Thanksgiving celebrating means different things to different people even within the same family! My husband Tom grew up in the South and my young years were spread all over the country thanks to Dad’s Air Force career. I’ll begin with my experiences and relate how they fit into our combined family traditions.
I don’t ever remember a turkey getting roasted in our small trailer kitchen oven. (Today we call it a mobile home). Why do that when the Mess Halls (now called Dining Halls) had Thanksgiving feasts prepared and served at no cost for Air Force personal and their families? And feasts they were with no stretch of the imagination! The meal trays were humongous divided into seven or eight different size compartments. The narrow one meant for silverware was perfect for the giant green and black olives. (That’s where I learned to love those things! They continue to be on my Thanksgiving table to this day.)
The largest opening was meant for the turkey leg—which I nibbled on and gave the rest to Dad. He cajoled me into getting it every year so he would have more space for sliced turkey on his tray. Anything Dad would eat was worth trying (with the exception of liver! ) I’d watch him carefully and fill my tray with everything he selected. (Sure wish kids today would be as adventurous with their food selections.)
In the late 1950’s, when I was a teenager, we stopped going to the base for that remarkable meal. Maybe the Air Force stopped serving it or maybe it was because Dad was temporarily stationed away from our family and we couldn’t go without him—I don’t really remember why. I do remember a bleak Thanksgiving in my last year of high school. Our family finances were low and the “cupboard was bare” (the refrigerator was empty). The American Legion Hall, next door to our laundry business, had advertised a Bingo game with turkey or ham prizes. One ham had my name on it and Mom called it our Thanksgiving miracle.
Now we can flash forward to the early years of marriage where again a turkey did not get roasted in our apartment oven. Why do that when Tom’s mother prepared her usual Thanksgiving feast? And a feast it was! You could count on roasted turkey (deep fried wasn’t invented yet), New Orleans style “Ground Meat Dressing”, creamy oyster dressing served in French Patty Shells, mashed potatoes, cauliflower & broccoli salad with oil & vinegar dressing (usually served hot because she always forgot to cook them until the last minute), white store bought white buns, and of course cranberry sauce. Heaven forbid if you changed the menu! The cost for any related family who chose to come was a dessert or two. Already stuffed we were expected to taste each of the sweet offerings or feelings would be hurt.
Tom’s mother went by Rita or Nene (which meant aunt in French). It was anathema for me to call her Rita as you did not refer to older people by their first name in the New Orleans culture and “mother” was too new for me to use. I purposely refrained from using any salutation until she became a grandmother . She loved the name and I was saved from the embarrassment of my silence.
To get back to my subject…Rita was an excellent cook. She labored at least two days, after buying all the ingredients, to prepare the celebrated meal which disappeared in about fifteen minutes after the blessing. We didn’t even take time to chit-chat afterwards because the New Orleans Saints always had a game on Thanksgiving Day which could not be missed! Some of the food was hurriedly stuffed into the refrigerator to be reheated after the game. Dishes could wait.
One Thanksgiving Eve Grandma called to say that Grandpa had an upset stomach and had started throwing up. I could not believe that she advised us not to come! I begged her to call me the next morning to see if he was better as our sons would be so disappointed (not to mention us). John was our “prayer warrior” and we promised to pray for Grandpa--surely that would change the situation. Our young son’s prayer was simply for Grandpa “to be better so he could eat Thanksgiving dinner”. The welcomed phone call alerted us to please come as Grandpa was feeling better. We went, we all ate, and by game time Grandpa had a sick stomach again! The prayer was answered as requested.
As grandma got older, we were allowed to have the family feast at our home on occasion. Rita truly taught us how to celebrate with love, but heaven forbid if we changed the menu!