What makes up our Thanksgiving traditions? The food? Our memories? Our families?
My Thanksgiving traditions got off to a slow start. I don't recall ever celebrating Thanksgiving in Europe as a child. Frau Olga wouldn't have thought to roast a turkey. It wasn't her tradition. She was simply happy to be alive and thankful to have escaped communist controlled Czechoslovikia to live safely with our family in Vienna. That was something to be thankful for. Was it worthy of a beautifully browned roasted turkey? Hardly. Never happened. Crispy fried schnitzel with cups of garnished consomme, maybe. Turkey? Not a chance.
After a few years in Austria, we moved to Africa. We were housed on an army base surrounded by 20' concrete walls topped with swirling barbed wire to protect us from phantom enemies. Hot and sand-ridden, it was a far cry from the Black Forest of Vienna. Ababa, my Ethiopian nanny, was bussed onto the army base every day (from the other side of the concrete wall) to care for our family. She lived a very simple sparse life, but was always joyous, content, and thankful to have a job. I worshiped her. Although she loved us dearly, we wouldn't have asked her to roast a turkey for Thanksgiving. Doro Wat with injera bread? Yep. Turkey? In Africa? Nope.
My Thanksgiving traditons started building after my father retired from the army and we moved to Western Kentucky to live with my grandparents on their farm. Their farmhouse was perched on a hill, overlooking rolling fields, white picket fences, oil wells, and trees. With a hen house teetering against a rickety smoked-ham shed, frightening roosters freely roaming the grounds, and aggressive herds of cattle stampeding at whim, their farm was fascinating and horrifying. Because my grandmother spent every summer canning everything from her garden, her cellar housed what she needed for her part of the family Thanksgiving feast; canned green beans, dusty canned tomatoes, creepy twisted potatoes, bright flourescent-green lime pickles, murky bread and butter pickles, and greyish canned corn.
Even with a bountiful cellar, our family Thanksgiving dinners were potlucks affairs at my grandparent's house. Like clockwork, the extended family arrived toting all kinds of food. Her long kitchen counter would be lined end to end with our traditional family feast. All the food was grouped by likeness. The beige section featured stuffings, dressings, mashed potatoes, sweet poptatoes, corn pones, biscuits, yeast rolls, and several varieties of ground beef laden baked beans topped with sticky sweet gooey bacon. The green category consisted mostly of Campbell's Soup casseroles. Different versions of green bean and broccoli casseroles were lined up side by side as if they were to be judged for a county fair. Occasionally, an "other" casserole made an unexpected appearence.
At the farthest end of her kitchen counter, near the fresh lemonade, assortments of green, orange, red, and yellow gelatin salads jiggled with crazy varieties of nuts, marshmallows, coconut, canned fruit, and whipped cream. They glowed from the sunlight streaming through the lone kitchen window.
Every year, the Thanksgiving turkey was prepared by our designated turkey-cooking aunt. She baked it overnight in a very low oven for 14 hours. A very, very low oven. It was tender and moist, but never brown. There wasn't a hint of beautifully browned turkey skin. Nope. Nada. Nein. Was it moist and tender? Yes. Was it pretty? Uh, no. The giblet gravy was the highlight of the meal for me. I was crazy about the hard boiled eggs suspended in thick brown gravy dotted with tender sliced livers, gizzards, and hearts. Being an offal kind of kid, I loved that stuff. While everyone else picked around the organs, I scooped them out with righteous ferver.
4 years after we moved to Kentucky, my father married Marge. Our families merged into a blended family. Marge was a sophisticated townie who cooked beautifully. She brought her family's Thanksgiving traditions to our table. They were much different than my grandmother's traditions. Much different. Marge awoke very early on Thanksgiving mornings. She'd don her blue and white polka-dotted dress with matching navy heels and coordinating apron. Methodically, she would prepare our Thanksgiving meal from start to finish. From scratch. She never stressed, gliding through the kitchen like Giselle sans Albrecht. She'd dirty every dish in the kitchen, plate everything on my mother's bone china serving platters, and graciously place the food around the table. After closing the kitchen doors to shield the unyielding mess, she'd come to the table with such relaxed ease, you'd have thought the entire meal had been prepared and air-dropped by the military. I admired that. She was my hero.
Marge made a killer turkey. Deeply roasted, tender, and moist. When sliced, the skin crackled. I'd never seen or tasted anything like it. Her wonderful dressing, moist with crunchy edges, was equalled only by her smooth and rich giblet gravy dotted with organs and eggs. Creamed pearl onions (made with jarred Aunt Nellie onions), scalloped oysters, broccoli casserole, whipped potatoes, mashed yellow squash, and old school stuffed celery rounded out her meal. Without apology, she served sliced canned cranberry sauce over iceberg lettuce topped with dollops of mayonaise. Betty Crocker elegant. I adored it.
Simple. Beautiful. Delicious.
After the china had been carefully hand washed, she'd gently pour hot steaming coffee into tiny delicate mismatched porceline cups and serve it with pecan pie, pumpkin pie, and Bryer's Chocolate Chip Mint ice cream.
The routine never changed. It was Thanksgiving.
After Marge passed away, we continued our family Thanksgiving traditions. My father insisted on it. Everything stayed the same. It had to. We kept her memeory alive with our food (her food) for 7 years until my father died.
I haven't been back for Thanksgiving since my father passed away, but it warms me to know that my family keeps their traditions alive in various towns with their expanded families and new generations. Memory making. Tradition building.
Nowadays, it's just Michael and me here in our home for Thanksgiving. We spend our day wrapped in flannel pajamas, caccooned from the world, drinking bloody marys and screwdrivers. We leisurely cook all day, happily enjoying the anticipation of our meal. No deadlines. No pressure. Just the two of us, bringing our individual family traditions together on Thanksgiving day. Although our traditions are different, they make up our whole. Our traditions.
Over the years, I've prepared our Thanksgiving turkeys every way imaginable; brined, herbed, larded with bacon, stuffed, unstuffed, and bagged. I've never ventured into world of deep fried turkey. The notion of deep frying a whole turkey in 1000 degree oil on our wooden deck next to our 130 year old wooden house maked me shiver. Nope.
Although the standards remain the same, we change things a bit up every year. I now use fresh pearl onions instead of jarred Aunt Nellie onions, creamed with soft melted brie, heavy cream, fresh nutmeg, and sherry. Either fresh oysters on the half shell or Oysters Rockefeller have replaced the familiar scalloped oysters. Michael whips potatoes into pillows of air and we serve his mother's fresh cranberry relish over split poached pears. We wing the rest of the meal, depending on our moods. No pressure.
We haven't planned next week's Thanksgiving. meal...yet. Whether we go old school, new school, or somewhere in between, the food will taste like home and remind us of all our Thanksgivings, families, and traditions.
The two of us will sit in our pajamas at my parent's long dining room table, eat from my mother's beautiful wheat-patterned German bone china, pray our blessings, enjoy a few glasses of Beuajolais Nouvous, and eat our Thanksgiving meal. As a family.
We all create them, live them,
and need them.