Turkey-less Thanksgiving in the ‘30s
At our one-room rural school in mid-November, our Halloween wiener roast was a fading memory, and the window decorations of black cats and pumpkins had been removed. “It will be a long time before Christmas,” I thought.
The doldrums between holidays soon ended though when Miss Cecil announced, “This week we will study about the first Thanksgiving feast. But first, let’s sing ‘Over the River and Through the Woods.’ It’s in your songbook.”
Our voices soon chimed in all the way through the final verse: “Over the river and through the woods, Now Grandmother’s cap I spy, Hooray for the fun, is the pudding done, Hooray for the pumpkin pie!”
I could hardly wait until Friday afternoon when the last period was devoted to an art project. I loved coloring turkeys and Indians and cutting out shapes of Pilgrim men with top hats, and women with big white collars over dark gray dresses. One of the fathers had sent in ears of corn with red and purple kernels. We pulled back their shucks and braided them to hang up for decorations.
Each day, the holiday mood continued. We talked about how the Pilgrims, near starvation, had learned from the Indians how to plant corn. We also learned that Governor Bradford had declared a three-day feast the following year for prayer and thanksgiving. And we talked about the wild turkeys the Pilgrims and Indians had eaten in their feast. “So that is why we always celebrate Thanksgiving with roast turkey,” our teacher concluded. “How many of you have turkey for Thanksgiving dinner?”
Her question drew a blank. No one raised a hand. In fact, I had never seen an actual turkey. One by one, each of us answered that we always had roast chicken or freshly butchered pork. I felt a little cheated that we had no turkeys. Our teacher lived on a cattle ranch two counties away and perhaps did not know about turkeys either. She asked, “Why don’t your parents raise turkeys the same as chickens?”
An older pupil said, “Turkeys are too hard to raise.”
“And why is that when you can raise chickens?” asked Miss Cecil.
“They are just too dumb,” Herschel volunteered. “Mamma told us they won’t let you shoo them back to the coop when it starts to rain, and when they get wet they drown easier.” Mamma had told us about a neighbor who had lost 50 turkeys in a rain and hail storm. She said they need special attention, and most farmers don’t have the time or space. “Anyway,” she concluded, “Chickens are just as good!”
At Sunday school, we knew we would be listing three things we were thankful for. And, at home, Daddy said, “This year we will buy cranberries and a stock of celery from the store. And, Mamma will roast a couple roosters and bake her special pies!”
All day Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, Mamma and Daddy worked together. Daddy brought in a big crookneck squash which he peeled, cut, and steamed for Mamma’s famous squash pie. He churned fresh butter while Mamma baked three pies, a batch of bread, and two pans of rolls for the special dinner.
Daddy caught two of the Capon roosters, and with one swift chop of his ax, he severed their heads as they lay motionless on his chopping block. (Mamma preferred cutting off their heads while their feet were fastened to the clothesline. She said it was cleaner and more humane than letting them flop on the ground and bruise their flesh.)
Next, Mamma dipped the birds, neck first, into a bucket of scalding water, then picked the feathers. In the house, she twisted one end of some newspapers to form a handle. It looked like she was holding a bouquet of paper when she removed the stove lid, allowed the paper to catch fire, then swiftly held it under each bird to singe the hair left on the skin after the feathers had been removed. Burning hair smelled just like burning hair! Not good! While washing the birds thoroughly, she removed any remaining pin feathers. I think she liked pressing at the end to see them pop out.
Mamma made quick work of cutting off the long necks, and drawing the innards. After cutting a hole below the breastbone near the tail, she pushed three fingers inside to reach the furthest part and gently pull. Everything came out clean. She carefully cut the green gall bladder away from the liver, making sure not to cut the bitter bile sack. She held the gizzard in her hand and cut about half way around the circle, being careful to cut only as far as the inner lining, and peel out the tough crinkly sack inside so the sand and grit did not spill out – like taking the stone from the center of a fresh peach.
Daddy snuggled close while Mamma sliced the liver, dredged it in flour, and fried it in the egg skillet. He knew we kids didn’t like liver, but he did! The necks, gizzard and hearts were then cooked slowly with a quartered onion to make delicious stock for next day’s dressing.
Mamma let me measure three cups of dried corn, and add two cups of water to soak and slowly warm on the back of the range, to reconstitute for the next day’s creamed corn. The unusual flavor of dried corn was my favorite vegetable.
When Mamma cooked the cranberries with water and sugar, we all watched until every berry popped. She poured it into her special cut glass pedestal bowl. Next morning, after the usual morning chores and breakfast for eight people, the whole family pitched in to complete the dinner.
Mamma put the chickens in the roaster to brown while she mixed the dressing. She had saved a big bowl of dry bread chunks to which she added the stock, cut-up giblets, onions, chopped celery tops, and sage seasoning. Her dressing was extra moist, actually a bit soupy, which she spooned inside the already heated bird cavities – over and around the sides, nearly filling the roasting pan. Every half hour, she basted the bird by scooping up the hot dressing to cover the birds again, her way of keeping the meat moist, as well as permeating it with the seasoning.
One of my jobs was to bring from the cellar a big jar of green beans, a jar of pickled beets, a jar of bread and butter pickles, and a jar of dill pickles. (Daddy wanted the pickles served unsliced so he got a good squirt of juice when he bit into one!) I also was the potato peeler this day and every day!
Herschel carried in water, filled the wood box, and helped Daddy stretch out the kitchen table by adding more leaves. Camilla spread the freshly ironed white linen tablecloth and set the cranberry bowl in the middle, creating a sparkling centerpiece. Around this she placed the dishes of pickles and a ‘celery boat’ full of long celery sticks. Camilla was also trusted with the salt cellars – two-inch cubes of glass, each with a small hole in the middle to be filled with a teaspoon of salt. She placed one by each plate for dipping the celery. (We used them in summer for green onions and radishes.)
Grandma Warren had given Mamma a serving bowl and a set of glass plates made of pinkish-orange “depression glass” which Mamma used for special occasions. Otherwise, our odds and ends of chipped plates and serving dishes did not match.
Harold took charge of shredding a head of cabbage for coleslaw. He didn’t use Mamma’s method of making paper thin slices with a sharp knife on a cutting board. Instead, because he liked mechanics, he went to the storeroom and got out the wooden frame embedded with a sharp blade used to shred cabbage when we made sauerkraut.
Meanwhile, I helped make the dressing for the slaw, mixing heavy sour cream with vinegar, sugar, and salt. I had become a ‘pro’ at this and remember to this day to stir the sauce with the cabbage until it gets light and frothy. We served that in the one pretty bowl that matched the plates.
We heard Uncle Ed’s car drive in with our cousins, Maxine and Margret, and Mamma hurriedly changed her apron. “Sure smells good in here!” Uncle Ed said as he peeked in the oven and lifted lids on the pans. “I could tell I had come to the right place as soon as I turned in off the road!” He snatched a bite of chicken wing and gave each of us a hug.
Harold drained the potatoes, saving the water for Mamma to use in the gravy. After he mashed the potatoes, she added pure cream which she also added to the dried corn.
Then, Mamma carved the roasted chickens, filling two platters. She quickly made the gravy right in the roaster pan with all the drippings, and put the finishing touches on everything. She knew how to manage, by lining up the three crockery bowls on the back of the stove. The largest was heaped with mashed potatoes, and the other two held the dressing and gravy. All the side dishes were kept warm either on the stove or in the warming ovens.
We all gathered around the table, with baby Glenda in the high chair. Mamma barely had time to sit down long enough to say the blessing. As we ate, we listened to Daddy and his brother reminisce about their younger days. Uncle Ed recalled how their brother John was the best shot and always brought in prairie chickens or grouse. “Ma would gladly cook them!” he recalled.
“Yes, but remember the time we shot a bunch of squirrels?” asked Daddy. “We skinned them and cut off the hind quarters for her to cook, but she would have none of it! Blanche [their sister] finally fried up a mess, and we sat there and ate them like popcorn!” They both laughed.
When it was time for dessert, Harold whipped a bowl of heavy cream for topping. This was delicious when scooped onto Mamma’s squash pies!
Thanksgiving was indeed a time to celebrate all that we had. Our stomachs were full, and our house was filled with wonderful aromas. But, most of all, we enjoyed being together!
Learning from Sample 10
It’s your turn: What are the elements of style and craft that Phyllis used to make this essay so compelling?