Like most things in life, Thanksgiving is what you make of it. The mad rush by so many people to get home to family and friends this Thanksgiving is understandable—Americans have been masked and socially distanced for eight months now, and in some cases, isolated—though perhaps not the smartest thing to do. For the rest of us, we must make do with what we have. And thank God that we have it.
A neighbor who had recently arrived in the United States posted on NextDoor, the popular neighborhood chatroom, a question about what foods were typical for a Thanksgiving dinner. The responses cover the full spectrum of tastes, regions, and peculiarities of American Thanksgivings—but also many comments about the importance of relationships, of sharing and caring, family and friends.
“I see,” the neighbor responded. “Thanksgiving then is about more than the food.”
There are two of us in our household for Thanksgiving this year. Our pets outnumber us. Yesterday, I purchased three gigantic pies—pumpkin, pecan, and apple—at a warehouse club store for around $20. I don’t know how we are going to eat all that pie. (I know that we definitely should not eat all that pie.) But there it was, a $5 gigantic apple pie staring me in the face. That was just the beginning.
It made me think of my mother’s Thanksgiving pies. My mom worked full time and raised us. Sometimes, she worked two jobs. She started cooking for Thanksgiving days ahead of time. Really, she had to, there was no such thing as gigantic ready-made pies back then, though you could probably buy expensive ready-made pies at a bakery, I suppose. She didn’t shop at bakeries. We weren’t bakery or specialty store kind of people. She didn’t have that much money.
Pies were a special thing for her. I remember her making the balls of dough and covering them with the cloth, and then rolling them out. I would help her with that part, then she would place them in the glass pie dishes and fit them in and pour in the fillings and cover them. She was not into lattice pies, so a whole covering would go on top, and it was my job to seal the sides, press down the edges with a fork, and then with a knife, make the cuts on top to let the steam escape. She made apple and pumpkin pies (easy peasy with the canned pie fillings), pecan pies (the filling made from scratch, oh, that Karo syrup!), and rhubarb and mincemeat pies. She grew her own rhubarb, so there was always some left for Thanksgiving. The mincemeat pie—I think she had that all to herself!
There was also no packaged dressing in our house. She prepared many pans of cornbread, and I or my brother or sister cooked and then chopped the giblets, boiled eggs and celery and onions for that. The rest of the meal was all my mom’s to prepare. I do not know how she did it. Any older brothers and sisters in town came over with their families. (Not all were in town at any given time.)
It was quite an event. But behind all the hustle and bustle was a real thankfulness for what we had. My mother really believed that God was watching over her and had provided for her and her family, through many very, very tough times. We went to church the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and for all I know, maybe the church helped provide some of that Thanksgiving dinner a couple of those years. She never would have told us. We sang "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come" and "We Gather Together to Ask the Lord's Blessing." And we were thankful people.
After I left home, I would return to my mom’s for Thanksgiving until I moved away from Austin. I was not the cook that she was, but I tried. She sent me the recipes, and, somewhere, tucked away in an old cookbook, is my mother’s recipe for cornbread stuffing written down in long hand. But my little family didn’t care for some of the recipes, and it’s hard to make it just for one’s self. And, not to be sexist at all, but I didn’t have a daughter to pass on the recipes to. My son honestly was not too interested.
These years, I long for those old Thanksgiving dinners. I can see the faces now gone—my mother, brothers Jackie, Bill and Don, sisters-in-law Rose, Linda and Ginger, and many others--and I would give anything and everything to have that circle unbroken and share those meals again. That is the real reason that people are packing up and getting on trains, planes, and automobiles.
My years in the Air Force gave me several interesting Thanksgivings.
When I was stationed in Turkey, my son and I visited my future husband in Adana in southern Turkey where the big Incirlik Air Base is located. A frequent misconception is that Incirlik is an American Air Base. We have Air Force people and equipment there, but it is actually a Turkish Air Base. Although I was an Air Force officer, I could not enter the base because I was not there on any kind of official orders. My fiance Kemal could enter, because he worked there, but he could not use any of the facilities, like the commissary, which had the food and groceries.
My plan while in Adana was to prepare an American style Thanksgiving dinner for my son and my sweetheart—surely, I wanted to impress him with my culinary skills! We managed to get just about everything we needed on the local economy except for celery. There were a few concessions: rice instead of sweet potatoes, I think, but the one ingredient I needed for several dishes was celery.
Celery is not sold in Turkey. They don’t eat it, they don’t use it, they don’t
have it. We looked everywhere. But it was available at the commissary on the Air Base. The same Air Base that I couldn’t enter (although I was an Air Force officer) at the same commissary where Kemal couldn’t shop (although he worked on the Air Base). Finally, through a Turkish friend who contacted an American civilian friend who worked there and had shopping privileges, we obtained our bunch (or stalk—I recently found out that it means the same thing) of celery! So, the dressing and the stuffed celery accompanied our meal. I am trusting that our secret is safe with you. I would not want our friends to get into trouble for buying that bunch of celery for us 35 years ago!
When I was stationed in Korea, I could not go home for Thanksgiving. So, I had Thanksgiving dinner at the Dragon Hill Lodge, a beautiful lodging facility in the heart of Seoul. At the time, it was owned by the U.S. Army, which ran the U.S. Army Garrison called Yongsan (Dragon Hill), home of the U.S. Forces Korea and the United Nations Command. Military and civilian employees coming into and departing country stayed at the Dragon Hill for up to 30 days as they were looking for a residence or clearing for departure.
The five-star restaurant featured a sumptuous buffet for Thanksgiving, complete with ice carvings and many dishes that you normally could not find at a traditional American Thanksgiving table—scrimp, scallops, sushi, gourmet beef and chicken dishes. It was a meal really fit for royalty, and an unlikely treat for a lonely Air Force officer far from home. But one that I will always remember.
Thanksgiving does have a way of sneaking up on us and then it’s gone. Its significance has been eclipsed by Black Friday and the headlong rush towards Christmas. Maybe it is good for us to have this altered version this year. The traveling folks are looking for normalcy (I hope that’s all they find), hanging their hopes on a day that, in other times, helps form our bittersweet and heartfelt memories of a lifetime.
For all of you, whether you are outnumbered by your pets, living somewhere on the other side of the world, or you are huddled with your family, may you have a happy, blessed and safe Thanksgiving.
Come, ye thankful people, come. Here's a Thanksgiving medley for you.