Steady as she goes…

Last night I realized Thanksgiving is just a few days away. Immediately after this realization, I started googling turkey like a crazy person. I explored all things turkey, from turkey recipes (my original intent) to voting on the name for the turkey being pardoned at the White House (despite the absurdity of the ritual). I even clicked on the Visit Turkey websites just out of curiosity and went to bed determined to make Turkey our summer destination.

This year, I have decided to make Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. That’s right, despite the multitudes of people telling me I am crazy, in over my head, and have no idea what I’m doing, I’m going for it anyway. I envision a colorful Thanksgiving feast, bright cranberry sauce, steaming golden turkey, all laid out on an immaculately decorated table. My guests will ooh and ahh as I stand back like a proud mama and watch Patrick carve the turkey. I might even be wearing an apron, a floral one.

Don’t worry, I’m not completely naive. After envisioning this fuzzy glowy feast, I have a reality check and can see a more accurate picture: myself spitting out obscenities as I scrape yams off the floor and yell at Patrick to set the freakin’ table, cranberry smeared on my forehead and side dishes getting cold and crusty. Let’s just be honest with ourselves, that’s what it’s going to really be like. So why am I going to all this trouble?

A few weeks ago, a dear friend ended a long-term relationship that had everyone expecting a happy ending. She is not a member of the church and was raised much like I was, Catholic by default, independent by nature. I was surprised when she started dating this guy, a recent Utah transplant, BYU grad, nice, cleancut, etc etc. But they hit it off and seemed headed for marriage, despite living half a country away from one another. When the relationship ended, I recalled a conversation we had quite a while back about her feelings on marriage. One of the fears she brought up was that she would never be the perfect Mormon wife.

My gut reaction was to tell her that the perfect Mormon wife doesn’t exist. But I paused, because it does, or at least the idea of it does. And even if it’s only an idea, it’s still there, hanging over our heads. Even as a non-member, my friend was taunted by it, reminded that she’ll always have to smile politely when visiting teachers come to see her or be eaten by guilt every time she goes into a friend’s home and sees the wedding pictures in front of the temple, a reminder of the marriage she can never give her husband.

For me, this ideal coupled with my ambitious nature forces me to constantly play a game of catch-up. A test to see how fast I can acquire and appreciate the skills that are so valued in an environment where such emphasis is placed (rightly, I believe) on family and home.

So there I was last night, comparing methods of brining a turkey and laughing at this strange person I have become since joining the church. Several years ago I could have cared less about domestic things. I knew how to steam broccoli and find things under giant piles of clothing and that was good enough for me. But there is something that has caused me to care about things I never could have imagined caring about, like whether I’ll ever be able to make a decent loaf of bread or why my basil plant keeps dying.

So what is that something? The most obvious answer would be that I’m growing up. But that explanation does not quite suffice. I’m fairly young, women my age are not baking bread and preparing object lessons, at least not the women in the culture I was raised in. I had always envisioned myself at this point in my life living in the middle of a noisy city, picking up my dry cleaning and Chinese takeout on the way home from work. But at some point after joining the church, all of that lost its luster and I started caring about other things.

So the reasonable answer is that the church led me to expand my interests to things I once scoffed at. Not the church as an institution but the church as a culture. The church culture, or at least the church kitsch, usually tends to rub me the wrong way. (Reading Tracy M.’s beautifully written last post, I felt like she was inside my head.) But even if I don’t have the Proclamation framed on my wall with a picture of my family, even if I don’t use the phrase “with every fiber of my being” in a testimony meeting, I look at the cookbooks open to the turkey section on the floor around me and wonder if I’m halfway there.

Where does this picture of the ideal Mormon wife come from and why is it so easy for a generally sane, fiercely individual person to buy into?

Comments

  1. Molly Bennion says:

    Perhaps this sentiment speaks more to a desire to bring pleasure to friends and family on special occasions than to cook. It’s more about happy times and bonding memories than turkeys.

    Or perhaps it’s a remnant of that pernicious saying, “anything worth doing is worth doing well.” Lots of things just need to be done.
    But if it really bears a Mormon stamp, rest assured lots of us have functioned for decades in the Church with nary a perfect dinner or kitschy craft item of which to boast. The picture of this ideal Mormon wife is largely the picture of the ideal American wife of the 50’s; some Mormons (and some others) don’t change quickly.

  2. oooh, i’m glad molly posted first. i think she hit the nail on the head.

    jump in, melissa! it’s really not that tough because most everything can be made ahead of time and just reheated and also because turkey is reeeeeally easy to cook. i was a wreck, for many of the same reasons, the first time i attempted thanksgiving. i was really impressed with how well i pulled it off and how much easier it was than i had expected.

  3. Molly is right about the source of the picture of the ideal Mormon wife. It’s so easy to buy into that role because patriarchy is–and long has been–the default in American society as a whole, not just in Mormon society. Not that there’s anything wrong with patriarchy.

  4. And if your cooking skills are more in line with making a disaster than a Martha Stewart cover, so what? You will have created a family memory to laugh about on Thanksgivings to come — and there you go, bonding the family more surely than if you did get everything done at the same time.

    As for where the image comes from, it has little to do with Mormonism, or else the Turkey Disaster tales on flylady.net wouldn’t be so funny or so numerous. Accepting the gospel has helped you to realize how important families really are — you just haven’t quite sorted out what that means in practical terms for you and your family. Won’t it be fun to work it all out?

  5. a reminder of the marriage she can never give her husband.

    Huh? Why?

  6. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Ardis- I’m definitely in the working it out stage. It’s an interesting experience to reconcile previous disdain for valuing domestic skills with the desire to provide this (new to me) picture of what a comforting home should be. Indeed, I feel like I’m constantly rejecting and redifining my values and role as a woman, often even battling long-held beliefs that my culture instilled in me.

    Beijing- The idea of patriarchy as the default in American society intrigues me. While I recognize that it is certainly present, especially in the professional world, I think (at least from my own experience) that the backlash against it so strong and common, especially in the social education of young women, that it limits our options and creates the sort of inner conflict that I am experiencing. In fact, I would say that it is the reason my friend was so frightened by the ‘ideal Mormon wife’ image and so unable to imagine herself in that role.

    Obviously it’s something that’s possible to overcome. Otherwise my refrigerator space wouldn’t be taken up with a frozen turkey I lovingly named Clive.

  7. On the Today show this morning, Campbell Brown confessed that her greatest fear was that she wouldn’t be able to host a Thanksgiving meal that would meet her new mother-in-law’s standards. It’s not that Campbell’s social education made her unable to imagine herself in the role of Thanksgiving hostess. On the contrary, despite her national career, she is still unable to imagine herself *outside* that traditional role.

  8. I’m trying to imagine a world in which someone could have hosting a TG meal that is not up to her mother-in-law’s standards as her greatest fear.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    I love the holidays and time spent with family, and I think your newfound desire to cook a Thanksgiving dinner feeds into that. So rather than worry too much about where it is coming from (previous commenters have made astute comments along that line), I say just jump in with both feet and enjoy the experience.

    I’ve never actually cooked a turkey myself, but I do watch sitcoms on TV. So here’s my advice: make sure you thaw the turkey first, and follow the directions and cook it so many hours per pound. Trying to cook it in two hours is such a cliche. This will probably necessitate that you get up early on Thursday morning. While the bird is cooking, you can accomplish lots of other tasks. And delegate, delegate, delegate. You are the master of your Thanksgiving universe, so be a benign despot and tell others what you want them to do. I’m sure it will turn out splendidly, and you’ll have a blast doing it. And imagine the feeling of Rockwellian accomplishment when your loved ones are enjoying the fruits of your cooking labors together.

    I honestly think cooking a turkey would be fun, but I’ve never really been in a position to try it on an actual Thanksgiving. I have a friend who wanted to cook a turkey in a pit in his back yard, and it ended up severely undercooked and they had to make other plans at the last minute on the big day. Maybe there is a reason it has never occured to anyone to give me a shot at it. (grin)

  10. Susan- Ha! Yes, would that that were my greatest fear. Oh, and I’m cooking this year, and my MIL has not been invited. If anyone knows anything about my back story, you would not be surprised or shocked.

    Melisa- Thanks for the nod. It would seem we are again in similar boats. I’ve been perusing my cookbooks, looking for the best way to cook Clive- and am starting to have a little anxiety about all the stuff I need to do before Thursday. I think this may be cultural more than just Mormon- going way back to the Norman Rockwell covers of the Post- you know, the ideal life.

    It probably poor consolation, but I’ll have cranberry sauce on my forehead too, and the yams will burn that gravy will be lumpy, and Ol’ Clive will probably be dry. But darn it, I’m doing it anyway. At least this year, I don’t have to worry about my MIL taking the seat next to my husband, leaving me to sit at the kids table.

    Thanks for your post.

  11. Melissa, I had (and continue to have) a similar experience of working out what it actually meant for me to “be” domestic after I had spent the majority of my life assuming I was not and being just fine with that. Mine began after I had been married for a few months and one day found myself in need of a glue gun for a volunteer project … I always associated glue guns with my mother and her crafty ways. Now, apparently, my crafty ways. To make matters worse, the same day I received a calling in the Relief Society—it was like some cosmic force had decided that I needed domesticity in my life. It all worked out in the end. But I’m empathetic to your situation. (My husband and I began cooking together while dating as a hobby, so it doesn’t quite hold the same “domestic” quality….)

  12. FWIW – Food Network has lots of great tips/timelines for turkey day. Just try and make everything ahead of time, there is no reason you have to squeeze it all in that day.

    I think this ‘ideal wife’ as others have said comes from a 1950’s notion of the perfect woman. Packaged up and sold to us in magazines by companies who stood to profit from our house-thriftiness. Somehow those notions have gotten mixed up with and confused with our religious culture of family-centeredness.

    But as for me and thanksgiving dinner, I love cooking (hence my addiction to food network) and gourmet food, so, Im excited to FINALLY be at home and get to cook my own dinner instead of having to suffer through overcooked turkeys, undercooked yams, hideous jello salads and a total absence of fresh produce (canned green beans on thanksgiving???). But, I personally do not see my excitement to make a yummy and aesthically pleasing meal as anything whatsoever to do with my gender or role as a mormon wife.

  13. We have turkey and company every Sunday. (Except we have ham on holidays because my father in law hated poultry and now it’s a tradition.)
    This is how I do it:
    I sleep whilst dear husband chops celery, onions, and whatever and mixes it up with a bunch of other stuff and stuffs it inside dead bird and sticks it inside the oven. He leaves for Bishopric,PEC, whatever. Later I wake up, read the funnies, blog, maybe do the dishes(often he did them) and get ready and go to church. Works pretty well for me. (It began a few years back on our 25th anniversary when I got pissy about having to work as hard as ever on the weekends while he got them off. He gets 25 years, then we’re switching back.)
    When I get home from church, I do make the gravy.
    I also like fresh basil. I buy it. I use it. When it doesn’t look perky I toss it and buy another 49 cent basil at my Krogers. Rhodes Rolls are pretty good too, although I will probably make the real deal on Thanksgiving, if I wake up in time.

  14. After reading your post, I can’t help but think, “I do have the perfect Mormon wife.” No really. I’m not saying to be boastful. It’s really a matter of principle. Women in the church who are doing the best they can with what they know how and living the gospel in a way that brings them and their family joy. It’s not that they have to perfect; it’s doing the things that they know are right and true.

    I really don’t have any idea what it is like to be a wife. Everything that I know just comes from observing these wives (especially my own) as they take care of their children (and their husbands) in a way that I believe is pleasing unto our Father in Heaven. That, Melissa, is what I believe you are trying to do in your family and it sounds like you are doing a great job. =)

  15. As far as “ideal wife” goes. I think that the longer people are in the church, the more they adopt what the standard personality test calls “blue” attributes. I think the LDS culture is predominantly Blue, although I think the christlike ideal is something more evenly spread across all colors.

    As an Interesting aside, I met a former mission president last night at a fireside and he says Jeffrey R Holland is an “orange” and GBH is centered across all the colors. I can’t remember any of the others.

  16. Lol. My husband is cooking the turkey this year, along with all the trimmings (though I’m doing the pies) because I’ve got 4 classes to outline and all the other assorted homework that comes with being this-far-along on a law degree. But he actually started doing the turkey etc. the year I broke my leg and was confined to bed because of an ongoing clot problem during the holiday season.

    I think the person who said it is all about building relationships and traditions nailed it. The gospel is about building eternal relationships; serving a special holiday dinner is about taking a moment to break bread together with a special purpose in mind. The relationship-supporting traditions go on at our house, whether I’m the one making the bird or not. And I am immensely grateful for a husband who is willing to share the burden of carrying forward the worthwhile traditions (and doesn’t have a problem with dropping the not-worthwhile ones). (It also helps that we both agree that a Reynolds Oven Bag is the secret to a good bird.)

  17. When Kath and I got married, we were going to live downtown. City life is fun. I guess you can raise kids there, but we didn’t want to pay for private school and wanted a yard for the kids to play in and voila: suburbia.

    I have many friends, including youngish mothers, that just don’t cook or have the interest to make a hobby of it. I have three brothers and we all like to cook. In fact, we have Iron Chef competitions when we all get together. There are polarities that result.

    1) Cooking isn’t fun at all. There is pressure to live up to past traditions and the meal turns into ritualized farce.

    2) The family enjoys the experience of meal preparation and while there is no pressure to live up to traditional mandates, traditions grow from regular interaction.

    I think 1) is a tragedy (not the antipathy towards cooking, but the farcicality). In such a situation, get take-out Chinese and build a new tradition. Perhaps most people are in between somewhere…the only thing Mormon about the dilemma is the peer group.

  18. I’m also a convert who was very un-domestic before joining the church. And I have also felt strong stirrings of domesticity since I joined. I think for me it’s not so much the ideal of the Mormon Mom that motivates me (that is so totally not me that I don’t even feel a tug), but just the desire for a really warm, loving, and inviting home. I bought a MoTab cd on which they sing the hymn “Love at Home” with great sensitivity and feeling, and I love that hymn! It makes me get all teary-eyed to hear it. The over-the-top romantic imagery of the lyrics just makes it better, like a Keats poem or something. “Sweeter sings the brooklet by, brighter beams the azure sky”. Is that awesome or what?

    I think that deep inside me, there is a longing for a real home, that the church re-awoke. A home with the smell of delicious food cooking, good music playing, laughter and interesting conversation, lots going on, projects, ideas, games, and plenty of good books. That image has motivated me to actually become more domestic, to buy cookbooks and try cooking things every now and again, and to set my little robot vacuum cleaner that I named Daneel to work on the living room rug. Even though I’m single and there’s nobody to enjoy it other than the cats and me, and my friends when they visit from out of town 3 or 4 times a year, I still want that. I want it bad enough to even try to do it myself, unskilled though I am in all things domestic.

    But working full time means I just don’t have time, and now I wish I did. On vacations, now, this is what I do. I clean and scrub and fix everything nice, hire people to do the yard, invite friends to visit, and then spend hours cooking (they cook too, sometimes). All my life I never could see myself as a stay-at-home mom, but now I totally could enjoy it greatly. The church has made that difference. I don’t really know how, but think it’s not the image of the perfect Mormon lady that I’m trying to match, but just this image in my mind that I got from somewhere (Louisa May Alcott, maybe?) of a warm and loving, inviting and happy home.

  19. Over the years, I have become fairly proficient at cooking the Thanksgiving turkey, mostly because my wife usually has her first winter cold during Thanksgiving week.

    I have found success with two methods: the Reynolds cooking bags, and a large electric roaster. Personally, I prefer the cooking bag because I like the crispy skin you get from that. My wife prefers the roaser because it frees the oven for all the other stuff. It also gives a moister bird–the last time we did the roaster, the meat just fell off the bones. The key to either one is, as mentioned above, to make sure the bird is defrosted. I usually cheat and defrost it in water, but this year we will try the slow thaw in the fridge.

    Also, after years of hit-and-miss, I now cheat and use the canned or bottled turkey gravy as a base. Still use drippings from the bird, but I get a better consistency with the pre-made stuff as the starter.

    I don’t care that I use shortcuts–the point is to make the meal itself as painless as possible, so we can focus on the time with friends or family.

  20. Sengul Terlemez says:

    Hi,

    I am an Turkish woman who recently relocated to San Francisco-CA from Istanbul-Turkey(TURKIYE).
    I have many Mormon friends and I am not sure do they celebrate Thanksgiving or not. While searching in the internet I found your site.
    Did you really never hear about beautiful country names Turkey (we say in Turkish, Turkiye)?If it is, thanks to turkey:)

  21. One word: Buffet

    Another, hyphenated word: Honey-baked

    [And yes, they do sell Honey-Baked Turkey. Delicious!]

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