We got the call that my mother-in-law died between dinner and dessert.
It wasn’t so unexpected, as she had been confined to bed with dementia for several years and had recently taken a downward turn. It was as if she wanted her time to come while we were all gathered together, and she knew it would be a minute before anyone was ready for pie. She was always courteous like that.
We processed the news in a tryptophan haze, staring at each other around the table, which looked like what I assume most families’ Thanksgiving spread resembles after the meal, that is to say, attacked by jackals. Turkey carcass askew, gravy pooling on the tablecloth, casserole dishes plundered from two, three, four helpings.
Except for the sweet potato orange balls. These sat almost exactly how my daughter had arranged them hours earlier, in stark contrast from the rest of the carnage, more table decor than actual victual.
If you’re not familiar with these individual scoops of sugary tuber served in hollowed-out citrus halves and dotted with tiny requisite confections, they do hold a certain presentational panache—I mean, cute, right? They’re also ridiculously laborious. The process involves juicing the oranges and removing all pulp from the rinds, roasting whole sweet potatoes and scraping the skins, mixing up the mash with eggs and spices, scooping that back into the orange rinds, neatly placing tiny marshmallows on the mounds without five or six ending up in your hair, and baking in an already overstuffed oven.