Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving! (really, really long)

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of all.  I love that the day is only about giving thanks and not giving gifts.  And how can you not be a fan of a day where the main objective is to eat to celebrate the things you are thankful for? I love to eat, but really I love to cook more.

I especially love cooking Thanksgiving food.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  One reason is, it's a pretty standard/traditional meal.  No one needs or expects a lot of experimentation on Turkey Day.  For the same reason breakfast is my favorite meal to cook, people are happy to get a hearty, comforting meal- something that no matter where on earth you may be (for instance, Guam) the food feels like home.  Today was no exception- this was the first pot luck/organized meal I've been too in Guam where there was no rice.  The second reason, is even closer to my heart.  Whenever I cook Thanksgiving dinner, I cannot help but feel connected to the roots of my family tree.

I come from a rather large, rambunctious Southern family.  We mostly love each other in a Pat Conroy novel kind of way.  Some of my fondest memories growing up are of times I spent with my cousins and grandparents on The Farm or at the beach.

The first Thanksgiving after my Grandfather died was miserable. O'Peg (my grandmother), wasn't up for having Thanksgiving at The Farm, so we went to The Piccadilly (except I think it may have actually been Morrison's back then- we're talking 1985ish).  Don't get me wrong, I love me some Piccadilly, but not on Thanksgiving (see previous paragraph about food feeling like home, it doesn't feel like home when served by ladies in hair nets).  The next day we headed to our beach house in Alabama.  It was a nice long weekend and O'Peg decided, that's where we would spend Thanksgiving the next year (you know, as I'm writing this, I'm not sure if I have my dates right and if we started our annual trip the year after Grandfather died or a few years later after the beach house was rebuilt post-hurricane).  Anyway, a tradition was born and we began celebrating Thanksgiving on a tiny island off the coast of Alabama.

It was always the holiday I looked forward to the most.  We would usually arrive late Tuesday night after a long drive from Texas.  Wednesday night one of the second cousins would have everyone to their house for dinner and a rousing game of Trivial Pursuit.  As the evening wore on and more drinks were consumed the answers became louder and more often than not at some point there would be dancing.  We would all stumble home late, the children exhausted, the adults tipsy.

Because my mom was single, our little family of 3 always got to stay at O'Peg's house (everyone else was scattered in other houses down the beach).  We would get back to O'Peg's in time to start preparing for the next day's festivities.  She and I would get the turkey ready (we cooked it in a way that was wonderfully easy, but no longer allowed in my house thanks to my husband's ridiculous knowledge of food borne disease) and make cornbread to use in the dressing.  We'd finish around midnight.

Thanksgiving Day, everyone kind of stayed at their own house working on their contribution to lunch.  At O'Peg's, we would make the cornbread dressing- to this day, I know the exact page in River Roads Recipe II   (p. 155) that she would use as her guide, but she mainly just used her taste buds, not measuring cups or spoons to get it just right.  My Aunt Jon always made her special Oysters Redneck Riviera.  At noon, every one would start to gather, not to eat, but for The Turkey Bowl.  It was our annual football game.  The Young Punks  would take on the Old Farts, and no matter who won or lost, someone always cried foul,  someone would always accuse someone of cheating.  O'Peg would usually "determine" the winner by hearing the "score" and deciding it was time to eat and she would call the game.  While the game raged on (and trust me with the way the men in my family carry things deep and let their emotions and feelings out on the field- rage is a good word for it), several of us would be setting the tables and getting ready to feed a crowd.  I think our smallest year there were only about 24 of us, our largest year I think there were around 52 of us.

Although O'Peg would call the game for lunch, show time for food was 2:00.  Everyone would arrive at the house with food and family in tow.  The minutes before we ate were always my favorite.  It was like tuning up and starting a symphony.  O'Peg and Aunt Jon were the conductors.  They would direct when the food came out, where it would be placed.  It was beautifully organized chaos.  We always had an amazing amount of food everything from turkey to Spinach Madeline, Cuban pork to LeSeur Peas, creamed brussel sprouts, squash and green bean casseroles- the list would go on and on.  Once all the food was arranged and the family (I'm talking cousins, second cousins, great aunts, random people we brought with us) assembled, we would all go out on the deck, gather in a large circle hold hands and say grace and then each one of us would say one thing we were thankful for.  The little kids always said something funny like "turkey", the tweens would always say something generic like "family" then there were the more creative who would usually say something long and silly and would of course be repeated forever, "Remember when so and so said such and such- ha ha ha ha ha."  Finally, we could eat!  And the food as always was amazing.  We would sit and talk and catch up and laugh.  The house would literally shake with laughter.  There were several years, after losing someone very special to us all, when there were tears, but mostly it was loud and full of laughs.

Somehow, on Friday we still had room for more food.  So we would have bonfire and roast hot dogs and marshmallows.  We told stories.  One year, after a trip to an Indian burial ground, all the women stood up and we did a "tribal" dance around the fire.  More hilarity ensued.

It was the best weekend of the year.  Being on an island, surrounded by family, laughing a lot, eating more.  But O'Peg was central to it all.  She was the driving force behind the weekend.  She died in 2001.   I don't remember if we had Thanksgiving at the beach that year.  But we did do it one last time in 2002- almost as a memorial to her and the end of a wonderful tradition.  So many of us had grown up, moved even further away, gotten busy with life and new jobs or new babies and it was just hard to take 5 days off to go to the beach.  And then came 2005, the year of Katrina.  She destroyed the house and then a few months later my aunt's house was destroyed by a fire.  I mourned for those houses like I had lost a family member.  We tried to all get together again at my cousin's house (not at the beach) that year, but it wasn't the same.

Last year, my Aunt Jon started the tradition up, but in a new location- New Orleans.  And it was a great success.  It wasn't a beach trip, but it was great to get back and cook and catch up.  It was a little bittersweet because it was Price's first Thanksgiving and Don was deployed, but it was nice to be surrounded by family.

So last night and today, as I cooked and used O'Peg's River Road Recipes II, I couldn't help (as I always do) but think of my family and how much I love them and am thankful for them and how they (without even knowing) have helped shaped me into the person I am today.  A person who is happiest cooking for a house full of loud, laughing people, eating good food, telling stories and just enjoying the day and all the many, many blessings in life.

And while we are just about wrapping up Thanksgiving Day here in Guam, my family is getting ready to celebrate in New Orleans and various locations around the world (we're all kind of scattered this year- Australia, Guam, Ecuador, TEXAS, California, Missouri).    I hope all of you who read this have a wonderful Thanksgiving.  I hope you have family or a family of friends to celebrate with and I hope you can find lots of things to be thankful for.  Happy Thanksgiving!


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