It’s Thanksgiving morning. As I wake up to the familiar glow of Southern California’s winter sun, I brace myself for the bake-and-make-a-thon ahead. Today, Mom and I are slated to produce three desserts for our five-person family's Thanksgiving feast. As we set out to prepare a coconut cream pie, a chocolate chia seed pudding and an apple crisp, there’s just one catch. Well, two: I’m gluten- and dairy-intolerant.
Though this Thanksgiving marks my fifth off gluten, the dairy restriction is new this year. In campus dining halls, ingredient-labeling conventions have made adjusting to my new allergy easier than expected. I have a routine: I know which of Wu’s regular dishes I can eat, and, if I’m ever at a loss for other options, I can always depend on the trusty grill and the vegan bar to meet my needs.
When I hopped on the plane back home last week, I worried that I would face greater dietary challenges once I exited the Bubble and entered the world beyond. I was right. And so, as Thanksgiving approached and we found Whole Foods stocked with pre-made pies that were either gluten-free or dairy-free but never both, my mom and I rolled up our sleeves and accepted the challenge to bake sans wheat flour, milk and butter.
We start with the chia seed pudding, the easiest dessert to make. We mix chia seeds, coconut milk and sugar; we giggle as we dump in twice as much vanilla extract and cocoa powder as our recipe calls for. When we tuck our gooey concoction into the fridge to congeal, we feel satisfied with ourselves.
But, as we move on to our next recipe, we start to have some doubts. My coconut cream pie filling demands blended soft tofu to imitate the texture of butter and cream; as I mash a square, my brother peers over my shoulder, hoists an eyebrow, and says, “Tofu? These ingredients keep getting weirder and weirder.”
But weird ingredients, we find, are only the first of our troubles: Our little dessert factory runs with its fair share of hiccups. "I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!," to our disbelief, turns out to contain milk ingredients. When we divide our pie crust recipe by four, we end up with awkward fractions. Once the pie dough is ready at last, we remember that our turkey has taken over the oven. And so I have to pack the dough ball in a Ziploc bag and drive it over to Grandma’s oven, five minutes away.
At my grandmother’s house, I exchange the irreverence and confusion of my kitchen for the sanctity and method of hers, with jars labeled and logically arranged, tools set out on the counter. As we prepare to bake, my grandma teaches me her techniques for producing perfect pies: rolling out dough at optimum evenness, filling an empty pie shell with beans to hold the crust’s shape as it bakes and puncturing the bottom of the pie to release heat as it expands.
When our flattened circle of dough won’t transfer into the pie pan without fragmenting, Grandma is cool under pressure. We try again and again, but the nontraditional dough doesn’t hold together as it should. At last we give up, thrust the crumbles into the pan and press them into the shape of a crust. (This, my grandma insists, according to her most recent research of modern baking practices, is a legitimate method.)
Before I go, my grandma asks me what’s on the menu for the day. She laughs at the lineup of sweets and demands — “Now tell me: have you always been this into desserts?” I answer automatically, “Yeah.” But no, I stop to think, I haven’t. I don’t usually make dessert on Thanksgiving. In my eagerness to normalize my day’s feasting, I realize, I’ve worked myself up about holiday treats to an unusual degree.
When I return home, my mom and I — tired, aware of our excess and perhaps a little bit smug — decide to ditch the apple crisp. As I sprinkle dark chocolate shavings and toasted coconut flakes over my finished pie, I am proud in a way I haven’t been on Thanksgivings past, when I helped only with petty tasks in the kitchen, layering marshmallows over mashed yams or chopping carrots for stuffing. Somewhere among the giggles, the glitches and Grandma’s guidance, as I tried to recreate tradition under restrictions, I think I might have crafted a new one.
When my family enjoys the pudding and pie, assuring me that “it doesn’t taste like there’s tofu in this at all,” I’m happy to have brought something different to the Thanksgiving table. But I’m also aware that my Thanksgivings may soon change in ways more dramatic than the revision of a recipe or two. Next year, I know, I may spend Thanksgiving on campus, at a friend’s house or in a New York restaurant. And I’m ready for that: to discover and relish new traditions without losing the old and dear things about Thanksgiving, the Thanksgiving that I’ve learned at home, the Thanksgiving that will continue to wait for me there whenever I come home.
After all, some things about Thanksgiving just won’t change, even if I do have to put tofu in my pies. When our feasting ends, my family, as always, heads for the couch to digest; we sprawl, bellies up, like beached whales. Within a few minutes, my mom lurches to her feet and scurries to the kitchen. When she returns to the couch, she carries the customary heaping second helping. This year, it’s of gluten-free, dairy-free coconut cream pie. I smile to myself. Success.