Ever since I got married more than 50 years ago I have been trying to recreate the Thanksgiving of my childhood.
I grew up in a small Indiana town across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. Nearly all of my relatives lived nearby: Grandmother and Fount, my maternal grandparents; and their three children. Dad Prentice and Mimmie, my paternal grandparents; Uncle Bob and Aunt Babe and their three children, Becky, Walt and Mary; and of course, there was my Uncle Buzz and Aunt Rosemary who were childless.
On Thanksgiving everyone--except Uncle Bob’s family who went to their mamaw and papaw’s in Louisville—gathered at our house, a long rosy brick ranch on Blackiston’s Mill road. Behind the white front porch the house would be full of people, the women in the somewhat cramped kitchen and the men sipping whiskey in front of the fire in the Living room. My mother would have already set the table in front of country fireplace in the kitchen. She always used a long beige linen tablecloth decorated with amber and gold chrysanthemums along the edge, amber colored glasses and, of course, her sterling silver. When she pulled out the maple dropped leaf harvest table to the middle of the room, it was cozy if not down-right crowded. But no one complained when we gathered around the table to digest the joys of food and family.
My mother always fixed the turkey and green beans that had been slow simmered with ham. Grandmother Kimmel brought the dressing and her signature eggplant casserole. Aunt Rosemary brought two kinds of cranberries. My favorite was the cranberry-orange relish in red Jello. She also brought some cooked-up cranberries that looks like ruby soup. I skipped those.
The over-size harvest plates were waiting on the breakfast bar to be filled, but before the first dish was passed, Dad Prentice would say the blessing, probably the only time each year my nuclear family said grace before the meal. (We might have said, “Thank God, Dad is finally home so that now we can eat,” but that is another chapter of the Prentice family saga). And then, the formalities over, the real Thanksgiving began. Dad Prentice would tell us every year how to cook beans. “You take a mature bean the size of your little finger…” My mom would roll her eyes. Aunt Rosemary would start her litany of questions. It was the way she knew how to make conversation. My dad would tell family stories, my brothers would squirm and I listened when I wasn’t playing Q & A with Aunt Rosemary.
The first Thanksgiving with my new husband’s family left me determined to travel to Indiana for all future ones. Usually we drove whatever used car we currently owned. After I began teaching we bought a used Winnebago and would drive it the 4 hours to Indianapolis where my parents were living by then. The menu was always the same but the cast of characters was revolving. We had added two daughters to the mix. By that time Grandmother Kimmel was a widow and Mimmie and Dad Prentice were too frail to leave their own home. The good news is that we had more family in Indianapolis. My grandmother’s sisters, Mary, Jo and Elizabeth, also all widows would join us. My brother Pete lived in Florida so we missed him but sometimes my brother Bill would come. I came to think of Thanksgiving as a family reunion and bob told me my accent changed when we crossed the border from Ohio to Indiana, reclaiming a hint of southern twang common along the Ohio river.
We could count on hearing the same stories, eating the same food and seeing the first snowflakes of the season on the drive home.
About the time my mother turned sixty, she announced that my father had decided that cooking a holiday meal was too much for her and we would hereafter celebrate the holiday at Meridian Hills Country Club. This change to what I considered a sacred arrangement did not go down well with me. I offered to do all the cooking myself. By that time I was a seasoned cook. But soon it became clear that it wasn’t that Mom wanted to avoid the cooking and clean-up so much as she wanted to enjoy the glamour of a banquet in posh surroundings.
Truly the Thanksgiving buffet was impressive: Ice sculptures. Punch bowls full of jumbo shrimp. Salad Bar. Roast turkey. Roast Beef. Roast Pork. Sweet potatoes. Mashed potatoes. Beans and corn. Beckoning from across the room stood another long table laden with every dessert imaginable, even chocolate mousse. Uniformed waiters took our drink orders and swiftly whisked away our dirty plates while urging us to revisit the buffet. The food was pretty good, but it didn’t taste the way my family made it. The party was simultaneously infinitely smaller and larger. Eating out precluded inviting every relative within driving distance. No Uncle buzz and Aunt Rosemary. No Mary, Jo and Elizabeth. Just my mother, father, Grandmother Kimmel and the four Rauzis gathered to gorge ourselves amid the splendor surrounded by hundreds of total strangers.
After a few years, I dug in my heels and insisted on cooking thanksgiving in my own kitchen in Ohio. The food was the same but I had to assemble a new crowd. Now the dominant name at the table was Rauzi with a few Powers thrown in. As years passed when family members were unavailable due to death or winters in Florida, I would invite friends whose children lived out of town. But the recipes remained constant. All but the eggplant casserole which I reluctantly abandoned after my daughter Nicole confided that nobody liked it.
I didn’t have a cadre of aunts and cousins to help prepare the food but I doled out faded, greasy recipe cards to my immediate family. Bob and Nicole made the sweet potatoes. Robin the green bean. and crescent rolls. I did the turkey, gravy and dressing. By this time I was using Pepperidge farm instead of the week old bread cubes grandmother Kimmel used. Earlier in the week I had made the cranberries, only the ones in the Jello plus a pumpkin and apple pie. If it wasn’t the same family, it was still my family and the food was almost the same.
A few years ago Bob and I began living in Arizona six months a year so I moved my recipe box to Tucson. Nicole lived on the East Coast and Robin spent Thanksgiving with her wife Amy’s family. But not to worry. My mom, dad and brother Bill lived nearby so my tradition continued. A week before I would transfer the turkey out of the freezer to the fridge to slowly thaw. Two days before I would make the cranberry Jello. The morning of, Bob would help me with the sweet potato soufflé. I would fix the turkey, dressing, gravy and, of course, the cranberry Jello. Mom would bring green bean casserole. Sometimes Bill and Fern could come and sometimes not, Mom and dad were always available.
After my father died, I didn’t want my Thanksgiving to consist of just three people, Bob, me and my grieving mother. So I invited our best friends and their friends who were spending the holiday in Arizona far from their families. They would each bring a dish that was traditional in their families. I thought my mother would enjoy spending time with our friends and the energy of new conversation. I was wrong. She was intimidated by the idea of eating with a crowd of people she had not met before, so my brother and I agreed that she would spend the day with him and his friends and my new tradition of friends as family was born. We had to put two tables together and I bought extra plates to accommodate the extra guests. Someone brought mashed potatoes. Someone brought root vegetables (no sweet potato soufflé) I said the blessing and the warmth of friendship and roast turkey swept over us.
Last year we were alone in Ohio. My mother had died the year before. Bob needed knee surgery so we flew home for a few weeks in November. Susan Murray, the wife of Bob’s former law partner invited us to share Thanksgiving with them and a group of folks from the Congregational Church. I gratefully accepted. But I had a nagging need to fix a turkey. So the week before the real event I invited one couple over for dinner and served Turkey, dressing (by now Stovetop), Bob Evan’s mashed potatoes and green bean casserole, Jell-O and the ubiquitous Crescent Rolls. The guests were gracious enough to insist that they love turkey and didn’t mind eating it in one week.
This year I am spending Thanksgiving in a new state far from my California daughter and our Arizona friends and family. But I am planning to cook a Rauzi traditional Thanksgiving meal. Our daughter Nicole and son-in-law will along with his mother will be with us. Nicole has invited her friends Frieda and Jim to join us. A group of seven will fit nicely in our new dining room if we put one leaf in the table. I can set up the buffet on the long granite island in my new kitchen. I will use my mother’s linen tablecloth decorated with autumn leaves and chrysanthemums and her harvest plates.
Someone will bring mashed potatoes, someone will bring a vegetable, someone else will bring pies. I will fix the turkey and dressing (really Stovetop is fine). Bob will help me with the sweet potato soufflé (no raisins). The cranberry Jell-O will be glistening in the fridge. And this year Nicole will make Grandmother Kimmel’s eggplant casserole.