Averyell A. Kessler
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Why I Don’t Eat Mincemeat Pie ©Averyell A. KesslerThanksgiving Day began early at our house. 4:00 AM to be exact. Any later and the turkey wouldn’t be done in time for lunch. An enormous Chambers gas stove stood ready in the kitchen, but it had only one oven and there was no way to cook big bird, dressing, sweet potatoes, vegetables, rolls, and pies all at the same time. Mama called this inconvenient phenomenon, the Thanksgiving Squeeze. The turkey was first priority. Long before dawn, she stumbled out of bed, snapped on a blinding kitchen light, and wrestled a 15-pound Butter Ball out of the fridge. Because she’d previously reaped a whirlwind of disaster by filling an unroasted turkey with uncooked dressing, she chose simplicity, giving our current turkey a Wesson Oil rub down and popping a Vidalia onion or two into the cavity before placing it in the oven. No harm, no foul. (Make that- no harm, no fowl). When I walked into the kitchen, she was already singing “Over the river and through the woods.” Because we lived in Mississippi, there would be no “Horse who knew the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted snow.”* She sang anyway and the turkey was well on its way to a Norman Rockwell finish.The turkey giblets were reserved in a separate pan, and I stayed as far away as possible. They looked like relics from Dracula’s latest victim and smelled bad. The neck reminded me of the villian in Vincent Price’s famous film, The Tingler. My grandfather, WG, was a big fan of the gizzard, and it took several years of his teasing before I realized that I did not have a gizzard alsoIn the fridge, a “dinner on the grounds” size pan of cornbread dressing waited its turn. Made from an old-time southern recipe provided by an old-time southern lady, it was my favorite. Thankfully, it matched left-over turkey day for day as we stuffed it into sandwiches or ate it cold from the fridge. There were also sweet potatoes (Mama let me put marshmallows on top), butter beans, corn pudding and a newly discovered Mississippi delight, collard greens. The Campbell Soup Company had just announced the green bean casserole and we weren’t into it yet.Back in the glory days, just about everybody in Jackson bought Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. Few ate it. But it was decorative and easy, just open it, slide the contents into a relish tray, and voila, the exact replica of a tin can, a shimmering cranberry colored mini sculpture right in the middle of the table. A few stylish souls sliced it into matching rounds and fanned it out in an artistic display. In texture, it matched the pineapple, lime and cream cheese concealed salad also waiting in the fridge.Best of all, dessert. Our never fail family standards were pumpkin and mincemeat pie served with heavy cream whipped up in the beater. Mama loved mincemeat pie and always made it, if only for herself. The rest of us had been chased away by WG’s unsavory tale of the Pokeberry Bottom mincemeat barrel. He told this story every year, so we knew it was coming. When Mama brought the pies to the table, he folded his napkin, leaned back, and spoke the familiar words, “Did I ever tell you about the time…………..” Mama’s eyes shot darts, but she didn’t say anything. It was useless.“There was an ole country store about a mile away from my house in Pokeberry Bottom,” he said. “They had two big barrels right by the front door. One of’em had dill pickles and the other mincemeat.” “There were screens on the windows, but the front door was wide open,” he continued, “and a lot of flies buzzed around outside. They had a screen lid over the pickle barrel, but the mincemeat didn’t need one……….” he paused to let the full horror sink in. “If one of the flies fell in, they just stirred it up and nobody knew the difference.” As a result, the pumpkin pie disappeared in a flash and my mother ate the only slice of mincemeat pie.A story-telling relative is a blessing, no matter how insufferable. They are as much of a Thanksgiving tradition as turkey and dressing. Even though young people roll their eyes in dismay, storytellers steer us away from the carnage of a rip snorting political argument, petty religious disputes, and whatever conflicts arise when their guys go nose to nose over the whose quarterback throws the best Hail Mary. How else can we discover that Aunt Bertha, long gone to glory, smuggled a silver coffee pot out of Galatoires in a D.H. Holmes shopping bag, or that her husband, Bertram, polished off a bag or Oreo’s and a fifth of Jack Daniel’s every afternoon before sunset. Without them, we would never know why Biloxi Police handcuffed Cousin Hiram after an altercation at Gus Stevens Supper Club. Without them, we wouldn’t remember ancient family recipes, who married who way back when, or the romantic story of great grandpa’s elopement. We might not know what belonged on our Thanksgiving table, what should be forgotten, or why we celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November. We are richer for their presence. A family story teller is a treasure; listen hard and wish them well. Better yet, hand them a piece of mincemeat pie.*Thanksgiving Poem by Lydia Maria Child.
Welcome November©Averyell A. KesslerIt’s November in Mississippi. The last remnants of summer are fading fast, and fall is tapping me on the shoulder. I am pleased that the South’s frying pan summer has been scrubbed, rinsed, and placed on a high shelf. The evidence is clear. The sun shines at a different angle, August’s steam bath air is drifting away. The abundant caladiums in my yard are taking a last gasp. My puff ball hydrangeas have dropped their leaves before the first frost arrives. It’s not sweater cold yet, but it’s coming. I have no scientific background or meteorological expertise, so I’ll use neophyte words. Fall is here. I can smell it, touch it, and hear it crackle as I rake up a mound of crisp oak leaves and desiccated pinecones the squirrels have nibbled into nothing. “Get ready,” it says. “Pull out your old blue turtleneck, a pair of thick socks, warm pants, and that pea coat hiding in your closet.”Because of Jackson’s mercurial weather, my midwestern parents had difficulty determining exactly when fall arrived. Even after the Labor Day gong sounded, it was still as hot as a biscuit oven. Things changed without warning. One day, a cool breeze swooped through Belhaven shaking tree limbs and covering the lawn with spiny gum balls. The next day, Mama was happy she hadn’t packed away my sandals and shorts because my hopscotch squares were still pulling me outside. Finally, I learned Mama’s never fail sign that fall had arrived, the appearance of oatmeal on our breakfast table.Goodbye, Sugar Smacks and Frosty O’s. So long, snap, crackle, and pop. Even our humble box of unpretentious Corn Flakes went into temporary hibernation. Hello, rosy cheeked Quaker man with fluffy white hair and a broad black hat. Although Mama did her best, sprinkling on a thick coating of sugar and cinnamon, I considered oatmeal close kin to Elmer’s paste or freshly poured concrete. It was filing, nothing more.It was also a season of change at Power School. The steamy, unairconditioned classrooms were no longer intolerable. Miss Williams moved her heroic oscillating fan into storage, and fourth graders dashed across the playground without working up a sweat. Even the hot, golden rolls in the cafeteria tasted better. I also learned a magical phrase that would be repeated many times. Tommy Edelman said it first, soon after the morning bell rung. “It’s snowing in Vicksburg,” he whispered. “It’ll be here soon.” His words spread around my classroom like a California wildfire.My mouth fell open. “Snow?” I gasped. I looked outside and saw a clear blue sky.“Yeah” he answered. “I heard it on the radio on the way to school.”The classroom erupted in giddy excitement. Miss William wasted a good ten minutes calming us down, carefully explaining that barring a drastic change in the weather, snow was impossible. Even on a crisp November day.I remained hopeful and spent most of the afternoon watching a bright sky from my classroom window. Finally, just before the final bell rang, it happened. A low hanging cluster of grey clouds crept in from the west.“How far is Vicksburg?” I asked Tommy.“Not far,” he smiled. “Told ya.”At 2:30, I dashed away from school and hopped in the front seat of Mama’s turquoise Chevy Bel Air. “It’s snowing in Vicksburg!” I shouted.“It can’t be,” she answered. “It’s not cold enough.”“But look at the sky,” I pleaded.“We’ll watch Bob Neblett tonight and see what he says.” A sensible compromise.After sampling an umm umm good bowl of Seale Lily peach ice cream, Bob shattered my dreams. “Lotsa rain tomorrow folks. Too bad it’s not cold enough to snow.” Mama was relieved; I hung on hopefully and prayed that somehow God would intervene. Granted he’d never transformed a misspelled Anartica into Antarctica or made 8×7 equal 57, but weather seemed to be one of his specialties. Just before dawn, I heard pounding rain. and prepared for a damp day at Power School when we’d have square dancing lessons on the auditorium stage instead of outside games. My head hung low, but I buckled up for a do-si-do and allemande left!Midmorning, a miracle occurred. I saw it coming when Miss Williams stopped talking about the capital of Peru and put on her sweater. The wind fell away and a soft silence replaced the patter of raindrops. Fingers of frigid air touched the windows, glazing them with frost. Something was happening, everyone felt it. We watched mesmerized, as blue grey clouds covered the school like a patchwork quilt. Finally, our teacher said, “If you’ll all be quiet, we’ll move over to the windows. I think it’s snowing.” We were out of our desks in a flash, watching like hypnotized rabbits as tiny snowflakes began to fall, floating like feathers through the tall pine trees bordering out playground. No one spoke. Finally, our wonderful Miss Williams said, “Get your coats from the cloakroom, we’re going outside.It was a magical day. Even though there wasn’t much snow, we whirled and danced. Tommy and his pals managed to toss a few snowballs. I simply held out my hands and let snowflakes touch my fingers. When the clouds parted, the sun came out and our snow day was over in an instant. We returned to our classroom, wet but happy. That day personified autumn in Mississippi, short, sweet, and gone in a flash. It’s a welcome respite from the dregs of summer and a reminder that there really are four seasons, even in the south. It won’t last long, so let’s dance while the dancin’s good, enjoy the crunch, crunch of falling leaves, and celebrate the blessing of crisp, cool air – if only for a moment.
Wandering Witches©Averyell A. KesslerThis week, a good friend reminded me that the evil witch in The Wizard of Oz is terrifying. Just in time for Halloween too. I saw her first on the big screen in downtown Jackson. The Paramount maybe, or the Lamar. She was huge, a monster in a swirling in a black robe with a leering face, ski slope nose, and a pointed chin sharper than a butcher knife. Her flying monkey pals weren’t a pack of cuddly puppies either. Just the thing to help a skittish child sleep peacefully through the night. By that time, I knew a lot about witches, Snow White’s evil queen and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. Good thing I’d never heard of the Witch of Yazoo because she is buried right up the road and is able to break out of her chains without warning.My first Halloween costumes were little girl sweet – a fairy princess in blue taffeta, a ballet dancer in a pink powder puff tutu, and finally a majorette. As I approached double-digit age, a different idea took root. For my friend Martha also. We’d had it was fluff and fairy tale drama and didn’t care a whit about a rescue prince. His horse was neat, but who wants a man who saves the day at the end but won’t help you slug it out at the beginning. We decided that scary was the way to go. Both of us had already gotten a good look at waxy vampire teeth at Morgan and Lindsey, as well as false fingernails that could scratch stars out of the sky. They stocked capes too, as well as pointed black hats and toy brooms. Mama drew the line at green greasepaint. We’d use fingerpaint and lipstick instead.As Halloween approached, another idea popped into our heads, fortified by nonsensical childhood logic. Because our trick or treat route was restricted to short blocks on St. Mary and St. Ann, our treats bags weren’t bulging when we returned home. Yes, we had a lot of goodies, but just think of the possibilities if we ventured farther up the street. Who knew what delights we were missing? Maybe candy apples and homemade taffy was closer than we knew. The solution was simple. Find a way to expand our prospects without telling our parents. What fun! Belhaven was a patchwork quilt of tall trees, wide lawns, and gardens. Evasion was possible.On Halloween night, we left our houses dressed as mini witches with empty treat bags, green faces, and high hopes. In case you’re wondering, green fingerpaint doesn’t taste good, and it can drift into your eyes without encouragement. It’s also hard to shout trick or treat with a mouth full of vampire teeth, but we endured. Everything went well at first as we accumulated Tootsie Roll pops, candy corn, and multiple candy bars.As we ventured farther from home, the night grew still and silent. There were no other children around. We were on our own. Many houses were dark, except for a glowing pumpkin or a wide-eyed scarecrow in the front yard. Did he move? We weren’t sure. Martha and I held hands as we passed swaying ghost trees, their branches dancing in the shadows. Drifting clouds shrouded the moon.“Maybe we should go back,” I whispered.“Just two more houses,” Martha answered. She was older, so I listened.The last house loomed on the top of a hill. In the daylight, it was ordinary family home. At night, it became a witch’s cottage. The front walk was a treacherous strip of uneven concrete interspersed with patches of grass. A red devil, with glowing eyes, and his skeleton companion, sat on the front porch as still as stone. We knew they weren’t real, but ……We rang the doorbell with rapid breath and tingling tummies. A woman in an ancient wedding dress opened the door. Her face was green like ours and a tangle of black beads hung around her neck. Her haystack hair was covered with a lacy mantilla; her eyes were glaring smudge pots. “Welcome children,” she cackled, rubbing her hands together. Martha and I froze. Our feet were glued onto the porch stones. Our mouths hung open. Candy was the least of our worries. Then it happened. The porch skeleton stood up and tapped us on the shoulder. “Happy Halloween,” he hissed. The red devil laughed and waved.Terror is too mild a word to describe my reaction. Martha’s also. Our shrieks punctured Belhaven’s quiet serenity and set the neighborhood dogs into a barking frenzy. We dashed away from the house like Kentucky Derby thoroughbreds and rattled every magnolia leaf on St. Ann. As we flew down the hill, our fathers ran to meet us. Thankfully, they’d been watching the entire time. They gathered us up and took us home. Safe!No one in the neighborhood was happy with the vampire bride or her pals. Other children had shared our panic. We learned later that a group of teenagers created the scenario when their parents were out of town. Apologies were issued, but it was too late. I slept with a night light for over three years because the vampire bride was hiding in my closet. Red devils were waiting for me somewhere, and skeletons lurked around every corner, especially on deep, dark nights when lightening flashed and wind shook my bedroom windows. I never wanted to be a witch again.
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