I don’t come from a big family, so there was no trouble fitting around the dining room table on holidays. Thanksgiving dinner included just my parents, maternal grandparents and me and an occasional relative or two.
Even so, the day was heralded with great pageantry, or as much as we could muster in a row house with a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet and an oven barely large enough for a baking dish. I always said I didn’t learn to cook as a child, because our kitchen wasn’t big enough for more than one person, though, in truth my interest ran more to baseball and books than food preparation.
Most women in our neighborhood, including my mother, had roaster ovens, (“Thanksgiving 1950’s Style”) that provided additional cooking space and the perfect fit for a holiday turkey or weekend ham. Despite the space handicap, my mother always delivered an iconic and memorable meal, single-handedly and from scratch.
Like Christmas, Thanksgiving was a day that called for using the accumulated finery that working people stored away for such occasions. One of my assignments was to set the table with a full array of silver, china and crystal. I’d begin by pulling the thick, folding pad from beneath the buffet and positioning it onto the mahogany dining table. Mama had already ironed the white linen tablecloth and napkins, a task too delicate to be entrusted to me.
This being a special occasion meant we’d be drinking from the crystal glassware rather than the multi-colored set of aluminum tumblers we used every day. I’d retrieve each piece from the glass-front china cabinet, where fine items were kept on year-round display. I loved the way the fragile stems felt as I rotated each in my hand and the ringing sound the glass made when tapped with a spoon.
From the kitchen, Mama would invariably call out a warning for me to be more cautious handling such costly stemware, which, she reminded me, would be mine someday to set my own Thanksgiving table. At the time, I couldn’t envision ever celebrating Thanksgiving without Mama in the kitchen. No way would I ever go one-on-one with a dead bird, running my arm into its icy cavity to fetch parts and pieces for giblet gravy. Yuck!
Pushing those thoughts aside, I’d count out the Noritake china plates. I’d remove the sterling silverware from its cloth-lined, wooden chest, check it for any signs of tarnish, and polish each piece until it gleamed. The pattern was Reed and Barton’s Fragrance and over the years my mother added to it piece-by-piece until she had eight place settings.
As the noon hour approached, without being told, I’d don my church-going clothes and my father and grandfather would put aside their usual work attire for a tie, well-starched shirt and cardigan. They looked like Mr. Rogers long before he ever had a television show. Ours was a holiday table as Rockwellian as it gets.
The last dish from the oven was always spoon bread, a puffy, eggy, cornmeal and flour mixture that melted in your mouth and served only on holidays. After Mama’s death, I found the recipe among her many cookbooks and kitchen notes. The handwritten card was yellowed with age and stains of batter dropped during those meals of yesteryear. I have tried to replicate the dish, but no matter how hard I try my spoon bread never matches my memories.
In recent years, I’ve discovered why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday despite the hours of preparation and cleanup. I like to think that Thanksgiving is in my DNA. An ancestor was among those recently unearthed by archaeologists at Jamestown and was likely around during that first feast with Native Americans, a few of whom would also join our family tree.
Four hundred years later, our family will celebrate Thanksgiving joined by friends, some from Central and South America, Germany, and India. We’ll use colorful paper napkins, stainless steel utensils, large plastic cups, and oversized, ironstone plates. The faces, menu and kitchen may have changed over the years, but the gathering of thankful hearts will be the same.
Sorry, Mama, but the Noritake and the Reed and Barton are packed away—somewhere.