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to read even more fascinating tidbits from the kitchen and the fields.
My mind drifts back ...
To a Thanksgiving day not too long ago ...
By the time I wake up, the smell of slowly simmering turkey has already wafted up the stairs and into my bedroom. We didn't get to bed until well after two A.M., and the house is still and hushed. Mom must have gone back to bed after putting the turkey on. I shuffle downstairs in my bathrobe and peer into the kitchen, quiet and cool now where last night it was a whirling hub of chaos. The counters are lined. Stacks of Tupperware filled with Bob's Red Mill whole wheat rolls - little triangles of dough rolled up like croissants and baked to a flaky, tender goodness. Bags of marshmallows that will go into yams, frog-eye salad, and seven-cup salad. A hand of bananas to slice and add to that last salad. Rows of olives, pickles, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes in jars. Sacks of potatoes, ready to be washed and peeled, boiled, mashed.
The turkey roaster is on a folding table in the dining room, pushed up behind the couch which has been moved and turned from its usual position to make room for many hungry people. It's filled with turkeys on roasting racks, and a few inches of water in the bottom to keep them moist. I peer through the glass window in the top of the lid and see bubbles forming, glistening fat oozing.
Back in the kitchen, I open the fridge. There isn't room to slip another slice of cheese in there; as the door swings wide, a bag of eggs, peeled and slick, oozes from the shelf and tumbles down; I hastily replace it. There are the two containers for frog-eye salad, ready to be mixed and churned with fruit. Mayonnaise, mustard for deviled eggs, an almost-completed layered Jell-O salad - last year it didn't have time to set properly and turned multi-colored, so this year we're taking precautions. A glass bowl of pink strawberry Jell-O beaten with cream and cream cheese has a tight lid of plastic wrap - Mandatory makes it her mission to wrap it so tight, it looks invisible. There's a plastic bag of strawberries tucked nearby, ready to top it just before dinner. A few tubs of whipped topping are ready to frost the Jell-O, and I steady a wobbling bottle of whipped cream that threatens to flop from the door. I can see, through the frosty-white of the Tupperware, that there's a decadent pie on the bottom shelf, half-buried beneath containers of sour cream and bags of lettuce and a few boxes of butter. That reminds me ...
I open the freezer, and sure enough a quart of ice cream comes flying out to welcome me and another tumbles and hits my foot. Yes! Sugar will be had this night.
I can hear the bunk beds squeak, which means the other girls are waking up. I flap my way back upstairs in my blue bathrobe and hurry to get in the shower before they preempt me. By the time I emerge, everybody is awake.
"Nate - where is your other shoe?" He says he doesn't know, and Mom says to get up and start walking, start moving things until he finds it.
I know we're going to church because Nate can't find his other church-shoe. I'm wearing fall colors, all my favorite browns and oranges. I hear a throaty rumble and look outside. There's a low, red Ford Probe pulling into the driveway. My sweetheart is here to pick me up for church. We're not married yet, but an engagement ring on my finger speaks of a promise for that coming spring. Two sisters come merrily with me and we stuff in the car like sardines, crackling paper bags of canned food and cake mixes for the food bank on our laps, between our knees, poking our faces with sharp corners. My sweetheart is wearing his white jacket and Stetson cologne.
Church service is only an hour long. We sing hymns of thanksgiving: "And now let the weak say I am strong; let the poor say I am rich - because of what the Lord has done for us!" When I was little I thought they said "wheat," not "weak," and I can't help but picture a tall sheaf of wheat, strong. Everybody brought donations for the food bank and they flow down the aisles in long rows like the Magi, bringing their gifts to lay at the altar. We stay to help sort the food on the pews into sections - canned soup here, paper products there. Even though it's all supposed to be non-perishable, once somebody donated a frozen turkey, so we can't let the food sit in the church without going through it all. Everybody is excited and happy, somebody is taking pictures, Dad is still talking with Howard in the back, and eventually we leave and head back home. Mom gets home first, and she calls my cellphone - can we stop and pick up a bag of brown sugar? Mr H and I stop in the grocery store by the church; they're open for a few more hours. He pays for the brown sugar.
The house is fragrant! Lights are blazing - it's cold outside, but it's so warm inside we leave all the doors open! There are candles on the table, and the littlest ones made turkey place-card holders which crouch patiently in a basket on the lazy susan. There's no room for dinner plates on the table just yet - it's still a busy workplace! Mom is issuing orders, the girls are spinning about beating things, chopping things, blending things. Friends are piling into the kitchen, eager to help, especially eager for samples. I'm trying to mix the frog-eye salad, and Mandatory is slicing boiled eggs in half for deviled eggs and trying to slap away the many helpful hands that try to snatch away the broken pieces. It's always my job to make the deviled egg filling, so I hurry to finish the salad. I know Mr H loves deviled eggs, and Mom made extra this year so he can have plenty.
Mel-Bel is peeling potatoes in the kitchen. Some friends from college grab extra peelers and they join her. Mr H rolls up his sleeves and starts peeling potatoes. There are about thirty pounds of spuds to be boiled, and Mom has already started one pot. Peels are flying! Everybody looks in the kitchen doors and laughs because it's so funny to see five people trying to stand at the sink and peel potatoes. Nate is ordered to bring in garbage bags to collect the peels.
Back in the living room, all the furniture is pushed back up against the walls. The boys are unfolding tables that we use for school and Reb the Rebel is bringing clean tablecloths up from the laundry room to cover them. Dad walks in and somebody asks him to help move the couch over. A car pulls up outside, and Chickadee runs for the door. "It's Grandma!"
Now it's really Thanksgiving! All hands drop what they're doing and flood out into the frosty yard, ready to carry priceless treasures of food inside. "Be careful with that!" she admonishes. Uncle Kevin is with her, opening the trunk to reveal jewels, blanket-wrapped pots and containers.
She brought her turkey roaster, too, but this one is filled to the brim with forty quarts of stuffing. There are a dozen Tupperware pie containers filled with peach, chocolate cream, lemon meringue pies. I can see a little broken piece of crust in one of the containers and I'm tempted to whisk it away for scientific testing. Uncle Kevin is carrying a stack of familiar yellow tubs with white lids, and I already know what's inside. In the top is a lime Jell-O salad with cottage cheese and nuts, one of my favorite holiday treats. The second one is a broccoli salad with slivered almonds and pieces of bacon, cooked and chopped. The third one is a tossed green salad with chunks of lettuce and tomato and cucumber. I never eat the tossed salad because there's always too much other goodness to eat. Nate is giving Grandma a hug, and she passes him a square red tub with a white lid. I know that's deviled eggs with shrimp - Mom is notorious for not liking those, but I like them, and so does Grandma, and she made a dozen. Somebody thrusts a hot white CorningWare dish in my hands, wrapped in a towel frayed and soft with age, a towel I remember Grandma hanging on her stove for the last twenty years of my life. It has a glass lid and I can see, through the condensation, scalloped corn underneath. I run it into the house. There are already stacks of tubs from her car in the foyer, and I weave my way through a maze of butter rolls, bags of crackers for topping the scalloped corn and more pickles and olives, stepping over a container with lemon poppy-seed bundt cake, peering down into a grocery bag to see a Corelle crock of baked beans staring back up at me.
Mr H is running the show in the living room, now. The boys have rearranged the furniture to a confusing disarray and he is putting it back in order, picking up little Chickadee under one arm and dragging her along screaming with laughter as he issues orders. Every once in a while he looks over at me with his bright green eyes sparkling and he smiles.
But now suddenly there are too many women, and the boys are in the way. Mr Happy, my little brother who towers over me at six feet and some change, proposes football. The men all run into the street in t-shirts and jeans, throwing a football and shouting when a car is coming, standing aside and waving hello as the driver slows obligingly and waves back.
I head into the kitchen. I look busy, but I'm not really working at all. Everybody has aprons on over their pretty church shirts, their nice pants or new jeans. Mandatory is draining olives for the relish tray, and she peers at me over her glasses and says, "You can make the deviled eggs now."
Mel-bel and Mom strained the potatoes, and now Mom is dumping blocks of butter into the huge metal bowl of steaming hotness, and taking a blender to it. Mel is scooping peels into a plastic bag to throw away. "Where's Nate?" she says. "The garbage is full."
Grandma is in the kitchen now, smiling, fragrant with perfume. She has on a silky button-up shirt but she is ready to work. "These beans aren't quite done," she is saying. "Remember that year we left them in the microwave overnight?" And last year, we forgot the scalloped corn in the oven until after dinner. It's tradition - every year we forget something. But Mom has a list on the fridge now, color-coded and scribbled with notations, check-marks, and hieroglyphics that only she and Mandatory really understand.
JessBess is re-arranging the fridge, making room for the dishes Grandma brought. I'm not sure what sort of witchery she employs, but everything is crammed in there now. I take a fork and start smashing hard-boiled egg yolks in a Pyrex cup; the cup is never big enough, I always end up spilling some. When I was little, I read in a cookbook that you used egg whites in deviled eggs, and I thought that meant the shells went into the filling. Deviled eggs always held a place of magical mystery in my mind, and I could never puzzle out how they actually came together. Now I know better. I mix the smashed yolks with mayonnaise, mustard, salt, and pepper. I spoon the filling into a plastic bag and cut off the corner, making a piping bag, and fill the egg white halves. I sprinkle them with paprika. The deviled egg tray only holds a dozen in the little indentations, but I keep adding them until there are over two dozen, and then I start filling another platter from the china cupboard. The china cupboard that used to be in Grandma's house is in our dining room now, because when she moved it didn't fit in her new place. We make good use of it - it's filled with sparkling glass and china ware. But on Thanksgiving, it's almost empty. The Princess House glass bowl that Mom always used to serve canned fruit and bananas is now filled with seven-cup salad, all the butter dishes are loaded with butter and scattered on the table, the relish tray with the divider in the middle has olives in one side, and little bread-and-butter pickles in the other.
Mandatory can't stop sampling the pickles, she's a sucker for them. Reb takes an olive every time she walks by. It's almost empty before dinner starts, and we refill it with the jars Uncle Kevin brought. JessBess is roaring around the house like a whirling dervish, leaping on people for hugs and exclaiming over everything. Mom tells her to stop running into things and start helping, so she opens the candy jar and starts picking out candy pumpkins to nibble on.
Platters are starting to hit the table now. Nate and Chickadee are arranging plates and homemade place-cards, little mini turkeys made out of chocolate cherries and candy corns. Dad has invited some friends over and they are in the living room, boisterous. They brought bags of sparkling cider and some soda; JessBess has to try to cram it into the fridge. Somebody says, "Put them in the motor-home fridge!" and she remembers the fridge out there is on, so she takes the soda outside. Mr H and Mr Happy are sent to the grocery store for last-minute bags of ice so we can fill a cooler with additional drinks, and somehow they come home with more candy. Mr Happy rattles a box of Mike and Ikes as he walks around and inspects the food.
Suddenly it seems like everything is almost ready. The table is quivering under a load of platters and bowls, all swathed in towels and foil to keep hot until the last minute. Mel has lifted the turkey from the roaster and started slicing it into thin slabs, and Mom is throwing tidbits of the meat and stuffing into the gravy as she stirs it on the stove. "Nate, go tell your dad that dinner is ready," she says. It'll be ready in a few minutes, but she knows it'll take the men a few minutes to make it up from their chairs and up the stairs.
As the turkey platter touches down on the table, lots of footsteps come tromping up the stairs. Red-cheeked boys come blasting in the front door, still tossing the football from hand to hand. "Food? Food?" Mr Happy is like a hungry-starved chick pecking for grain.
The girls are all peeling back foil and towels, and steam and rich aromas fill the air. Everybody is hungry, everybody has been smelling this food for several days now. Moist stuffing, crackly-skinned turkey, yams still bubbling in their caramel sauce, scalloped corn with the crackers crushed in, the deviled egg platter with a few suspicious gaps, jell-O salads with a spoon gouged in the middle, ready to be scooped.
And on every plate, a few pieces of dried corn, to remind us of the first meager years our forefathers spent in this country, abiding only by the Word and the kindness of strangers.
Everybody holds hands for prayer. Dad, Mom, Reb, Mr H and I, Mel-bel, Mr Happy, JessBess, Mandatory, Nate, Chickadee, Grandma, Uncle Kevin, Dad's friends, us kids' friends, people who had no family or home close by for Thanksgiving that were welcomed by my parents to share in the bounty of our table.
Dad says grace.
Everybody grabs a plate and starts somewhere. Before she can get anything on her own plate, Mandatory is sent back to the kitchen to find more serving spoons. She comes out with ten and tosses them on the table. Somebody spills a little gravy, but who really cares? The candles on the table are shaped like corn-cobs. They glow benevolently and flicker in the breeze because the window is open because the house is so warm with many bodies and many hot platters of food. I fix a plate for Chickadee and myself at the same time, somebody else is fixing a plate for a little one with arms too short, and then a bunch of us troop out to the living room to squeeze in to the small folding tables and eat, elbow to elbow, with more bowls of salads and trays of deviled eggs and extra bowls of olives and pickles on our tables, too. At first there isn't much talking, but soon the forks slow and the talking heats up, lots of stories and good-natured ribbing mostly aimed at people who aren't at our table to defend themselves, but loud enough that they can overhear from the next table. Somebody spills their cider cup and Mandatory is sent back to the kitchen again to get paper towels.
Dinner is easygoing. One by one the participants graduate from the table to the couch, groaning with the fullness of it all, but knowing that they'll be ready when the dessert comes out.
We relax; a VeggieTales movie is on downstairs, a Christmas movie, and the little ones are delighted. Game boards come out. A group decides to go for a walk to make room for dessert, and a bunch of us break out the scarves and sweaters and head into the cold, swinging our arms briskly. It's good to feel the fresh air after the steaming kitchen for so long. Chattering continues. Future plans, plans for today, excitement about everything around Christmas time.
By the time we get back, more relatives have joined us. There's rejoicing as they unveil more bottles of sparkling cider, unpack some more pies. We set to work switching out the table from dinner to dessert. Peach pie, cherry pie, lemon meringue pie, zwieback pie, blueberry pie, apple pie, chocolate cream pie, custard, chocolate cake, lemon poppy seed bundt cake, pecan pie, upside-down pineapple cake, whipped cream, fudge ice cream, vanilla ice cream, and of course several pumpkin pies. We all swarm around the pies with joy, everybody excited about their favorite one, everybody wanting to try a few pieces here, there, sample this and that, sharing a bite with somebody. It's okay if we can't sample everything tonight - we know that in the morning, we'll be eating pie for breakfast. So we all sit around on the floor, at the table, on the couches, enjoying the presence of each other, enjoying the gratefulness and the plenty that the food signifies, basking in the glow of Thanksgiving.
Wishing you and yours the finest Thanksgiving that 2011 can bring,
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