Having lived this long, I feel safe in claiming that when it comes to Thanksgiving meals, I’ve earned my Ph.D. (Piled higher and Deeper, when it comes to my plate).

As a self-proclaimed expert on holiday food, I reach back into my childhood to when I first realized the magnitude of the big feast. It only took me a few years to realize what I was seeing on Thanksgiving Day wouldn’t be duplicated again for another 364 of ’em. Think about it: How many moms are willing to spend so much time — in my Mom’s case, DAYS — preparing such a massive spread more than once per year? I mean, it ain’t like we could just up and announce in June, “Hey, Mom, we want turkey and dressing and ham and mashed/sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce and pies while we watch cartoons on Saturday morning.”No way. Thanksgiving meals are veritable banquets; as such, they require special treatment and specific traditions — or at least I thought they did. My original Thanksgiving meals hadda have a turkey, ham and their usual fixin’s. Sure, there were different casseroles brought into the mix, usually from visiting relatives. Wondrous (most of the time) concoctions involving potatoes, green beans and other ingredients — if I still had room on my plate, I’d try a dab or two.

But everything else played second string to the turkey, ham, dressing and cranberry sauce. I grew up thinking those items were mandatory Thanksgiving fare. Anything different was going to throw me off my eating planning. I even knew before the meal started exactly where each item would fit on my plate (my first plate; the next two plates were “slap-and-go” trying to beat my siblings to the leftovers).

I just knew turkey, ham and dressing were written in the Constitution somewhere.

Not until I left home did I realize not everyone did Thanksgiving meals the way Mom did. So much love in the preparation, planning and execution. Who else is willing to put forth as much effort as Mom does? Nobody, right?

First, I experienced the Marine Corps version of Thanksgiving. If we happened to be near an actual base, we’d “dine” in the chow hall. I’ll try to be nice here: Those military cooks weren’t Mom, nor was their cooking even close. Most of the time, I’d have needed a forensics crew to identify the carcass of whatever it was landing on my tray. My special arrangement developed over the years at home went “splat” right under whatever those cooks were slapping down. But hey, we were hungry and homesick, so all it really took was calling it “turkey” to make us eat it.

If we were out in the field, we ate MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat). Those are the field rations we carried around in our packs with us. Supposedly, we were to heat them first, but most of the time we ate ’em on the move. Cold. Some of the packages contained tiny bottles of tabasco sauce, which was pretty much the only chance our food had of having any real flavor. I’ve seen big brawls break out over any perceived thefts of those tiny bottles.

I have one memory of sitting out in a stinking monsoon, feeling the sensation of cold, slimy “food” sliding down my throat right as some clown in my platoon offered up a “Happy Thanksgiving.” Guy deserved a beating — and an extra helping of slime.

My travels away from the base and the field landed me in different areas, where I learned everybody else’s mom couldn’t cook like mine. One Thanksgiving meal overseas featured fish and rice. They weren’t celebrating our American Thanksgiving there. I just happened to be there on that particular date, and fish and rice were on my plate. The whole fish, which was more than a little unsettling. I’ve never been a been a big fan of eating anything while it watched me.

I’ve been invited to join some of my Marine buddies to eat Thanksgiving dinner with them and their families. I learned their ideas of “traditional” weren’t anything like my Mom’s. I’ve had pheasant, duck and quail with what they called “stuffing.” I didn’t want to seem ungrateful by telling them it’s “dressing.” Stuffing is what goes up the turkey’s butt, right?

I’ve celebrated with an Italian family, and holy moly, I thought they were gonna kill me with all the food. I definitely whipped out my Ph.D. then — even though there was no turkey or other “traditional” item on the menu.

In Mexico one Thanksgiving, I was treated to homemade tamales and carne asada. I ate until I thought I’d explode, but it still wasn’t what I was accustomed to eating on Thanksgiving Day.

I’ve experienced crawfish-stuffed turkey in Louisiana and something called a “turducken” in another state.

One year, my wife was too sick to cook anything, so our daughter Aimee and I ordered from Ralph and Kacoo’s. My first Thanksgiving with Mardi Gras beads!

All those incredibly gracious people inviting me to join them for a meal was indeed special to me. Whatever they served me was delicious and appreciated. Still, I wondered if the Thanksgiving feasts of my childhood were going to be nothing but memories. I wondered how we ever get to go back home.

Then, years later, I met my wife. I’ll swear right here on a stack of Bibles that when we were dating, I never once thought, “She’s beautiful, sweet and awesome, but what if she doesn’t cook turkey/ham/dressing/mashed potatoes/pies for Thanksgiving?”

Never crossed my mind. Really.

But ... on our first Thanksgiving meal together as a family, I watched her slave for days in preparation. I saw the love in her efforts, but I ain’t gonna lie: The suspense was killing me. This was a woman with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life. What if she thought MREs were a great idea?

Holy moly, was I ever ecstatic to see our table filling up with every one of my childhood food dreams: Turkey, ham, dressing (not stuffing), every kind of potato, cranberry sauce, gravy, pies (pumpkin, sweet potato and pecan). I couldn’t figure out if it was because she truly loved me or because she just wanted to sleep with a fat guy.

I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. Every Thanksgiving for me nowadays is like stepping back in time — and isn’t that what we love about traditions?

I have plenty of reasons for knowing I married the right woman for me, but right up there in the Top Five reasons is Susie’s Thanksgiving feasts. I’m back to my turkey, ham, dressing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin/sweet potato/pecan pies. I’ve even returned to my original food arrangements. I’ve remembered where to stash grub in every corner of my plate (my first plate; the second and third plates are “slap-and-go” trying to beat our kids to the leftovers).

Weird to think all those travels and strange meals managed to bring me right back home.

For those reasons and so many more, I have every reason to feel thankful.