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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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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.

 

First Time Hostess

I lay in bed mentally checking my to-do lists.  Tables set.  Were the card table legs fastened?  Cut a lemon for tea.  Put the turkey in the oven at 5:00 a.m.  – just five hours from now.  Bake two pecan pies.  Wipe the bathroom sink.  Would the kids (ages 3 and 5) agree to wear the cute new outfits that my mother had made?

I’d written, checked, and rechecked lists for three days.  It was Husband’s and my firsttime to host a holiday dinner for my family.  And it wasn’t my idea.  Mother and her two sisters had rotated Thanksgiving and Christmas meals in their homes for 35 years, and they’d decided it was time for the younger generation to take over.

“We’ll help,” Mother had said.  “I’ll make the cornbread dressing and you know your Aunt Nell and Aunt Doris and I always make the gravy together.  Save the turkey drippings.  And everybody brings food.  You just put a turkey in the oven and make tea and coffee and maybe a dessert.  It’ll be fine.”  I told myself that these were the people – all 22 of them – who loved me best.  Grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, brother, cousins.  If things weren’t perfect, they’d understand.

But I was determined that Husband and I could host the perfect Thanksgiving dinner.  I’d take pecan pies out of the oven just after everyone arrived.  Wouldn’t that make the house smell good?  By tradition, I had covered the tables with white tablecloths, and set them with my best china, crystal goblets, silver, and floral centerpieces.

Thanksgiving morning, 5:00 a.m., I shoved an 18-pound turkey into a 325* oven and climbed back into bed until daylight.  I rolled and turned, but didn’t sleep.  I got up.  The morning passed quickly.  How many times can one adjust plates and forks and napkins?  Our children were cuter than cute in their new clothes.  Bathroom sinks sparkled.  Husband promised that the card tables wouldn’t fall.  I rolled out piecrusts – no store bought crusts for this feast – and used the family recipe for pecan filling.  Turkey out of the oven and pie in, right on schedule.

Our guests arrived carrying sweet potato pudding, corn, asparagus casserole, green beans, pumpkin pies, and more.  Mother and my aunts filled my small kitchen as they stirred and tasted the giblet gravy.  Husband sliced the turkey.  We could’ve been models for Norman Rockwell’s November magazine cover.  The oven buzzer sounded.  “That’s the pecan pies,” I announced.

“You even made pies this morning?”  my cousin asked.  I opened the oven door, grabbed two potholders and carefully set the first pie on a cooling rack.  When I lifted the second one out of the oven, it was a slippery sliding disk.  The hot pie flipped out of hands and landed upside down on the floor and splattered onto my shoes.  Tears ran down my face, and everyone assumed that the hot pie filling had burned my feet.  Not so.  The pecan pie oozing under the refrigerator erased all pretense of a picture-perfect Thanksgiving.

Now, some thirty years later, I make short lists, check them once, and don’t bake pies.  And it’s just fine.  And I’m thinking maybe it’s time for the younger generation to take over.