Worth repeating: Thanksgiving memories

Reposted from Thanksgiving 2011

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.


Note: This year, 2015, I will not be alone. But we’re settling for a meal at a nearby restaurant. Nobody is up for all that prep and cooking.

15 thoughts on “Worth repeating: Thanksgiving memories

  1. Here in Joplin MO the Wheelers are having the traditional turkey dinner with a wide variety of accompaniments. (Why is it that everyone has a different favorite vegetable?) We are fortunate to have all three sons and their families here this time, including grandkids ranging from 4 to 14. The emphasis is on chaos and less than for most, I gather, on making stuff from scratch. The preparation is long and the eating is over in about half an hour, but it’s the socializing that makes the holiday. No one will be left hungry, that’s guaranteed. Mr. Turkey weighs 20 lbs.

    One of my goals is to fill in some gaps in the family genealogy on the sides of our sons’ wives. In this mix I usually find some little memoir from the kids to put in – the memories of children are different from those of parents in interesting ways. For example, our oldest just told me of how my uncle used to let him drive the tractor out in the field by himself when he was 7 or 8. I never knew that and would have worried about him falling off and being crushed!

    I thought of you, PT, on hearing of the recent snowfalls in Colorado and am glad to hear you are clicking along OK. Happy Thanksgiving! I enjoyed your nice memoir.


    1. Your Thanksgiving sounds like the kind we had for many, many years. Parents, 5 siblings, their spouses, and their kids. Huge gathering complete with “kids’ table” of necessity. Often had to be seated in several different rooms to accommodate everyone. Those are the years I remember when I think of classic Thanksgivings. Sounds like yours will be one of those.

      We have very light snow falling at the moment. Not quite the golden sunny day I like to have for Thanksgiving, but not bad enough yet to mess up anyone’s plans.

      Hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  2. As I was reading your great memories of Thanksgivings past, I had a flashback of the Thanksgiving when my father was given an electric knife to carve the turkey. It just wasn’t the same! I remember the ads on TV! Also, I remember the first year my mother-in-law dared to have Lasagna! OMG! An Irish family having an Italian dish on Thanksgiving!!

    1. Lasagna!? Heresy! But the electric carving knife. What a boon that was and is to those who would otherwise struggle mightily to produce nice slices of turkey. (My dad did a great job before electric knives came along.) Not that I ever cared how the bird was carved, as long as the meat got to my plate … along with plenty of gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, etc.

  3. Well, unlike Jim and his 20 lb turkey, yesterday I was staring down another Thanksgiving Cornish game hen. No carving necessary on them little critters. But… it was good and I did enjoy it.

    Our family never was really a part of that Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving family scene. Of course after turning twenty, the military and my chosen career field pretty much insured that I would never be home for Thanksgiving and for the most part spent most Thanksgivings and Christmas’ alone. You get more and more use to it as the years pass by.

    When I was growing up our Thanksgiving dinner included my immediate family and that was it. I actually really enjoyed the intimacy of a small gathering of just mom, dad and your siblings. My sister fixes a big Thanksgiving dinner every year and all are welcome but even thought I’m home now its too much of a mad house for me. Television blaring with the football game, kids carrying on and 20 different conversations going in process among the adults. Just not my cup of tea. I imagine all those years alone contributed somewhat to that.

    Just me and my little Cornish game hen… life is good! 🙂

    1. Love Cornish game hens, but they just don’t taste like turkey. It’s been years since we’ve had one of those really big Thanksgiving gatherings, with family spread all over the world now. I enjoyed them back in the day but don’t miss them. We went to a restaurant this year, and the only thing I missed was having a few leftovers the next day — a bit of turkey, gravy, stuffing, and cranberry, and maybe some pecan pie.

  4. Our family now is small–just four or five are available for Thanksgiving. So we’ve replaced the huge birds that were traditional in both our parents’ homes with a ham. (One wag suggests we did that after viewing a cartoon of a turkey advertising “Eat Ham”) One tradition continues, however. Pumpkin pie is a must.

  5. I agree with you that sometimes these family gatherings can be a little tedious. Especially, as you point out, your family counts 20+ people. Being myself in my 50s, I prefer smaller parties. And to be completely honest, I no longer support little children running around the table and complaining about everything. I rather take them somewhere when they can enjoy themselves and play with other children, instead of being at the same table with old and boring people.

    1. We did have big gatherings, but parents were expected to police their own kids. And since sheer numbers required several tables in different rooms, the kids were assigned to a “kids’ table” in a room away from the main adult table. These days we each have our own immediate family and most of us either eat out or carry in.

  6. Sigh. What wonderful memories. Our family has shrunken to tiny – and we are all spread so widely now. Fun to think about all that fun – kids table and all.
    (And we ate out, too. Best choice ever- and no clean up for once. Enjoyable and relaxing for a change.)

    1. Yep, eating out gets my vote. Sure beats three days of prep and a day of clean up. My only complaint about our experience this year was that there was no cranberry sauce. A small point, maybe, but it’s high on my list of favorite Thanksgiving foods.

... and that's my two cents