Ah, Thanksgiving, the day when we pause to commemorate the story of the Pilgrims and the Indians breaking fish and maize together, and give thanks for all we have -on some other blog. On my blog, I believe in getting down to what really matters – the FOOD.
For most of my childhood and adolescence, food was a big deal in my family. My mother prepared the meal with me acting as second chef. This continued until I was old enough to take over the whole meal. Preparation started at the stroke of 3:00PM with cleaning of the giant 20+ pound turkey. (Yes, we cooked enough for an army). It had to have a high breast and plump legs or it couldn’t darken the door of my mother’s kitchen. We extracted the giblets and neck, putting them on cook with chicken thighs, while thoroughly cleaning, drying and salting the bird, and storing it in the fridge. My mother mixed the cornbread batter while I chopped and cried over a bag of onions, green peppers, and stalks of celery, first by hand and then with a food processor when they came into vogue. ( Then I cried for joy over the Cuisinart.) The cornbread mixture was poured into cast iron skillets to bake. Two hours later, we had enough cornbread dressing to fill the bird and a small pan besides. We stored this away.
Next came mustard potato salad made with 10 pounds of red potatoes, celery, onions, and green peppers. Did you know that the right amount of mustard, sugar and vinegar produce the taste of eggs? It’s true. The potatoes had to be peeled and cut while still hot. Over the years, we acquired hands like asbestos although we always had ice cold water to dip our fingers on hand. The Making of Potato Salad was a family secret with my mother and I huddled over the pan, sampling for The Right Taste, adding a bit of this, a tad of that until BINGO! it was finished.
Then I would put on the sweet potatoes to boil. These would be cooked until tender and left in the giant pot until the next day for the candied sweets. Then we would take a break, mop our brows and plan dessert. When I was small, my mother made sweet potato pies from scratch. Sadly I never learned the secret of the tender, flakey crust. She had to bake at least six pies because everybody wanted one to take home, they were that good. She also made a three layer pineapple cake from scratch which I eventually took over. My cakes were always moist and light, I must say. Eventually dessert became just the cake. After 6-7 hours of straight cooking we called it a night.
The next morning, we rose at 7AM to dress the monster turkey and stuff it. The thing would be so heavy my dad would muscle it into the oven. Then I made the macaroni and cheese from scratch while my mother prepared the candied sweets. Then we fixed the vegetables, usually, broccoli and cheese, asparagus, and green beans to balance out all those starches. The giblet gravy was the last dish prepared. We never did casseroles or mashed potatoes since most of the dishes were southern. In my grandmother’s time, there was also a Virginia honey baked ham and probably a capon. Like I said, enough food for an army.
At precisely 2PM dinner was served, and the horde would descend, usually eating in shifts around the large table. They made short shrift of all that food, leaving a quarter of the monster turkey, a small pan of stuffing, another pan of candied sweets I’d have hidden away, and a spoonful of all the vegetables. Mom and I never ate much because we tasted it already while cooking. It was exhausting work, but we always had a sense of satisfaction having cooked a great meal.
Today, my parents are gone and the family is dispersed around the country, so I usually visit a friend’s house for Thanksgiving. I haven’t cooked a Thanksgiving dinner in at least 14 years. But sometimes when I’m walking down the hall of my building, I smell the aroma of onions and celery sauteeing and it all comes back, the Thanksgivings of days gone by.