Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Memories

"The funny thing about Thanksgiving, or any huge meal, is that you spend 12 hours shopping for it and then chopping and cooking and braising and blanching.  Then it takes 20 minutes to eat it and everybody sort of sits around in a food coma, and then it takes four hours to clean it up."
 ~ Ted Allen

For some people holidays evoke painful memories. Others are lucky enough to have happy ones. Divinipotent Daily is in the latter category, and this is what I remember.

When I was a child we lived for a few unforgettable years in a large, sturdy house surrounded by huge trees. It had a circular driveway in front — perfect for roller derby — and a big, landscaped yard in back. The house held three bedrooms plus an Attic of Mysteries on the third floor and four bedrooms on the second floor. It was cramped by today's McMansion standards, but was still large enough to contain our eight-person family and, on holidays, our cousins and second cousins from Virginia. The photo at right shows my parents, sisters and I in the living room of that house.

On Thanksgiving day, my mother whirled elegantly through the kitchen (she did everything elegantly) in an apron made by her much-loved Aunt Ella. Her approach to organizing and preparing a meal was practiced and efficient. A typical holiday menu featured large quantities of beans, Brussels sprouts, pearl onions in cream sauce, mashed turnips, mashed potatoes, vast mounds of stuffing, a fresh 25-pound bird, incredibly rich gravy, cranberry sauce, home-made biscuits and wonderful desserts. She was an excellent cook, but the only things she really enjoyed preparing were pancakes in animal shapes, waffles, baked apples and desserts. For holidays, we had buttery, perfectly sugar-and-cinnamon-seasoned apple pie with ultra-flaky crust, tomato soup cake with cream cheese frosting (a favorite allegedly discovered on a Campbell's soup can during WW II) and of course a home-made pumpkin pie with fresh whipped cream. My sisters and I helped where we could — peeling and cubing potatoes, chopping onions and celery, mixing sugar and butter — but this was really mom's show.

All the while our big, lovable golden retriever (at left with my father) would traipse in and out — never begging, she was too well mannered for that, just getting underfoot — until she was finally banished from the kitchen.

The primary job site for the younger generation was the dining room. Assignments included dragging the dining room table toward the hall to make room for every available extra leaf plus a card table at one end; spreading out the linen cloths (solid linen below, lace on top); setting out the candelabras and butter dishes and serving dishes we'd polished the day before; and then carefully working our way around the table with napkins, silverware and glassware, attempting to provide each adult with enough room to actually eat dinner. Younger children (of which I was one) always ate in the adjoining breakfast room. This was my favorite room in the house, with greenhouse-like windows and cool, soft green tiles that covered the floor and ran part way up the walls. On average days it was sunny and comforting. On holidays it was a riot waiting to happen.

In the afternoon, when aunts, uncles and still more cousins arrived, my father took to the butler's pantry to make drinks and, as the day wore on, attempt to perform sleight-of-hand tricks. Meanwhile, my mother began sending out trays of hors d'oeuvres to moderate the onrushing tipsiness. It never worked. By late afternoon, mother and her sisters Madge, Jo and Allie would be in the kitchen, drinks in hand, Madge and Allie complaining that dinner was late and critiquing mom's cooking techniques. At some point, something would clatter to the floor. Usually it was just a gravy ladle, but one year it was the turkey. Mom and Aunt Madge picked it up, dusted it off and put it on the carving board. No one else ever knew (until now!).

At the kids' table, the meal itself was a blur — an odyssey toward dessert that required passage through the Scylla and Charybdis of brussels sprouts and turnips (both of which I eventually learned to love). Long after the kids had left the table and started to clean up, the adults lingered with their wines and liqueurs and brandy. Their voices still echoed up the stairwell well after this young child had gone to bed.

This happy period only lasted a few years; my father died at 53 and, of course, everything changed. But the memories remain vividly alive today. Tomorrow, I hope everyone goes out and collects some great memories of their own.

"There is one day that is ours. There is one day when all we Americans who are not self-made go back to the old home to eat saleratus biscuits and marvel how much nearer to the porch the old pump looks than it used to. Thanksgiving Day is the one day that is purely American." 
~ O. Henry

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