The holidays were a Big Deal when I was a kid. My grandparents went all out–baking and cooking a giant feast for the entire family–and we’d come from all over, driving hours or flying in just to spend a few hours gathered around that table groaning with food.
A Thanksgiving turkey, roasted to perfection. A choice between mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes (so naturally you had to do a little of both). Sausage balls and something my grandmother called “dressing”, which was a sort of fried stuffing. Yeast rolls fresh from the oven and dripping with butter. Green beans cooked for hours with bacon and onion until they melted in your mouth. Succotash. Creamed corn. Streamed ‘greens’, which might be spinach one year and mustard greens the next. Cornbread made with buttermilk and fried in an iron skillet until the edges turned crispy. Ham biscuits (both regular and country) on sweet Hawaiian rolls.
And the desserts! At least two cakes–usually a pound cake or sour cream cake and a coconut one, too. Three pies–either pecan or lemon chess and a French silk chocolate pie. Sweet potato pie was another common choice, though I preferred pumpkin myself.
We’d stuff ourselves to bursting, and then the kids would play games (or go see a movie when we were older) while the men watched football and the women packed the food so that everyone could take some with them and sat in the kitchen talking. When the sun began to sink in the sky, we’d load up the car and drive home, replete with food and taking enough leftovers with us to last us at least another week.
We’d repeat the entire cycle again in December, only there would be the added excitement of Christmas gifts and my grandmother’s much-loved decorations to look forward to as well. The magic of pulling up to her house and seeing the brightly lit tree glowing in the window is the hallmark of my Christmases Past.
I loved these visits–they stand out as bright memories in my childhood.
I found out many years later that my mother loathed these gatherings with the power of a thousand burning suns and resented the family tradition that insisted we go every year. When my grandparents died, the huge family gatherings died with them. My mother hated cooking and was of the opinion that holidays shouldn’t be about food or giving gifts. Holiday gatherings became stilted affairs in which we either ate out (which caused a chorus of complaints) or I attempted to make my grandmother’s traditional dishes (which also caused a chorus of complaints). My grandmother’s cooking was a hard act to follow. I tried to hang on to the old recipes, but my mother gave away the cookbook that contained most of them.
After my father’s death, all pretense of gathering for Thanksgiving stopped. My mother began taking part in a big community feast operated by her church each Thanksgiving. They opened the doors to the town and invited everyone to come. The church ladies outdid themselves preparing their very best desserts, and the church paid a caterer to bring in platters of turkey and all the fixings. For three years I went down to the church with my mother to help serve the community–and for three years, my mother forbade me to fix a plate and sit down with everyone else. It didn’t matter that every other member of the congregation, including the minister and his family, was taking part in the feast. As far as my mother was concerned, the food was for the ‘poor people’ and I didn’t need to eat any of it.
Finally, I quoted 1 Timothy 5:18 at her: For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.
After that, she snippily informed me I no longer had to come down to the church on Thanksgiving Day.
As a single person, it was hard to get excited about the holidays. I frequently was expected to work anyway. I stopped cooking the family favorites, especially after the loss of the cookbook. Thanksgiving (and to a certain degree, Christmas as well) became just another day.
When I first got married, I made an effort to go back to lavish Thanksgiving meals, but truth be told, I’m not that great a cook. Work remained unforgiving when it came to scheduling, and the thought of all that preparation for a meal that would be eaten in less than twenty minutes seemed too much. My husband’s kids were teenagers when we met–now they’ve gone off to college and have their own plans. So why bother, right?
The truth of the matter, for the first time in a long time, I find myself thinking differently about the coming holiday. The last couple of years have been rough, but our family seems to be moving into a better place right now. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I find myself wanting to make a little more effort than usual for Thanksgiving this week. Because the truth is, I am thankful. I’m thankful our family has reached a kind of resting spot on a steep uphill climb. I’m thankful for a roof over our heads and jobs that (mostly) pay the bills. Everyone is in reasonably good health at the moment, and life is pretty darn okay. My life partner is also my best friend, and I am thankful every day for that.
And that seems worth honoring by baking a few pies.