I woke up this morning seeing my mother’s arched eyebrows as I realized that I’m already ten years older than she was when she cooked her last turkey, and I have yet to cook even one. She fed 7 children and Dad 3 meals a day for three decades (give or take the years when the kids went off to their own lives, but always returning for the feasts), and each meal was an event, none bigger than Thanksgiving. By my count, that includes at least 37 turkeys.
By now, on the day before Thanksgiving, she would have already chopped the stale bread for the stuffing, and the bag of fresh green beans would be waiting for my minimal involvement with preparing the feast, namely, tearing the ends off the beans. But her big task on every Thanksgiving Wednesday, the thing that made her get up early and put on her fiercest face, was to go get the bird. Not just any bird, and certainly no frozen supermarket concoction. Nope, there was only one kind of turkey my mother would have, and that would be the freshest possible bird from the Farmer’s Market in Wayne, Pa. She trusted implicitly the good Amish farmers who supplied that market with fresh meats, poultry and cheeses, and no matter the weather or paltry state of family finances, she insisted on going to that market for special occasions like Thanksgiving. The market never disappointed. She always wanted the biggest, plumpest, freshest turkey.
One year, the serious poultry men at the market convinced her that their pride an joy that year was a 27-pound turkey, a monstrous specimen of healthy living on a Pennsylvania farm. I’m not even sure how she managed to carry that thing out to the car, and then when she got home…. disaster! The 27-pound turkey would not fit into the oven! Happy anticipation turned to grief as she and my father tried to figure out what to do. Dad loved having the big intact bird to carve in front of us for the grand dinner, but this monster could not be cooked whole. With a sense of doom for the entire enterprise, Dad set about cutting pieces off the raw bird so that it could fit into the roasting pan and oven. Somehow he made it work. I don’t think we kids realized anything was different, but the moment became a family legend.
(Norman Rockwell, “Freedom from Want” — yes, this resembled our family dinners!)
Like many middle class families growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, we thought certain kinds of food were what everyone ate. So it was that we really did think that this was proper cranberry sauce:
Mom also stuffed the turkey cavity with her deliciously spiced diced bread, making a tremendous stuffing. None of us died from food poisoning, but today’s experts on food safety would be aghast at the idea of putting the bread inside the turkey cavity because of salmonella risk. Do not try that at home today!
She made candied sweet potatoes with lots of butter and maple syrup (no marshmallows, so heathen!), and my brother insisted on making the white mashed potatoes that came out almost liquid because he hated lumps. Pumpkin pie with Reddi-whip was the required dessert.
If a well-meaning daughter-in-law brought chocolate cake or cookies, well, thankyouverymuch and those items were politely left on the kitchen counter. We did have standards! (I took to suggesting wine, always well received!)
We ate turkey leftovers for days after, which I realize now was part of the reason why she bought such big birds. Turkey is an economical choice for stretching the family meal budget.
On this Thanksgiving, as always, we pause to enjoy family traditions, whether big turkeys and pumpkin pie, or other festive foods reflecting family history and preferences. But the food is a symbol of so much more. Mom’s kitchen rituals, the days of preparation, the run to the Farmer’s Market, the pride of Dad carving the turkey — these somewhat quaint but rich memories remind me of the true meaning of Thanksgiving, which is to express gratitude for those whose love and devotion give meaning to our lives. Mom and Dad are long gone, but my brothers and I still remember those great feasts and the deep sense of family our parents instilled in us.
I am so grateful to everyone in the large Trinity family who share your talents and support so generously. I am grateful for our students who challenge, surprise and delight our work each day. I give thanks for our very talented faculty and staff whose hard work makes Trinity’s mission come alive in the progress of our students through learning. I am so grateful to our trustees who give generously of their time and expertise, and to all alumnae, alumni and benefactors whose generosity makes it possible for Trinity to thrive.
I hope you have great feasts this week, and happy times with families and friends.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!