Averyell A. Kessler
Thanksgiving 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 20-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 Vidalia onions 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,” 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 a participant in Vincent Price’s famous film, The Tingler. My grandfather, WG, was a fan of the gizzard, and it took several years of his teasing before I realized that I did not also have a gizzard.
In 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, 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, and corn pudding. The Campbell Soup Company had just invented the green bean casserole and we weren’t onto 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 what 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 that day.
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 the guys go nose to nose over 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 of Oreo’s and a fifth of Jack Daniel’s every afternoon before sunset. Without them, we would never know why the Police handcuffed Cousin George after a midnight scuffle at the Krystal. 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. So, treasure your family storyteller, listen carefully, and wish them well. Better yet, hand them the first piece of mincemeat pie.