Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a redneck sort of place, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.
Last week I described the lower floor of the house in which I grew up, and for this piece you need to read the descriptions of the kitchen and formal dining room. Most all of the activities around Thanksgiving were conducted there, although there was a fair amount of football watching as well, especially as I got older.
Other than more football, the activities were remarkably consistent over the years. Of course, faces changed as older relatives died and new ones were born, but any given year was almost identical to any other year.
The central figure in all of it was my mum. As a matter of fact, the family sort of disintegrated after her death. However, this is supposed to be about happy recollections. My mum, along with Ma, did almost all of the cooking. Some relatives would bring things, but they did the great bulk of the work.
They would start a few days early, cooking things that have a long shelf life like pies, cranberry sauce, and the like. Ma was the dressing specialist (we never stuffed the turkey, but rather had dressing on the side, the preferred way these days because of the greater danger of food poisoning). As a matter of fact, in those days the county extension agents advised against rinsing poultry before cooking because it would “wash away the flavor”. Ma would stew a chicken the day before and use the broth for the liquid in the dressing. She also would place a layer of deboned white meat between two layers of her dressing batter. Since she just lived up the street, she would cook the dressing at her house since the turkey and the ham were in our oven.
My mum would start on the turkey early, taking the giblets and stewing them after cutting them up for gravy after she put the turkey and ham in the oven. She did, and I still do, put some ingredients in the cavity of the turkey, but just for seasoning. Generally she would put some chopped onions and celery, along with some chopped apple and salt, pepper, and sage.
Other items that we always had was a Waldorf salad (which I never liked very much), a pickle tray, sweet potatoes (usually with marshmallows), mashed potatoes, Le Sueur peas with button mushrooms added, with Coffee Mate added as well, home made rolls, green jello with cottage cheese, of course the turkey and ham, cranberry sauce, giblet gravy, corn (either on the cob or whole kernel), butter, iced tea, and some other things. Everything was put on the buffet mentioned last week except for salt and pepper, butter, the pitcher of iced tea, and the rolls. That was the table was kept clear for plates and glasses.
My mum always brought out the “good china” for Thanksgiving, and when I got a little older she and my dad bought a sterling silver set for special occasions. Before that, they had a nice heavy silver plate set which is still in the family. After the dinner Ma and my mum would bring in the pies (for some reason, we did not have cake that much at Thanksgiving). There were always at least two pumpkin ones, usually a lemon one, Aunt Jo Anne always brought a pecan one, and if Ma and I had been energetic and picked enough blackberries earlier in the year for the freezer, a deep dish, double crust blackberry cobbler. Of course, there was lots of whipped cream for the pies and vanilla ice cream for the cobbler.
But it was not the food, but the people who really made the celebration. Here is a typical roster, but you have to remember that it evolved over the years. Of course I was always there, and when I got older and had a girlfriend, she would be there too. Granddad Smith was until he died, as was Ma. For those of you who have not read this series that much, Ma was my mum’s mum. Aunt Hazel, my dad’s sister, was except for the few years that she lived in California. Her son, Charlie, and his wife, Alice were always there. My mum’s sister, Aunt Jo Anne and her husband, Uncle David, always came, and sometimes his parents would come. My brother and his wife, and later their son, would drive up from Dallas. When he got divorced, he would bring his son and latest squeeze. Sometimes my friend Rex would come because my family could cook better than his, and in any given year you never could tell who might show up for dinner. Everyone was welcome, and if the dining room table got too full, there was plenty of overflow in the kitchen. One person who always came was Ma’s sister, my Great Aunt Edna (called “Ednie” or “Aunt Ednie” by everyone).
Here are some funny stories from different Thanksgivings, and I can not put them in exact chronological order but that does not matter. The first one has to do with the first Thanksgiving that the former Mrs. Translator came for dinner. After dinner and after cleanup, everyone was sitting and talking. Well, not exactly after cleanup because I was still helping Ma and my mum, along with the other women, cleaning up (I was the only male who would help with cleanup, the rest of them preferring to watch football or other activities, but not cleanup). Since the former Mrs. Translator was a guest, my mum ordered her out of the kitchen. She was very shy at the time, and decided to sit by Aunt Ednie since she looked like such a nice little (actually, she was rather large) old lady. That was a big mistake!
As the former Mrs. Translator was trying to talk to Aunt Ednie, my aunt started stomping her foot on the floor and loudly saying how bad her legs hurt. The former Mrs. Translator thought that she might have stepped on her foot, and then Aunt Ednie told her, “Them ole worms is jist a-eatin’ me up, and they won’t git me anything to git rid of ’em!” The former Mrs. Translator was astounded that the old lady had parasites and that the family would not take her to the doctor! She did not know Aunt Ednie, because in fact she had poor circulation in her legs and she would get paresthesias in them from time to time. She was also not quite right mentally and was a serious hypochondriac. By the time that their conversation was over, the former Mrs. Translator had learnt about Aunt Ednie’s four lungs, two hearts, two livers, and more about “them old worms”. She figured it out for herself that there were no worms.
Another time, much later and after we had married, the former Mrs. Translator’s dad came to the door for some reason. As I recall he was just out riding his motorcycle and just stopped by to say hello. Aunt Ednie saw him and started shouting out, “Look at that fat man! He’s the fattest man I ever seen!” He was a large, but not tall, man. Ma was aghast at Ednie’s rudeness and hollered at her, “Ednie, have you ever looked in the mirror?” We all got a laugh out of it, except for Ma and the object of Ednie’s awe.
If it sounds like lots of these stories involve Ednie, it is because she was a hoot! She was one of those people who had absolutely no inhibition about saying whatever came to her mind, but fortunately she was very kind. She meant no offense with the fat man comment, but rather was just speaking her mine in her child like way. She was in her seventies, but in many respects was like a five year old. I shall do an entire piece on her soon.
Another funny incident involved her and Lucy, my big old tabby cat. Lucy was of quick temper and was bad to scratch. Ednie had tried to play with her once and Lucy scratched her fairly badly, so Ednie resolved never to have anything to do with her again. One Thanksgiving dinner we were all still at the table and I was sitting next to Ednie. We always got along famously, since she lived with Ma and I stayed with Ma during the day (after school when I started school), so we knew each other well. Anyhow, Lucy liked to go from person to person, begging for a scrap of turkey or ham by gently patting one on the thigh with her paw. Lucy made the mistake of begging from Ednie. As soon as Lucy’s paw touched her, Ednie, who was eating with a large spoon (forks were not her favorites) took the spoon and hit Lucy sharply with the convex side of it, right betwixt and above the eyes. Lucy sort of staggered away, dazed by the blow. Ednie did not miss a beat, going back to eating with the spoon without any cleaning or anything! Everyone laughed at the scene. Lucy was no worse for wear, but never begged from Ednie again.
Yet another time we were eating, and several of us were in the overflow area, including the former Mrs. Translator and me. My friend Bill Blalock knocked at the door (we had the wooden door open, so we could see him through the storm door. Ednie had just walked into the kitchen, and took a liking to Bill immediately. We let him, and she wanted to kiss him. We could see that she had sort of a funny look on her face, and after she kissed Bill she started chewing. She had a whole dinner roll in her mouth when she kissed him! Bill was a bit taken aback, both by just having had kissed a 76 year old large woman, but more by the fact that she had food in her mouth when the kiss happened. We laughed for a long time about that, well, all of us but Bill.
This is not such a funny story, but sort of curious. Granddad Smith was from Birkenhead, England and immigrated when he was a boy. He developed somewhat of an Arkansas accent, but never lost all of his West Coast ways. For example, his stomach condition was a “hulcer”. Granddad sort of stood out at Thanksgiving dinner for using his knife as a fork. As a matter of fact, he was quite good at getting the green peas on the knife edge very efficiently. For a little kid, it was something to see. I started imitating him, and my parents waited until he had gone to tell me that it was poor manners to use a knife that way. They told me that he was old enough to eat however he wanted to eat, but that I should use a fork properly since I was just little. I never used a knife that way again, unless I was alone.
Another quirk in eating was exhibited by my brother, not only at Thanksgiving, but all of the time. He does not like for food to touch his lips, so he always uses his teeth to remove the food from his fork or spoon, and then closes them to chew. He even eats ice cream that way.
Well, that is about it about Thanksgiving Day traditions at the Smith house. Please feel free to recollect your Thanksgiving Day traditions from your youth, and to everyone reading, HAPPY THANKSGIVING! Remember, it is about the people in your lives, not the food, although food tastes better when eaten with loved ones.
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith
Crossposted at Daily Kos,