As best I can remember, this is the first Thanksgiving Day I’ve ever spent by myself. My son and his family decided to go skiing today, which I was delighted to hear; normally he’s too busy working to spend a whole day with his family. Besides, when you get to be my age and have enjoyed some 67 Thanksgivings with big, loud, busy, wonderful family get-togethers, a quiet day with memories is nice.
For me, when you say family, you’re talking big gathering. My parents and four siblings made a nice group even before we sibs married and started having kids. What’s the biggest turkey you can buy? 20-25 lbs? That was the norm for us. I even remember going out to the turkey farm to pick out a turkey. They didn’t sell frozen Butterballs back then.
In the early days, Mom always cooked everything. As the family grew, the day became a community effort, with everyone bringing a dish assigned by that year’s hostess. Even so, the hostess always did the turkey, dressing, and gravy, since those things are inseparable. Many of you probably have “stuffing” instead of “dressing,” but we always called it dressing. I remember Mom making it from scratch when I was young — gathering, drying, and cubing large amounts of bread. White bread. Tons of crumbs all over the kitchen. These days, Pepperidge Farm does just as well. I prefer a savory corn bread dressing, fairly dry so it will soak up more gravy, but someone usually brings oyster, too.
The gloriously browned bird was always accompanied by mashed potatoes (white); sweet potatoes either candied or mashed into sweet potato pie; green beans, often in a casserole, and maybe some corn; a green or fruit salad; and hot dinner rolls dripping with butter and jam. Cranberry sauce, both smooth and whole berry, was essential. Mom always insisted on making it from scratch, adding a bit of suspense because she never knew for sure if it would gel properly. I like Ocean Spray just as well, but Mom insisted on doing it her way. Dessert was a choice of pumpkin or pecan pie, topped with ice cream, whipped cream, or hard sauce. (My youngest sister makes incredible pecan pies!) These were the essentials. Always. It’s too much food, of course. A tablespoon or two of everything fills a dinner plate and is more than most people can or should eat. But I always did, and often had seconds of my favorites — dark meat and dressing, swimming in giblet gravy.
Daddy always carved the turkey and did a masterful job. It’s an art, you know, properly carving a turkey. And he was artful even before electric knives made the job so much easier. Turkey carving is one of those traditionally male skills that all fathers should pass on to their sons. I don’t know why it turned out that way, but it seems if there’s a man in the house, he will be the one assigned to carve the turkey.
In our staunchly Presbyterian family, the host always said grace before dinner. “Bless this food to our bodies and us to thy service …”
After dinner, which came at various times of day depending on how early the cook got the turkey into and out of the oven, we broke into conversation groups, went for walks if the weather was nice, or gathered to watch football on TV. There was a time when OU (Oklahoma) and Nebraska traditionally played on Thanksgiving Day, and in those days, it was a big deal. If they weren’t playing, someone else was, and OU’s ranking and bowl bid was likely on the line.
One of our best Thanksgivings was out at my brother’s farm. A ranch, really, because there were a few head of cattle and no crops. The cattle were there only a few years. (My brother later confided, “Never invest in anything that eats.”) But the lovely contemporary style home is still there, with its large picture windows and giant wood-burning fireplace, nestled among the scrub oak and black jacks that pass for “woods” in much of Oklahoma. Getting there was truly an “over the river and through the woods” experience, but it was worth the drive. The setting was as appropriate for Thanksgiving as any I’ve seen, being at the end of miles of dirt road flanked with fallow brown fields, drying grasses, and woods full of falling and fallen leaves. For some reason I distinctly remember that the sweet potato pie, made by my sister-in-law, was particularly good. Just the right amount of sweet brown sugar and spices, topped with a crispy pecan crumble. Mmm. I went back for seconds and thirds.
The day ended with my sister backing her car through a rail fence and getting stuck in the muddy bar ditch beyond. Always resourceful, my big brother (the one who owned the place) appeared a few minutes later, bouncing up the road driving a tractor. Who knew!? He looked every inch the modern Marlboro man, with a Stetson hat and knee-length sheepskin coat. I’d rarely seen him in anything but pinstriped business suits. We are “city folk,” after all. Anyway, he pulled the car out of the ditch in no time at all and we all headed back to the city.
Today I’m wondering what other people think of as their typical, traditional Thanksgiving fare. I read a news story yesterday where a woman admitted her secret essential for the meal is mac and cheese — something I’d never seen served on Thanksgiving. When I lived in the Northeast, I learned that apples are a great addition to dressing. And I had a sister-in-law from Washington State who’d never had a pecan pie; in her world, it was always walnut. So maybe my Thanksgiving is not as typical as I’ve always thought. Nevertheless, I am incredibly thankful for the wonderful family and wonderful memories I have.