did not match our surroundings. After saying grace and noting our particular thankfulness for a meal cooked without electricity, we savored our Thanksgiving feast in the cozy candlelit dining room. Just when we were commending one another for a job well done, blinding light suddenly pervaded the room and the soft noise of the heater returned. The power was restored.

Within moments of realizing that our lives had gone back to normal, my father cried out a disappointed, “No!” The soft glow of our dining room had been replaced with an ultra-bright and rather obnoxious light. As we ate the remainder of our meal, we realized that we had actually enjoyed pulling through the power outage.

Never before has my family put forth such a joint effort during the preparation of Thanksgiving dinner. Resourcefulness, dedication, teamwork and patience enabled us to prepare a meal equivalent, perhaps even superior, to that which we would have prepared had we been aided by electricity. After all, the turkey was barbequed.

When the power first went out, I became upset and declared our holiday virtually ruined. Upon reflection, however, I know that I have never enjoyed preparing Thanksgiving dinner more than I did this year. Cooking by candlelight with my loved ones made me realize what it means to be truly thankful. I am thankful for the relationship I have with my family and for the fact that we proved electricity unnecessary in preparing our Thanksgiving dinner.

The truth is, I would not have wanted to spend my holiday anywhere else but in our cold, dark kitchen, stirring my cranberry sauce over a propane stove. Ambivalent toward the electricity’s return, I realized that spending the prime cooking hours of the day without power only brought my family and me closer together.

I will recall our holiday with heartfelt happiness because the loss of something so basic to our daily lives fostered an overwhelming sense of community. My grandmother keenly reminded us that “necessity is the mother of all invention.”

The loss of electricity prompted my family not only to invent new ways of cooking our holiday dinner but also to reinvent our entire approach to Thanksgiving. Thank you, Thanksgiving of 2006, for my family, for our feast and for the lack of electricity that made us appreciate one another and work together like never before.