Writing in the Raw: Tradition

this essay is mostly a re-post from last year, with minor up-date editing.

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When I was growing up my Dad was in the Air Force; we moved around… a Lot. Most holidays it was just us, no extended family. I guess in some way to make up for this perceived lack, Mama and Daddy always had ‘orphans’ for the holidays: cadets who couldn’t get home, officers just posted to the base whose family hadn’t yet arrived, young wives whose husbands were overseas and later stranded college kids my sibs brought home.

    Mama always put on quite the  feast…we weren’t allowed anywhere near the kitchen for several days before each holiday. It became a running joke. “She’s doing this on purpose, you know” Dad would stage whisper several times, “Starving us so our appetites will be immense & we’ll declare whatever slop she dishes out as food of the gods.”

And oh, what a heavenly feast it was! Starting with the appetizers in the living room: olives, both black and green(stuffed with pimento to suck out & just the right size to wear on fingers :), peanuts honeyed and spanish, cashews, crackers and cheese, several kinds of pickles….and drinks, wine for the adults and fruit punch with little chunks of fruit for the kids.

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Then the table…with the Special Table Cloth, alternating squares of heavily embroidered white on white and finely woven lace, nicely starched and laid with the holiday china. pure white, elegant in its simplicity; and the silver and crystal … and groaning under the weight of the Rockwellian feast: a large turkey with giblet stuffing & gravy, ham covered in pineapple rings with a  clove/cinnamon/brown sugar glaze; large bowls filled with vegetables: mashed potatoes, candied yams w/marshmallows, peas w/ onions, corn, french green bean casserole, broccoli casserole, macaroni & cheese, cranberry sauce and jelly, heaps of crescent rolls…

    And on the sideboard awaiting the winding down, loosen your belt time-the Desserts: pecan pie, apple pie, pumpkin pie, and devils food cake with buttercream frosting … ice cream & whipped cream for those who wanted it…coffee for everyone & brandy for the adults.

    And she did it all herself…from scratch.

    She’d looked so happy watching everyone eat… but utterly exhausted. To the point where she didn’t get to really enjoy the company and she’d collapse after everyone left. Just to reproduce in real time someone else’s idea of a perfect Thanksgiving. I thought (& still do) that’s ridiculous!

    Now, don’t get me wrong- I love tradition… but not just for traditions sake. So the thing I kept from my growing-up Thanksgiving was the orphans.

    The first year we were married the closest family at Thanksgiving was MrD’s Aunt Lillian & Uncle Tom. They had a seafood business which translated to seafood on the table. They did have a small turkey & all the trimmings, but there were many traditional items with a new nautical nature- oyster stuffing(!) And many new things I loved at first bite. I realized later that was a lean year at Uncle Tom’s, most years have only two seafood dishes, after all seafood is not special when you eat it daily.

    We decided after that, since neither of us truly enjoy turkey, we wouldn’t have it. Its our tradition (& I really think those Indians did too) to have a Seafood Extravaganza! I figure if I’m going to all the time, trouble, and expense of putting on a big, three course dinner, it’s going to be something I truly enjoy- seafood. We have only things that we like and the menu varies a bit from year to year depending on availability. Here’s how it usually goes at my house…

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    The day before is spent on making salads and dessert. Salads are homemade potato salad, fruit mess, and shrimp salad. All of these are made ahead, cause they taste better the next day. Of course extra is factored in ahead of time, to account for all the surreptitious ‘tasting’ that goes on. Dessert is my nod toward tradition … we call it ‘sand and seafoam’- alternating layers of pumpkin mousse and a cream cheese/brown sugar/sour cream blend served in tall beer glasses… you must eat it in two sessions it’s so rich!

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    On t-day the rest is assembled. Everyone helps to prepare the meal and the work usually winds up being done in the living room, everyone surrounded by bags and bowls. Any ‘orphans’ are given something to do & instructions…everybody pitches in. And of course music is on! And everyone chit-chats,  so it goes quickly & its nice to have extended time catching up with everyone. I’m hoping my son & his wife will again make sushi for our midmorning snack this year. (yumm)

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    We start in the morning fixing broccoli casserole and creamed corn… but mostly it’s all about the seafood… along with that shrimp salad~served in avocado halves, we have oyster pie and scallop pie, steamed crab legs, baked crab-stuffed flounder, oranged orange roughy, and crab cakes in pastry. The only truly traditional thing we have is canned cranberry jelly, and thats only if I remember to put it on the list. (my daughter says I always say I’m going to get cranberry jelly, but never do-lol) As each thing is cooked it goes on the counter, covered in tin foil.

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     When everything is done we change clothes, get freshened up, have a glass of wine. Then I cook what we eat for starters: oyster stew with those little bitty puffy saltines. Everyone goes to sit in the dining room, the table has been set with Mama’s second best cloth, the one with colourful embroidery (but I have been known to use a clean sheet), the ‘Sunday’ china and recently inherited silver. I serve the oyster stew and then the thing we do at my house instead of a blessing (I mean, which god do you pray to?) is to have everyone say what they’re thankful for this year while we eat our stew. Its been quite an experience hearing different takes on that, especially the changes over the years as my children grew.

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      When you finish your soup, you pick up your plate & bowl, take your bowl to the sink & then load up your plate from all the dishes on the counter. MrD puts on Alice’s Restaurant and then the feasting really begins. My son brings the bowl of crab legs to the table, as this and dessert is all he’ll eat at this seating.

Alice’s Restaurant Video!

   For the first time in many years I won’t be home for T-day. Both of my kids (& their SO’s) live at the coast now & their work schedules give them only Thursday off & also we are in the midst of remodeling our kitchen/dining room. Although I could get it together here, the kids suggested we go to there to celebrate. The ‘widows & orphans’ this year will be those my son & his wife have run across and one or two ‘regular orphans’. It makes for  lively conversation when you gather 6 or 8 people with no where to go on holidays!

    For me, it’s all about the time spent with the people I love, enjoying being together, and making sure those we know are not alone. We could be making pancakes & it’d be cool with me…the kids could call on Thursday morning saying they’ll be late & O mom, BTW I’m bringing 6 extra people & it’d be fine… hell, I’ve had ‘regular orphans’ show up with extra people- it’s not a problem! We eat when it’s all ready and serve whoever shows up. We really enjoy our untraditional Thanksgiving, it has become our tradition, and for some of our ‘orphans’ too!

I recently saw last year some show on TV about Thanksgiving and its ‘traditions’ in this nation of immigrants. Meteor Blades recently mentioned this phenomena also. Different families from varying ethnicities were visited, film was shot of many, many Thanksgiving tables. What struck me was how in many homes favorite ethnic ‘feast’ dishes were prepared and a turkey.

Black beans & rice, platanos, and a turkey.

Three-day-to-prepare marinera, pasta bird nests, garlic bread, stuffed grape leaves, and a turkey.

Egg drop soup, Lo Mein, eggrolls, and a turkey.

All the varied cultures and peoples of our country, united over food.

I think turkey or no turkey, pilgrims, indians, or whatever way you & your ancestors came here…Thanksgiving is a good day to unite over food…to pause and reflect…take stock of the little things…to be thankful of all we have…and tell others how much we appreciate them.

   So tell me about your Ideal Thanksgiving…maybe not the one you go to, or even the one you had growing up… but what does your Dream Thanksgiving consist of?


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  1. Actually reading about your traditions & its evolution was great.

    I sure like the “sand and seafoam”.

    You put up a really wonderful table. I`ll dream about it.

    • OPOL on November 28, 2008 at 04:32

    Thank you and happy Thanksgiving.  🙂

    • nocatz on November 28, 2008 at 04:40

    only yesterday.

    I had salmon today.

    For no particular reason….here’s Jimmy Vaughan from the soundtrack to the film classic From Dusk Til Dawn

  2. So the “Writing In The Raw” thing is still happening, eh?


    I actually remember this one from last year, and glad to see it again.  A few weeks before I wrote about my best friend in Shamrocks At Your Doorway

    Glad to see WITR is still happening here, and I just wrote one of my own about my grandma and grandpa right here a few minutes ago….

  3. For the first time in years, I didn’t cook (well, huevos rancheros for breakfast, but that doesn’t count).

    However, a coworker had told me days ago that she always brings food to whoever is stuck working on Thanksgiving.  So: some pork, some turkey, yellow arroz con gandules, potato salad, mac ‘n’ cheese, pumpkin pie.

    When I cook, it’s roast duckling, stuffed, with giblet gravy; brussels sprouts sauteed in some of the duck fat; Cope’s corn casserole; homemade cranberry sauce; another something green; and creamed onions w/a bit of freshly grated nutmeg. Roasted pecan butter pecan pie for dessert.  One year–this was my biggest dinner party (12 people) ever–I did a goose instead of duckling (same technique; bigger bird) and just added more side dishes.  Luckily, I had friends two flights upstairs who were coming to dinner, and let me “borrow” their oven–’cause an apartment-size oven just ain’t big enough!

    Your feast sounds great.  Happy Seafood Day!

  4. for some of us, it’s our form of performance art 🙂 So that would be my ideal Thanksgiving, where I have a crowd of people over and I cook the feast and all the dishes are good.

    And there is at least one such T-day in my memory. I was able to get the family at my place when my first son 2 months old.My mom and sister helped but it was my production. The feast had a memorable interlude of our cats going after the turkey carcass in the kitchen and knocking over a fruit salad!

  5. looks beautiful. As the kitchen is gutted awaiting cabinets and stove etc., I was off the hook cooking wise. The family side I spent it with were the liberals, the tree hugging end. It was great and have to say my ideal feast Organic from the turkey to the dessert, huckleberry pie yum… pot luck so no one person had to do it all. I brought the horde ours (no spell check for that one) and went nuts with fancy cheese, olives, dolmas, marinated mushrooms and giant white beans, it was fun to just go to our local gourmet Italian Deli and buy all the fun stuff I always look at but never purchase, guiltless. I guess I’m thankful I have no kitchen.

    The Rockwell picture you used takes me back to childhood Thanksgivings as my grandmother had the illustrations from the FDR freedoms hanging in her dinning room. She was an atrocious cook so I never used her Thanksgiving dinners as a tradition. For a lot of my adult life I was vegetarian and my tradition was a really good lentil, cheddar, nut and veggie loaf, along with a gravy made from the pan which was delicious. Thanks for sharing your table with us. I started drooling at the dessert picture..


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