Thursday, November 10, 2005

Thanksgiving at Gram's

November brings thoughts of Thanksgiving Day, and I have many memories I'd love to share across the kitchen table. If possible, I should do this before my table becomes laden with food for that special day. I'd like to begin by sharing this reminiscence of my childhood Thanksgivings at my grandmother's New England farmhouse.


It wasn’t a large group that gathered at the farm for Thanksgiving, although ours was a big family. All of Gram’s six children were married, with families of their own, so it was understandable that not everyone could manage to come at the same time. Usually, about eight or ten adults and teenagers were seated around the dining room table, while five or six younger children ate in the kitchen. It was a very big deal when one was considered old enough to eat in the dining room.

Gram’s dining room was a magical place, even on ordinary days. Creamy-smooth painted wainscoting ran halfway up the walls, where it met a pale wallpaper patterned in clear, bright colors. At the far end of the room were dark built-in cupboards that held plates and serving dishes, and a maple sideboard containing the good silver and the table linens. In one wall were two large sunny windows; in the other, one small window which opened -- amazingly! -- into the pantry. No simple pass-through, this was a real window, with glass in it. As a child, I found that window endlessly fascinating, and I always wanted to see it actually being used.

But the most enchanting thing about the dining room was the corner cupboard that held Gram’s pitcher collection. I could stand in front of that glassed-in cupboard for hours and still not see everything. There were animal-shaped pitchers, like an orange-and-black striped tiger and a lifelike moose head. There were brightly painted Toby jugs and other pitchers made to look like people. There were small, shiny copper pitchers. In fact, her collection included almost every kind of pitcher imaginable. The ones that delighted me most were the miniatures. Some were no bigger than my fingernail, and they were beautifully detailed, painted with tiny flowers, rimmed with gold.

On Thanksgiving Day, the dining room assumed an even greater splendor. The table was extended to its full length and spread with a snowy linen cloth. It was set with Gram’s best dishes -- white with a graceful design of trailing green ivy. The serving dishes were of the same pattern. At each end of the table stood a butter dish and salt and pepper shakers, all of clear glass in a bumpy hobnail design.

And the food! Even before the meal was ready, nibbling was encouraged. The sideboard was covered with a tempting array of pretty little dishes, filled with mixed nuts, chocolates, homemade fudge and divinity, and Grammie Wallace’s famous stuffed dates. For those not inclined to nibble on sweets, cheese and crackers were available. My favorite was sage cheese -- an extra sharp Vermont cheddar, with aromatic sage marbled throughout it.

Even with all the snacking, everyone managed to do the Thanksgiving dinner full justice. In fact, the only sounds during the meal were the clink of forks against china, and the occasional murmur of conversation. Gram prepared and served all the food herself, and never sat down until everything was on the table. There was turkey, of course, with mounds of moist bread stuffing, redolent of Bell’s Seasoning, and Gram’s incomparable dark brown gravy. There were vegetables -- white, fluffy mashed potatoes, well-peppered golden winter squash, boiled onions, and tender green peas. There was cranberry sauce, both the jellied and the whole-berry types, both referred to by Gram as “cranberry jelly”, and often there was cranberry-orange relish as well. Always, there was a huge tossed salad with Gram’s favorite, Wish-Bone Italian dressing. There were home-baked rolls that exuded a marvelous, yeasty aroma. And sometimes, in keeping with Gram’s love affair with convenience foods (understand this was a lady who once cooked in lumber camps, and you’ll know why) there were Pillsbury butterflake rolls! What fun it was to pull them apart and eat them layer by layer -- at least, it was fun unless my dad happened to notice, at which time I would be scolded for playing with my food. (There were some benefits to being relegated to the little kids’ table in the kitchen!)

After all this, the desserts were a bit of an anticlimax: apple, custard, and pumpkin pies, and hot, sweet Indian pudding that never tasted quite as wonderful as it smelled.

Even after consuming all that food, most of us were not uncomfortably full. (My cousin Kevin was the exception. He invariably ended up on the living room couch clutching his stomach.) And, as everyone rallied around to clear the table and help with the dishes, there seemed to be a spirit of family closeness and good will that was rarely felt at any other time. Maybe -- just maybe -- the magic of Thanksgiving at Gram’s worked on grownups just as well as it did on children!