The Family We Choose

plated fish

Mustard Roasted Cod

With Thanksgiving just a week away, my thoughts are on family. I am reminded of the SNL Thanksgiving sketch from two years ago in which, when differing political views begin to threaten the harmony of the family meal, the little girl gets up from the table, turns on the boom box and blasts Adele singing Hello. Everyone drops their bickering and unites in lip synching. The sketch is called The Thanksgiving Miracle.

Of course, there are many families who do get along and don’t need Adele to keep the peace. I have spent far too much time ruminating over this subject. When I went back to the SNL sketch I think I may have hit on something: not enough people seated at the table to dilute the tension.

Take my husband’s family. It seems to grow by the day and there are—by my current count—twenty-two who will gather for this year’s feast at my niece and nephew’s house. That’s enough headcount to water down a lot of political differences (and anything else that may be simmering below the surface).

I haven’t attended a lot of my husband’s family holidays since we live two states away and have been occupied with caring for my elderly parents, but when I have, what strikes me is how well everyone gets along. They may not all agree on politics, but they do manage to unite around family holidays. I credit my in-laws with instilling a sense of decorum that does not put up with shenanigans at the table. No one would ever dream of provoking an argument or airing grievances in the company of my mother and father-in-law. (Or at least that’s the way I see it—I can’t claim to know the family as well as they know each other.)

My family, on the other hand, resembles the family on the SNL sketch (minus the unifying influence of Adele). With the addition of my husband, we were never more than eight at the table and that’s just not enough to diffuse the tension that exists between my sister and her family on one side and me and my husband on the other. Our relationship, like Trumpism, is based primarily on grievances.

We had our last Thanksgiving together five years ago. After that, it was just four of us: my parents and my husband and me. Last year was the final Thanksgiving with my mother, which also coincided with her eighty-ninth birthday. Now we are down to three.

I sometimes get caught up in a wave of sadness when I hear friends talking about their big family celebrations that (to me at least) seem so joyful and harmonious. They talk about their plans then turn to me and ask, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving this year, Penny?” “Oh, it’s just the three of us now so we might go out to dinner,” I quietly respond.

But I was recently reminded of the rewards of the other kind of family that exists in this world. You know the one I’m talking about, the family born of friendship. The one we choose and not the one we are born into.

Who’s to say why some friendships stick and others don’t. With the exception of family, all the relationships we have in life are circumstantial. If I hadn’t taken that job, or moved to that city, or gone to that school or accepted that date, then I wouldn’t have met so and so. It’s like the 1998 movie Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow which explores two separate narratives based on whether or not the Gwyneth Paltrow character catches a particular train.

I first met Christel when we were both working for the same bank. She was based in London and I was based in New York. We shared a collegial meal on one of my trips to visit the home office in London. There was an instant rapport and when she came over to New York on business I returned the favor and entertained her in the evening. As she grew in her job as an economist, I requested that she accompany me on client visits up and down the east coast. This was how our friendship began to blossom.

A couple of years went by and then she began a romantic relationship with another colleague of ours that inevitably led to marriage. I was so touched to have been invited to her wedding which took place in Lima, Peru where she was raised. There was a small group of six of us that were friends of either Christel or Arne who made the trek down to Lima for a wedding that took place just after New Year’s in 1996.

I still talk about that wedding. The entire experience was so filled with adventure and tinged with romanticism. Christel, the daughter of a German mother and a prominent Peruvian father, was marrying a Swede. The friends who traveled to Lima were a global crowd that included two Swedes, a Brit, a Russian and two Americans. Her family arranged a side trip for us to Machu Picchu between New Year’s and the wedding which provided a way for all of us to get to know each other.

The wedding itself was completely over the top. It included a live band that played until nearly dawn and a table that appeared after dessert that held a large clam shell made of chocolate with little chocolates spilling out of it. I’d never seen anything like it.

I left banking altogether about a year after her wedding, but we stayed in touch and whenever I traveled to Europe for pleasure, I would also add a side trip to London so I could visit with Christel. She stopped off to see me occasionally in New York. When I got married in 2003, she was there together with her husband and little daughter.

Our friendship could have easily faded, as many do when you don’t live in proximity to one another. Or it could have gone the way of several of my relationships that—once I had another person attached to me—became relics of my past because the parties were unable (or unwilling) to accommodate my spouse.

But as luck would have it—and it is all luck—the sliding doors opened and my husband and I jumped aboard to find ourselves living in Brussels where we lived just two hours by fast train from London.

Over our three years in Brussels my friendship with Christel grew into something more. Now we were a foursome. When they visited us one year for Easter with their five-year-old daughter we showered her (by way of the Easter Bunny) with Belgian chocolates and once again proved that you can buy your way into someone’s heart through their stomach. Chocolates and the unforgettable meal we adults enjoyed at our favorite restaurant, have become a legendary part of our shared history.

We have now shared many memories together, though we live so far apart. In 2010, their twin boys were born in Pennsylvania, not far from where my husband and I live. It is a complicated story that finally ended their quest to have another child, and because of those sliding doors, we happened to be living close enough to share the joy of those early days. My husband was asked to be god father to one of the boys, which made us both feel like we were officially part of their family.

Being god father is a role my husband takes seriously. We try to schedule a visit at least once every twelve to eighteen months. Our visits are so routine by now that when we descend on our family in London we slide right into their daily rhythm as if we had always lived among them. It is noisy and joyful and sometimes chaotic but we soak it all up like a couple of dried up old sponges.

This year, everyone came to our house. Christel wanted the boys (who are always telling friends and strangers alike that they are American) to experience Halloween in the States. As it turned out, their school break coincided perfectly with Halloween. Our quiet house of two suddenly became a frenetic household of seven.

Our week was jam-packed with corn mazes and pumpkin carving, a vintage train ride and trips to Philadelphia to give the boys (now nearly seven) a sense of American history. We held a pumpkin carving contest at our house with my husband as judge that brought us all to tears from laughter. Of course everyone was a winner, from angriest, to meanest to most creative. We caught it all on video and it will become one of our most treasured memories in years to come.

On the morning of Halloween, we trotted out their costumes after a breakfast of—what else—pumpkin pancakes. My husband and I had had such fun costume shopping. We finally settled on cowboy costumes for the boys and a witches’ costume for their big sister along with some funny hats for us adults.

That evening we took them down to the best neighborhood for trick or treating we knew, thanks to friends who hosted us (and who fed the kids a hearty meal of mac and cheese because, you know, you don’t want them eating too much candy the first night). While I was happily eating my adult chili and drinking my wine, my husband had to remind me to hurry up so we could start the trick or treating (that’s why he’s the god father and I’m just the trailing spouse).

The neighborhood was as advertised. I had never seen so many people out trick or treating. There were lines all the way up the front porches of some of the houses. People had built fire pits in their front lawns and sat around drinking wine as the parade of kids marched by. We were all amazed. At one point Christel and I looked at each other and said, “I already have nostalgia for this moment.”

But for me, as the cook, my own special memory from that joyously raucous week came the very first night when, after an early morning start and a seven-hour plane ride with a five-hour time difference, one of the boys (the one who’s not usually known for his charm appeal) looked up from the plate of Mustard Roasted Cod that I had served, looked me straight in the eye, fork suspended, and said, “I really like this.”  My heart swelled. This, I thought,  is what it feels like to be among family.

panof roasted fish

Mustard Roasted Cod

Adapted from Ina Garten’s The Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network

Serves 4


4 (6 oz.) fish fillets such as cod or halibut

8 ounces crème fraiche

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard

2 tablespoons minced shallots, rinsed and patted dry

1 tablespoon capers, drained and rinsed

freshly ground white pepper


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Place the fish fillets in a shallow oven proof baking dish.

In a small bowl, combine the crème fraiche, 2 mustards, shallots, capers, and freshly ground white pepper to taste. Spoon the sauce evenly over the fish fillets, making sure the fish is completely covered. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, until the thickest part of the fish is flaky. Serve with the sauce from the pan spooned over the top.

I like to serve it over brown rice, but buttered boiled or mashed potatoes or celeriac would work nicely too.

Printable Version Mustard Roasted Cod Recipe


















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