First, here’s a test to see how old you are. Quick, what does the date November 22 bring to mind? If you don’t know immediately, if you have to think about it before you come up with an answer, the chances are that you are less than 50 years old. If you know the answer immediately and can tell me what you were doing when you found out that President Kennedy had been killed, then you are probably closer to my age.
I was in P.E. class but we were sitting in the auditorium because they were decorating the gym for the Homecoming dance. They never had the dance that year. I could bore you with a lot of trivia, more than average because Dallas was my hometown, after all, and I saw a lot of things first hand. But the thing that stands out in my memory that probably says the most about that day is the bus ride home that day. It’s funny the details you remember. You can imagine what a bus full of high school kids usually sounds like, especially on a Friday. But that day in 1963 there was not one word spoken. It was the strangest silence I’ve ever experienced.
OK, now that I’ve outed myself for being old, let’s move on to lighter topics. I’m ready for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays because it highlights one of my true talents. I’m a damned good cook. A talent I need like a hole in the head.
I come from people who do Thanksgiving big. Since my birthday is on the 26th, my birthday falls on Thanksgiving Day every seven years or so. I can remember when I was a kid it seemed like we would have the biggest family dinner of the year on my birthday—all the aunts, uncles and cousins along with my grandparents would gather and my mother or one of the aunts would cook a huge turkey dinner with desserts all over the place. It wasn’t until years later I realized this was the family Thanksgiving dinner, not my own personal birthday celebration. I think this may have been a major contributor to my self-esteem all those years to think the meal was all for me. I always knew in my heart that I was worthy of a meal that none of the other cousins got for their birthday.
On Beaven’s side, his great-grandmother worked as a cook when she arrived from Germany and his family owned a wholesale bakery for about 40 years. For special occasions, his Daddy would sometimes wrap a ham in rye bread dough and put it in the revolving commercial oven next to a zillion loaves of bread. The bread would come in and out but the ham stayed for the whole day. This would slow cook the ham while creating a hard crust on the outside that held in all the juices. We could tear off pieces of the rye bread and it would have soaked up ham juices while still maintaining a crusty outer shell. I’m not sure anyone really cared about the ham because the crust was so good.
I’ve been blessed with women in my life who did justice to any meal and taught me their techniques. My stepmother taught me to make dressing by showing me how she and her best friend did it. It was a wonderful sight to watch them joke and taste and bump into each other in the kitchen. They insisted the most important part of dressing was to keep tasting it while they went along. They could take an hour to taste, talk and tinker with the dish, adding a spice here and there. The main ingredient in their dressing, however, was laughter. I think Lois and Martha taught me more about friendship than how to make dressing.
Blanche, my mother-in-law, taught me to make the perfect gravy. Now that I think of it, it was probably her own mother-in-law who taught her. But cooking the Thanksgiving dinner was one time of the year when Blanche just glowed. Wait, that may have been the hot flashes. Never mind.
What have my daughters learned? Not a damned thing. Nobody cooks anymore. Well, not much. I’m not sure how much they have soaked up watching me all these years. At least, not about gravy or dressing. But they do know the most important part of Thanksgiving Day: how to make a decent pecan pie.
The secret is to ignore any instructions about how many pecans you use. Just fill the pie shell with pecans first then add the filling. That way you know you have enough pecans. You can never have too many pecans. You'll have filling left over but which would you rather eat, the pecans or the filling? That’s why they call it PECAN pie. If there’s anything I hate it’s a wimpy pecan pie. I developed this trick myself, thank you, after inheriting my Grandmother Stuart’s basic recipe years ago. She was known in Lancaster, Texas as “the pecan pie lady.” I told you, I come from good stock.
Thanksgiving Day is a day for pies. And when the ETC Family (Els Thomas Carrell) gathers together for Thanksgiving we do pies. First, there’s Grandmother Stuart’s pecan pie, then Beaven wants a pumpkin. Emily insists on her mother-in-law’s cherry pie and Steve always wants some weird pie he grew up eating in Ohio. Some years Elizabeth will request apple pie. One year we counted up after everyone submitted their requests and found we had as many pies as people at the table. Since then we have called Thanksgiving our “A Pie Apiece” meal.
I have to close now and go cook some more. If you would like my recipe for foolproof turkey, go to the blog archives to the November 2005 entry called “Tom.”