Thanksgiving The Hard Way
The Olden Days--1960
When I was growing up, we did Thanksgiving the hard way. No store-bought pies, no Stove Top stuffing, and certainly no restaurants. Nope, we did a lot of it from scratch, though I'm sure both of my grandmothers, who did their cooking in the first half of the 20th century, would have thought we had it easy.
Where Do Turkeys Come From?
Take the turkey. My maternal grandmother, Agnes, the daughter of German immigrant farmers, had to do the entire job--chase that turkey around the farm yard, catch it, wring its neck, pluck it, gut it, and then prepare it for roasting. I remember her telling me how she and her older sister, Emma, used to wring the turkey's head off and then laugh hysterically watching it stagger around the yard. They were tough women. My paternal grandmother, Mae, was the daughter of Irish immigrants, townspeople, so I don't think she ever had to kill a turkey. I believe she could buy one already dressed from the local butcher, though I suspect she then had to listen to murmurs from her farming neighbors about how easy she had it. She raised eight children to adulthood, another easy job.
What Goes Into Stuffing? Everything!
Then there was the issue of stuffing. In my years in the Air Force, I loved to ask people from around the county what they put in their stuffing, because the answers were so amazingly varied. Apples, raisins, cranberries, mushrooms, water chestnuts, giblets, celery, turnips, onions, peppers, corn, okra, walnuts, carrots, pecans, almonds, white bread, wheat bread, corn bread--the list is long. The one that surprised me the most when I first heard it was oysters, but the New Englander who told me about it explained that in colonial days oysters were so plentiful and cheap that they found their way into as many dishes as imaginative pilgrim housewives could invent.
Although stuffing is an integral part of the traditional holiday dinner, it's not quite as universal as I'd always assumed. When my nephew's lovely Chinese girlfriend came to Thanksgiving with my family the first time and was handed the dish of stuffing, she whispered to my nephew, "What is this?" Though her parents, first-generation immigrants from Hong Kong, had adopted the Thanksgiving celebration, they skipped stuffing in favor of sticky rice, as dear to their hearts as stuffing is to ours.
In my own family there was a bit of variety when it came to stuffing: my grandmother Agnes made a sausage and rice stuffing, a combination I've never heard mentioned by anyone else. She passed on while I was away at college, before I developed an interest in cooking, and I never thought to ask her for her recipe, an omission I now deeply regret.
My grandmother Mae's stuffing was more standard for the day: a white-bread base with celery, onions, herbs, and spices. She passed away before I was born, so I never got to taste her stuffing; my mother used her recipe, but my father insisted that she put in so much thyme--leaf and powdered--that it overwhelmed the other flavors and led me to think, throughout my childhood and adolescence, that I didn't like stuffing. Dad was a heavy smoker, and I think his taste buds had lost their refinement.
Making stuffing when I was growing up was a lot more work than it is now, but there was a sense of tradition and ritual about it that made it fun. There were no bread cubes then, and certainly no Stove Top, so we did it from scratch. Mom would buy three or four loaves (depending on the size of the crowd we expected) of sliced white bread. Wheat bread existed then, of course, but it didn't have the cachet it does today; it was considered inferior to white bread because wheat flour took less refining. Three days before Thanksgiving, my sister and I opened the bags and laid the slices around the kitchen countertop in overlapping trails like toppled dominos. Every day we flipped the slices so they would stale evenly and thoroughly.
On Thanksgiving morning we were all up early, because the turkey (usually about 25 pounds) had to be stuffed and in the oven by 10:00. We roasted the turkey at 300 degrees, basting it every 30 minutes, so it took a long time to cook. My brothers began the job; they sat in the living room where they could see the Macy's parade on TV (black-and-white in the first years), and grated all the bread into crumbs. That was the limit of their participation; grating bread was a just-barely-acceptable activity for boys, and the rest of the job belonged to my mother, sister, and me. Dad did not participate at all; he had earned the money to buy the food, and considered his job done. He sat like a king at the kitchen table, genially overseeing the preparations and tasting the stuffing ("It needs more thyme.") My mom, sister, and I didn't mind; that's the way things were done.
Once the turkey was in, it was time for everything else. The pies had been made the night before (we had only one oven), but there were still mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans sauteed in butter with almonds, pickles, olives, etc. We made the pies and potatoes from scratch, like our grandmothers had done, but we didn't have to grow the pumpkins, apples, and potatoes, so we did have it easier. My grandmother Agnes did her own canning, too, so she could put homemade pickles and relish on the table; ours came from jars.
We were the transition generation, I suppose; a lot of the sheer hard labor was gone by the time my sister and I were old enough to start helping with Thanksgiving, but enough things were still made from scratch that the tradition of a whole day (and sometimes the preceding evening) of cooking was still a necessary and enjoyable part of the holiday. My sister and I, now joined by our sister-in-law and niece, prefer to keep it that way.
As long as nobody expects us to wring a turkey's head off.