Saturday, November 17, 2007

Countcher blessings and quitcher bitching

Some years back, I was making a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. I was using an old, glass pie plate that certainly was inexpensive, but old enough it was deeper than its counterpoints today. The crust was already rolled out and lying in the pan as I combined the ingredients for the filling. The oven was heating.

Suddenly, I had one of those moments where I felt so connected to the generations before this present moment. My grandmother, who married in the 1890's, had bought this plate--I don't know when--and used it. My mother had made pies in this plate. And here was I, making my filling from my mother's recipe in a 1935 church cookbook, before stoves had thermostats. Recipes called for a hot oven or a moderate oven or a warm oven. My mother's recipe differed from most modern pumpkin pie recipes in its use of ginger. It always seemed to me her pumpkin pie was just a little better, but that may simply have been love and tradition. But there I was, at the kitchen counter, making a pie as my mother had, as my grandmother had, using the same dish. And for that moment, we were connected. I wasn't a lone woman standing there but a link in a chain of women, each of whom had loved the next generation and cooked for them. And, I feel quite sure, giving thanks for what they had. Because I DID know those women.

When I was growing up, there was always seven for dinner--my three grandparents, my uncle, my parents and me. We raised turkeys, so the bird was very fresh. Dad made the dressing the night before. (As I've blogged, I've come to wonder where he learned to cook, because he did, quite a bit. And he always made the stuffing and cooked the turkey.) As I got older, he delighted in showing me how he made the stuffing. The secret, he said, was to go by the smell. He cooked and stirred until it SMELLED right.Celery and onions, and he always added a finely diced apple. Fresh cornbread, still hot from the pan. Stale bread that had been bought a week before and sat on the refrigerator getting stale. Less bread, I think, than cornbread. Salt, pepper, poultry seasoning and a little sage. Smelling right had to do with the spices. A can of chicken broth,maybe, or more likely or he would boil the neck for broth, to provide the flavorful moisture to bind it together.Then refrigerated overnight to ripen the flavors.

The next morning he would waken at 4:30 a.m. to stuff the turkey with the dressing, saving enough for an 8X8 pan for my mother, who preferred a dryer stuffing with giblet gravy. It went in a large roaster and into the oven. In those days before infusion, he was pulling it out every 15 minutes or half hour to baste it again. His turkeys were always juicy and flavorful. I would awaken to the wonderful aroma of baking turkey and stuffing throughout the house, in addition to the possible breakfast smells like frying bacon. Since the turkey had to stand for awhile when he pulled the finished bird out before he could cut it, there was plenty of time to cook mother's stuffing and the Hubbard or acorn squash, each with their pat of butter and salt and pepper. They weren't SO bad, just not my favorites, but my history buff parents insisted that at the first Thanksgiving, the Indians brought squash and maybe succotash. THAT I really liked. Mashed potatoes, and no, we didn't do gravy, unless someone wanted to use the giblet gravy, and I think some did. Mother always made a sweet potato casserole, too, which we ate on the day, and she mostly threw away a few days later. A relish plate full of cut celery stalks, black and stuffed olives and maybe sliced dills. Mother served store-bought rolls, but always put out a compote of cherry preserves. Cranberry sauce.And then, while I carefully cleared the table, Mom would go whip the whipping cream to go on our slices of pumpkin pie.

Grandaddy was a Methodist minister, and we always asked the blessing before meals anyway. The Thanksging prayer was longer, but, I think, pretty interesting as he thanked the Lord for stuff I had just taken for granted during the year.Much conversation and laughter. A lot of love at that table.

The first time my husband took me to his grandmother's in Oklahoma for Thanksgiving, I realized how different holiday customs can be. Here, too, was custom and tradition. The same white tablecloth. But my word. First, his cousin and her husband and his aunt and uncle were there, as well as his mother and brother and us and his great-aunt. Secondly, there was a turkey and a ham and was there a roast? maybe. Dressing, and her recipe required eggs and was baked outside the turkey and was delicious. Giblet gravy and regular gravy, and yep, the same store-bought rolls, and at least three kinds of congealed salads and green bean casserole and...I can't possibly remember. Fruit salad with marshmallows, melt in your mouth pound cake and at least three kinds of pie. I think it was more like five kinds. And again, a lot of laughter and conversation. There was a lot of love at THAT table, too.

As I like to think there was at my own. I never provided the bounty his grandmother did, but I added ham to the turkey and extra dishes. One year, instead of turkey or ham, we had fried quail breasts and grilled sirloin steak. And I made more than one dessert. Some years, we invited friends to join us, and my late brother-in-law and his children were regulars at the table for several years after his wife was killed in a traffic accident. I have not cooked such a meal since the arthritis hit about 10 years ago. I am struggling to get back some of my coping skills to do more than simple cooking now, but it will be awhile. But in my whole life, I have never sat at table for Thanksgiving with anyone but people I really liked and enjoyed. Something to be thankful for.

Friday, on the radio, several persons were sharing stories of Duty Gatherings, where at least some if not all the persons dislike or feel contentious about the others and someone always takes umbrage, grabs their family and storms out. A friend told me she had a Duty Thanksgiving which wasn't so bad because they mostly got along and the food was good. But there was no question of her spending the holidays with her parents. It Wasn't Allowed. And this doesn't even get into the nasty drunk family member who destroys the peace. I guess, maybe after a few years, you get used to it? But how horrible to say, "I have to go" rather than "I want to go."

But this is the holidays, the time of illusion, where fantasy is in full force. Someone was saying recently that this is no longer a period of truth, but of image. So many of us care more about the appearance of how things are to the reality. (Huh. wonder how holiday dinners are for members of Congress.) There are as many expectations and traditions as there are families.

I simply give thanks this year for the many, many happy holidays I have shared and the love my family has shared. How lucky, lucky I have been.

One man on the radio said his family, he and siblings all grown, were simply having more and more trouble with a traditional dinner since his mother's death. She had always done it. Getting together wasn't the problem, they all really like each other. But a few years ago, they said the heck with it, pulled out the grill and had a delicious holiday meal of grilled hamburgers and French fries. It was, he said, a great relief. Makes sense to me.

Well, next week is round one. The easy one. Just a meal and family. The big, complicated doozy of a holiday is ahead. I'll probably run into you at Walmart sooner or later. (Did I mention I really hate to shop, almost ANYtime?) But at some time, maybe not till Christmas Eve but sometime, I will get to awe and wonder. And then all will be well.


Merry Jelinek said...

Ah, tradition... Thanksgiving for me will always mean lasagna first, then the turkey... I know that sounds odd to most people, but Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter we always had Lasagna as the first course and then the 'American' favorites...

And Lasagna is no small affair. The Sauce is homemade and takes about five hours in all - with meatballs, sausage, and neckbones cooked in the sauce. Then you cook the lasagna noodles, mash the cooked meatballs, and mix the ricotta mixture which will all be layered in a pan (which usually takes me about an hour).

After the lasagna, we have turkey, stuffing, cranberries (which I've only recently developed a taste for) mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes and either greenbeans or corn... usually some type of bread, most often Italian. Dessert is an affair in itself. There are homemade cookies, pumpkin pie, a fruit salad, and there used to be cannoli, though it became cheese cake more often, oh, and cut up fennel to clear the pallet and settle the stomach.

I had to give way on my traditions, though, as Thanksgiving is my mom in law's holiday and I get Christmas Eve (ask me about that one sometime)...

They are Czek and bohemian, so at her house we have dumplings with gravy and saurkraut with polish sausage cooked in it, along with all of the traditional American Turkey and fixings. Usually just the pumpkin pie, though sometimes cheesecake.

As you get married and combine families, the traditions get muddled and life's changes enter the table and the time... but it's a joy to have family and to share the time with them and I'm grateful that my children will get both traditions, as well as the ones they'll find for themselves.

night lightning woman said...

What a rich heritage for you and your children. (burp) I'm drooling. What a decision on Friday.A slice of lasagna, or a turkey, stuffing and cranberry sandwich with lettuce and maybe stuffed olives? (one of my favorite leftovers but so is lasagna.)And I bet the Thanksgiving smells in your house growing up were absolutely incredible. Bet your husband can say the same--just different aromas. And your children are getting both heritages. What lucky kids. Yeah, we'll get to Christmas Eve. Growing up, I always expected enchiladas and tamales (in the hispanic culture which predominated in New Mexico, tamales are Christmas food and someone always gave us a couple of dozen. MMM.) I once interviewed a social anthropologist who concentrated on food customs through history. Fascinating! Our foods are so deeply embedded in our celebrations and cultures. Thank you so much.

New Girl said...

One year the kids and I broke with tradition (two days of cooking and a feast big enough to feed a small army) and did a Low Country Boil instead. Just piled out all that beer & butter-boiled shrimp, potatoes, corn, and sausage onto a newspaper-lined table and dug in. The kids' assessment? "Mom, we really have to do this again!"

phlegmfatale said...

I love what you said about the continuity of cooking in/with implements of your forbears. It's a wonderful way to connect with our loved ones.