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Savoring Thanksgiving

I’m savoring memories. Yes, Thanksgiving was a week ago and you shoppers hit Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. But I’m taking a few more days to appreciate Thanksgiving.

You can put up Christmas trees, string blinking lights, play “Jingle Bells,” and hide gifts in places you’ll remember, but where no one will look. But also, join me in remembering Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. There are no fireworks, no Easter bunny candy, no wrapped gifts. Just good food and time with family and friends.

Husband and I hosted Thanksgiving dinner (served at 12 noon like all good southerners do) for some of my Bertram relatives, twenty-five people and three generations. None of us carry the Bertram surname; we’re descendants of deceased sisters, my mother and two aunts, who began our Thanksgiving Day tradition more than 60 years ago. In their memory, I put a picture of them with their husbands on our sideboard.

Guests brought the same food the sisters served. Green beans, creamed corn, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes, whipped potatoes, and I’d made cornbread dressing in balls so every serving was crunchy outside and moist inside, just like Mom’s. Alicia’s pumpkin pie was the classic recipe used for decades. Myra perfected Aunt Nell’s asparagus casserole and Brenda has mastered the sweet potato casserole.

But change and surprises happen, for the good. Mike and Sarah served hot chicken-cheese dip and chips while Husband sliced the turkey. Instead of a few carrots and bell pepper strips piled together, Lilly’s veggie tray resembled a turkey. And since none of us dare try to duplicate Aunt Doris’s chocolate cream pie, Amy brought chocolate cake.

There was a time that everyone sat around the dining room table and bowls of food were passed family style. At my house, the food was served buffet style on the kitchen counter. We oldest generation sat at the dining room table and younger folks around folding tables in the garage. After we ate, a new tradition may have begun when Bingo numbers were called until all players won and chose prizes.

Before we filled our plates, I called everyone together for an official welcome. How happy I was that we carry on this family tradition. I mentioned Mom and my aunts and welcomed cousin Brett’s girlfriend and her daughter. Someone whispered there might be a special announcement.

“So before we bless the food, anyone have anything else to share?” I asked.

“Brett might,” his mother said.

All eyes turned to Brett and Kim as he announced, “This morning I asked Kim to marry me and she said, ‘Yes.’ ” Everyone burst into spontaneous applause and cheers of congratulations.

We quieted. I was overcome with sentimental and happy emotions and said, “I meant to pray, but I’ll just cry.” Across the room, Mike smiled, nodded, and said a grateful prayer, blessing the food and us.

Before Christmas busyness strikes, I’m reveling in blessings of traditions, joys of change, and celebration of family. I wish the same for you.

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Who Decided Thanksgiving?

As I bake cornbread to make dressing for Thanksgiving dinner at our house, I’m thankful someone else planned the menu and set the date. But who created the menu? Who decided November?

Research led me away from the Thanksgiving story I learned as a child. Historians say it is possible the colonists and Wampanoag Indians, who had lived for thousands of years where the Pilgrims settled, ate a meal together in 1621. But the main meat was probably venison, and more than likely there were races and shooting contests and festivities that lasted at least three days.

George Washington declared a Thanksgiving holiday November 1789, but it was for only that year and wasn’t connected to the Pilgrim feast. He intended the day as a time of “public thanksgiving and prayer” and devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

Thanksgiving wasn’t official until 1863 and it was a woman who came up with the idea for an annual holiday. Sarah Josepha Hale edited an influential women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, for forty years from 1837-1877. Hale was an education advocate, a writer, a patriot, and through the magazine she set trends in fashion, reading, and cooking.

When Hale read about the possible 1621 Pilgrim feast, she became determined to turn it into a national holiday. The Godey’s Lady’s Book published recipes for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie which started food traditions. To gain public support to make Thanksgiving an official annual holiday, she wrote an editorial every year beginning in 1846, and she sent letters to all the United States governors, senators, the president, and other politicians.

Finally, in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln set the fourth Thursday as the day to celebrate Thanksgiving. In his proclamation, he pleaded that all Americans ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”

So Sarah Joespha Hale gets credit for the tradition of my family gathering around the dining room table and our Thanksgiving menu. And Abraham Lincoln set the date that hasn’t changed in 154 years, except for two years 1939-1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in hopes of spurring retail sales during the Great Depression. The change met such opposition that he signed a bill in 1941 to return Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday.

I appreciate that both Washington and Lincoln made religious statements when they declared Thanksgiving Day. Washington intended a time for public thanksgiving and praying to “that great and glorious Being.” Lincoln encouraged Americans to ask God to care for people and the nation.

And I’m glad Hale was determined that Thanksgiving be an annual holiday and created a menu of turkey, cornbread dressing, and pumpkin pie. I can’t imagine eating anything different on the fourth Thursday in November.

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Thankful for Cousins

screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-8-10-09-amI’m thankful for cousins. Especially my only two first cousins, Mike and Alan. They’re on my emergency call list. You know, that list of three people to call when you need help and they come immediately without asking why and what. They simply ask where.

And I’m thankful for my cousins’ wives who married into a family with strong traditions and they adjusted their family plans around the Bertram traditions. These women have willingly (at least I’ve never heard them complain) taken their turn hosting our family gatherings at noon on Thanksgiving Day. A tradition started by three sisters, my cousins’ mothers and Mom, in the 1940s.

Tomorrow we’ll eat the same foods our mothers prepared years ago. Including cornbread dressing shaped in balls and asparagus casserole with cream of mushroom soup.

I’m thankful for another cousin I’ve recently gotten to know. I’ve always known about Francis, a generation younger than me. Knew when he was born, followed his educational journey, his career success, and knew he lived in Cookeville. A few weeks ago, I had reason to know him personally and hug this cousin.

During the time that our home of 32 years was on the market to sale, I prayed for someone to buy it that would love it. Appreciate the effort we put into building it. Love the trees and yard. Several lookers walked through. Finally, we got the call of an offer and after two more phone calls, we agreed on a price. Then Husband asked who the buyer was.

I called the realtor to be sure of the name.   He confirmed Francis by name and occupation. Francis and his wife had walked through once and made an offer shortly thereafter. “Francis is my cousin,” I said.

Why would anyone make the decision to buy a house after a fifteen-minute walk through? Francis told me, “I’ve always liked your house. When I was a little kid, Mom and I rode bikes past it and she told me, ‘Your cousin lives there.’ She told me how we’re related and about you.”

Francis’s great-grandmother and my grandfather were siblings. His grandmother and my mother, first cousins, were born a few months apart, were everyday playmates as kids and good friends as adults. So that makes Francis and me fourth or fifth cousins or some would say, distant cousins. But in small town South distant cousins, that you like, are cousins with no numbers.

And I’m thankful for Francis’s wife. As I took a seat across from here at a bank conference table to close the house sale, she leaned toward me, put her hands forward, and held my hand. She said, “You must be sad leaving your home. We’ll take good care of it and love it. And bring your grandchildren to play in the creek and snow sled. Our girls would love to meet your grandchildren.”

Thanksgiving. A time to be thankful for cousins and their wives and answered prayers.

Giblet Gravy

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 7.45.17 AMThe aroma of cornbread dressing baking in the oven takes me back to being a kid and standing by a stove. Mom and her sisters, Doris and Nell, began taking turns hosting holiday meals in the 1950s. The hostess roasted a turkey and made the dressing, and the other two sisters prepared the side dishes. All three made a dessert and all three had a hand in the gravy no matter where our family celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas.

At our house while the dressing baked, Mom poured the warm turkey drippings from the roasting pan into a bowl. She set a saucepan on the stove eye and turned the setting to medium.   Then she cut a hunk of butter, dropped it into the pan, and handed me a wooden stirring spoon. Aunt Nell and Aunt Doris stood close.

“Now, Ruth,” Aunt Doris said to Mom, “are you sure that pan is big enough?”

“It’s the one I always use,” Mom answered.

“It looks too small to me.”

“You said that last time we made gravy here.”

Aunt Doris used her largest saucepan when we gathered at her house, and Mom always suggested that a smaller pan would be less washing.

Mom added a few spoonfuls of flour to the melted butter. I stirred. Aunt Nell said, “I never understand how you can make gravy and not measure the butter and flour.”

“You don’t think that looks right?” Mom asked.

“I’m sure it is, but I measure.” Aunt Nell looked in the pan. “That looks like it’s stirring up to the right consistency, don’t you think?”

I listened and stirred.

“We can always add a little more flour, mixed with water, if it’s too thin,” Mom said.

“Maybe. But my gravy gets lumpy when I add flour and water,” said Aunt Nell.

As the flour and butter mixture browned, I moved aside so all three sisters could judge its color. Not too light, not too dark. Mom skimmed some of the fat from the turkey drippings and picked up the bowl to pour the broth into the pan.

“I’d wait until it’s a little darker,” said Aunt Doris.

But Mom and Aunt Nell agreed the roux was a perfect caramel color so Mom slowly poured the broth into the pan. “Keep stirring,” she told me and she added a few shakes from the salt and pepper shakers.

While I stirred, Dad sliced the turkey. Mom chopped the cooked turkey gizzard and liver and a boiled egg in pea-size pieces. Aunt Nell and Aunt Doris loaded our dining room table with dressing, sweet potato casserole, white mashed potatoes, cream corn, green beans, lima beans, congealed cranberry salad and homemade yeast rolls.

I knew what came next. The gravy tasting. Each of the sisters dipped a spoon into the gravy saucepan. They blew gently to cool it and then tasted.

“Maybe a little more salt.”

“Do you think it’s thick enough?”

“It’s close to being ready.”

While Dad, uncles, grandparents, cousins, my brother and I stood behind our chairs around the dining room table, the cooks stood by the stove. They salted, stirred, and tasted until they finally agreed that the gravy was good enough to serve.

Mom added the giblets and chopped egg, gave one last stir, and then poured the hot gravy into her china gravy boat. She placed it on the table between the sliced turkey and cornbread dressing.

Day After Thanksgiving

searchSome people shop on Friday after Thanksgiving.   It’s their tradition. One year, I thought I should see what the hullabaloo of Black Friday was all about and went shopping. I vowed to never again set my foot inside a store on the biggest shopping day of the year. That day has held other traditions for me.

When I was growing up, that Friday was hog killing day. As a teacher, Dad had the day off and the temperature was right for handling fresh pork. By day’s end, pork chops, sausage, ribs, and roasts filled our freezer, and salted down ham and bacon slabs hung high from the barn rafters. That night’s supper was fried pork tenderloin, Mom’s Martha White biscuits (slathered with butter), and molasses.

In my young adult years, I started projects on Friday. I made Christmas gifts – cross-stitched samplers, jars of jelly, ceramic bowls. I even sewed a housecoat for Granny and a pantsuit for Mom. And I made both my children Christmas outfits: Daughter’s dress, Son’s vest. Seems the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was longer then.

When Husband and I moved our family to this house in the woods, Friday was the final fall cleanup-the-yard day. Husband spent all day and Daughter, Son, and I helped. We picked up sticks. We raked. We blew. We dragged huge mounds of leaves on top of a tarpaulin from our grassy yard to our leaf-covered woods. Yard work was finally finished until spring.

Then came the year when Husband and I hosted a pancake breakfast on the day after Thanksgiving. Daughter and her friends had scattered to colleges and jobs after high school graduation. From Texas to South Carolina, from Kentucky to Florida, these sixteen girlfriends separated, but remained close friends. In twos and threes, some attended the same university, but Daughter went alone to a Berry College and missed her friends.

When I heard that all were coming home for Thanksgiving, I thought of the mornings that these girls had eaten pancakes around our dining room table after slumber parties so I sent out an invitation. “Pancake Breakfast. 10:00 a.m. Friday after Thanksgiving at the Ray’s house.”  And they all came! They hugged. They laughed. They cried. They rejoiced to be together again. And they ate every pancake and slice of bacon put on the table. Some stayed an hour, some until mid-afternoon.

A tradition had begun. Once a year for ten years, our entrance hall banister was covered with car keys. Purses slung in corners. Shoes kicked off under the table. These young women giggled like teenagers walking the halls of Cookeville High School. Not all came every year, but at their request, I continued to flip pancakes. They talked about weddings, in-laws, jobs, moves, and babies – all good things that eventually brought this tradition to its end.

I don’t have plans for hog killing or sewing or yard cleanup or pancake breakfast this year. Husband will find the Hefty garbage bags filled with garland and I’ll find the red velvet bows and we’ll hang them across the front porch. I’ll set up the Christmas caroler family and the tabletop Christmas tree that’s decorated with shells. Christmas decorating will begin. But not too vigorously. Friday after Thanksgiving should be a restful day. And surely there’ll be a football game to watch.

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Thanksgiving – Then and Now

iz347022I stood at the corner of Mom’s dining room table.  Mom and Dad, my two aunts and uncles, and my grandparents sat in ladder back chairs around that drop leaf cherry table.  We children – my brother, my two boy cousins, and I – set our plates on the table corners and as the food was passed we spooned it on our plates.  And we ate at the linen covered card table just an arm’s length from the big table.  Thanksgiving, when I was a kid.

Mother and her two sisters took turns hosting holiday meals and they did it with style.  Best china and crystal and silver.  A starched white tablecloth and matching napkins.  A fall centerpiece.  And these three ladies were good cooks.

The menu rarely changed.  Turkey, dressing, giblet gravy, green beans, creamed corn, lima beans, sweet potato casserole, jellied cranberry sauce, relish tray, rolls, pumpkin pie, chocolate pie, sweet tea.  All homemade, from scratch, except for the bake and serve dinner rolls.  Mom, as the hostess, cooked the turkey and dressing, and all three sisters stirred and tasted and seasoned the gravy to get it just right.  Aunt Doris made pies.  Aunt Nell made the relish tray and lima beans.  The vegetables – home grown beans and corn – taste the same no matter who cooked them.  Sweet potatoes topped with melted marshmallows.

After we ate, the women gathered in the kitchen for the clean-up ritual.  Out came plastic containers to divvy up the leftovers.  Enough for each family’s meals over the weekend.  Mom’s and my aunts’ talking and laughing and sharing secrets entertained me, and I willingly dried the dishes just to be close to them.  The clean up was finished when I crawled under the table to move its legs so that both leaves could fall, and it was moved back against the wall.

When my generation married and had homes and children, Mom and my aunts passed on the honor of hosting Thanksgiving.  We’ve sat at many different tables as my family grew.  And our menu expanded.  Cousin Carolyn’s whipped potatoes and green congeal salad.  Cousin Janie’s cherry salad.  Sister-in-law Brenda’s sweet potato casserole with a crunchy topping.   My cranberry salad.

Tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day, Husband and I will sit at that same cherry dining room table at Brenda’s home.  Sit with her, my two cousins and their wives, and all our children and grandchildren who can be there.  We’ll sit in those same chairs where my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and my brother once sat.  In prayer, we’ll remember them—those who are no longer with us.

We’ll fill Brenda’s best china plates with the same foods that have graced that table many Thanksgivings, and we’ll probably repeat some of the same stories that have been told since I was a kid.  After we eat, we women will gather in the kitchen with take-home containers in hand.  We’ll clean up the kitchen, and then one of the children will crawl under the drop leaf table to move its legs so it can be moved against the wall.

I’m thankful that Mom and my aunts created Thanksgiving traditions.  And it makes me happy to celebrate with family around the same table where I once stood and filled my plate.  Back when I was too young to sit at the big table.