Thanksgiving Traditions — The Same and Different

The November sun is not quite up, but I am.  My grandmother would have been, too, sitting in her darkened kitchen, her thin legs wrapped around each other, a treble clef, smoking, thinking about the day ahead.  At her elbow would be a stenographer’s pad with notes and a timeline as she prepared for battle with the Thanksgiving feast. 

I say “battle,” but really it was more like maneuvers, the complicated logistics of who goes first, second, third, carrying what, all manner of equipment and provisions packed into the olive drab jeeps and canvas covered trucks in just the right order. 

Somewhere else in the quiet house, my brother and I would be sleeping.  Granny Opal was known for her quiet ways. Calm, reserved.  Easy, I think, is the word to describe her.  A soothing presence, a baby whisperer.  Reassuring.  She never woke us, even when we begged her to get us up in time to put the bird in the oven.  I don’t remember now why that was such a big deal, but it was. 

We were never too disappointed we missed it, and might have been secretly glad, because we slept under blankets in a pitch black room, and it was fine by us to stay there, in soft beds warmed by our small bodies.  

I have tried to get my nieces and nephews interested in learning the old recipes, some written in Granny Opal’s elaborate hand.  They are spattered, some of them, but they are also dated, with attribution and notes in the margins.  Her recipe books are full of the names I recognize as  her Sunday school group, names from an era when they gathered at someone’s home a couple of times of year.  Gatherings with butter mints and peanuts—cocktail nuts, to be exact, these tee-totaling Baptists.  

It was a time of ladies’ magazines, snack sets and sweater sets. And recipes that made the rounds. Recipes that took all afternoon to make, fancy sandwiches, mile-high cakes with freshly grated coconut. And always something passed along by Gwen Brown, or Mrs. Pruden, the best bakers at Buena Vista Baptist Church. 

The elaborate cranberry salad we slaved over, with all the ingredients ground in a cast iron food mill clipped to the formica table is particularly labor-intensive.  We helped with grinding and chopping, and I would have sworn it was a recipe brought with great-grandmother when she moved to town. 

I make it still even though no one eats it.  But tradition is tradition and not subject to practicality. Then my sister informs me that, no.  My mother didn’t grow up eating this.  They served cranberry sauce from a can.  Granny Opal started the tradition, sometime in the sixties.  I didn’t believe it.  But there it is, neatly typed in her recipe book. “Cranberry Salad”  from “Mrs. Sam Talley, 8-13-64.”

What am I to do with this information? 

I have the cranberries, the pecans, the celery, the orange and the grinder. I’ll make it, of course, using the old grinder,  as Mrs. Sam Talley instructs.

The generations are turning, and the nieces who had little interest in recreating my childhood Thanksgiving  Eve rituals now need sweet potato recipes.  They have decided they love the  cranberry salad, request instruction on creating the perfect pie crust. It seems to happen when they leave in that real way, creating families of their own.  The first one to need a recipe was my niece, Alex, a couple of years ago.  The first married, she wanted the Thanksgiving dressing recipe. 

I sent it, of course. But I also made her call me, because there are things Granny Opal and I needed her to know, things about proportions and execution that can not be written on a recipe card.  I wanted her to have the most important part of the tradition.  The showing, the telling, the heads bent over chopped onion and celery. 

My nieces and nephews, that great sleepover and soccer-playing busy generation, are only now catching their breath and casting around for something more sustaining.  We have new little ones among us although the cousins have yet to meet.  They are far-flung and still so new, but soon I hope to see them in a puppy pile, rolling around on some floor, the adults looking on admiringly. 

I hope, too, just once, on Thanksgiving morning, to have little ones asleep upstairs, snug and toasty, while I put the poor bird in the oven. 

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