Turkey was not a Thanksgiving tradition during my early childhood. A roasted hen served our small family quite well. We didn’t spend Thanksgiving with either grandmother although we all lived in the same town. Since my brothers and I didn’t grow up with the family reunion kind of Thanksgiving, we didn’t miss it. Our family dined in elegant simplicity, setting the gate-leg dining table in the living room with a linen table cloth, china, and crystal stemware. I actually enjoyed washing the once-a-year dishes after our dinner. Crisply browned chicken skin, fruit salad and black olives were my favorite parts of the holiday meal.
After my mother’s death, Aunt Dutie invited our family to join theirs for Thanksgiving. Aunt Dutie had seven children, baked everything from scratch, and set a plentiful table despite Uncle Grump’s relatively small salary. Children were not welcomed in Aunt Dutie’s kitchen. No chance to snitch a piece of turkey skin before dinner. What a disappointment when the platter of turkey was passed around—dry white meat with not one scrap of browned skin. Where did Aunt Dutie put the good stuff? And no olives—they would have been an extravagance for that many diners. Instead of my mother’s fruit salad made with marshmallows and thickened juice folded into the whipped cream dressing, Aunt Dutie served red Jello with fruit cocktail and bananas. At least the mashed potatoes and gravy were familiar. I took a second helping of mashed potatoes, poured gravy over the top, took a big mouthful, and nearly gagged. The bowl contained mashed parsnips, not potatoes. That Thanksgiving was not the same as our mother’s, but it was definitely better than what our dad would have served up. We were grateful for Aunt Dutie’s invitation each year.
When my dad remarried, we spent Thanksgiving with my step-grandmother—a white-haired, storybook grandmother who loved feeding her gathered family—even when it grew to more than 30 members and strained the seams of her house. Male relatives created a table stretching across the entire living room while the women cooked vats of food. We were crammed shoulder to shoulder, but everyone had a place at the table. Grandma had beautiful dishes in her china cupboard, but Thanksgiving was not the occasion for their use.
This year our own nuclear family has grown to 16 members and they will all be coming for Thanksgiving. Like Grandma, I won’t be using good china. The dishwasher is hard on gold rimmed plates and I don’t have a set of 16 of anything. We will enjoy our Thanksgiving feast using turkey-themed paper plates, napkins and tablecloths. Not traditional, not environmental, but nobody wants to spend unnecessary time in the kitchen when we’re all together.