Like many Americans, I spent the day of Thanksgiving feeling nostalgic for the customary family and food-filled celebration with my extended family and friends. It’s always been my favorite holiday – simple, straight-forward. People cook, people gather, people eat, drink, and enjoy the fellowship. It’s the one time when we organize a “foodathon” to appreciate the company of the loved ones and friends who populate our lives – and remember those who used to be a part of our celebrations. Food, as the sustenance of life that utilizes all of our senses, is a powerful vehicle for steering us down that memory lane.
Long-time readers may remember a previous post in which I explained how my family expects me to make the same chocolate pudding/pecan/whipped cream dessert every year for Thanksgiving. Knowing how much they look forward to it, I find reason enough to repeat it year after year (although I could blow their socks off with my dump cake). Before me, my maternal grandmother, Madeline, would bring it to our family celebration after she had retired her chief cook apron and applied herself to desserts. She called it “Angel Delight,” and in my recipe book, it is entitled “Madeline’s Angel Delight,” to be forever associated with her. (Can it be a coincidence that I recently found, among my grandmother’s things, a lock of hair in an envelope with my name on it and the additional words, “Angels Hair?”)
I suppose the dessert (not my angelhood) will be associated with me in the long run. Grandmother died in 1984, so our younger family members never knew her or her cooking. But whoever gets the credit, it brings me pleasure to prepare it (even the crust, which is kind of a pain), because it conjures up memories of being in her kitchen where she stood by the stove, always in 1-2 inch heels. She spent her working life in such shoes and she never gave her calf muscles an opportunity to adjust to flats or going barefoot.
Cooking and feeding others was one of her love languages, which I absorbed and learned at her knee where many of my young years were spent. Few places brought me more comfort than her kitchen as I watched her deftly frying chicken, my most favorite food as a kid. In those days, fried chicken was not easily acquired – there were no Kentucky Fried Chicken or Popeyes franchises, and many restaurants did not serve it. Generally, fried chicken was done at home. My mother disliked cooking in general, and chicken, in particular, so I had to wait for Dallas visits with Grandmother, who made it a point to prepare it for me.
My grandmother was not only a willing cook, but a very good cook in the Southern tradition. Her chicken and dumplings made your mouth start watering, even before they made it to the table! Some might say her green beans were too limp, but I learned to love them that way. (Certain people have insinuated that my green beans are over-cooked and limp. . . to which I say, Bah!) I will never understand barely-steamed green beans that crunch when you bite them and taste like chlorophyll! But I’ll always remember the sound as I snapped the long fresh beans into pieces as I helped in Grandmother’s kitchen, getting them ready for real cookin’.
These days, my sister, cousin, and I alternate the hosting of holiday get-togethers between the three of us. We try, in vain, to replicate the 40-year tradition of gathering at my aunt and uncle’s house on Thanksgiving. It was a rollicking affair with all of our family members and my uncle’s family, which outnumbered ours by about three to one. Just as soon as I learned all my uncle’s cousins’ names, they had hordes of offspring and I had to learn more, or, at least, remember to whom they belonged! While my aunt would make the turkey, dressing, gravy, and bread, she would coordinate with the rest of us to bring desserts, salads, and vegetables, usually the same ones year after year depending on their popularity, e.g., Angel Delight.
Now that my aunt has passed on, one of us often tries to make her dressing, which for us is the gold standard of what good cornbread dressing should be. Invariably, the resulting dressing will become a point of discussion. Did we get it right this time? What does it lack? Too much sage? Generally, however, the dressing appraisal boils down to a single factor: whether it’s too dry or not. Sad to say that those of us who really care about dressing are dwindling. Only two or three of us even remember that it was Grandmother’s dressing before my aunt took over from her.
So many associations and memories are part of Thanksgiving. Among the unforgettable ones was the year I showed up and my uncle expressed his unfiltered disappointment with my apparel. He said, “I was hoping you’d wear that sweater again, the one where your nipples showed through.” My aunt overheard and was, naturally, horrified. But I just laughed to cover a sob with the realization that he was beginning to lose contact with his internal editor. Meanwhile, I’m still pondering which sweater he was remembering so fondly.
This year, my son and daughter-in-law invited me to share Thanksgiving at their home with everyone in masks (even the four-year-old!) and wide-opened windows. It was a first for all of us, but it was very nice. And while it didn’t conjure up a lifetime of associations for me, I felt the love and ties that bind us as family. And that’s plenty to be thankful for.
That will be one of the lessons I’ve learned under the tutelage of this pandemic – how things don’t have to be all or nothing. A nice meal can be as good as a feast. Phone calls can be enough to keep the family ties taut. And the many memories of Thanksgivings pasts and hopes for the ones to come, will sustain us. One thing is certain: none of us will ever take for granted our good fortune when we are able to reunite again.
Looking forward to 2021, I want everyone to be on notice that Angel Delight will make a triumphal return to our Thanksgiving table. And, just maybe, a big bowl of limp green beans to feed our ever-lovin’ southern souls.