As children, Thanksgiving Day began very early for us as either we traveled to Kentucky to visit family, or we celebrated at home. At home, turkey was served around two o’clock in the afternoon, which meant the turkey went into the oven very early in the day. Our turkey was always the iconic Butterball brand from Swift and Company, where Daddy worked. The company awarded their employees a turkey or ham on holidays, so the family was guaranteed a big, fat juicy turkey on this day. Daddy took charge of preparing and roasting the turkey, and making the dressing and giblet gravy. Those dishes were his specialties, and he started around 6 AM to begin his preparations for carefully roasting and basting the turkey throughout the day. The aromas of boiling giblets and melting butter woke us and we joined in the preparations, mixed in with frequent interruptions to watch the floats, the marching bands and the celebrities in the Thanksgiving Day Parade on television.
Mother executed the process of baking the pies, the sweet potatoes and the green beans. As very young children, we usually enjoyed the jellied cranberry sauce that came in a can, but as her culinary tastes changed, she experimented with homemade cranberry relish, which included chopped nuts and oranges, and “a little bit of this and that.”
If we did not stay in Indiana for Thanksgiving, we traveled to Kentucky to visit our aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. Trying to visit both sets of grandparents in one day created a bit of a logistic nightmare for us. Nevertheless, we successfully ended up visiting everyone in one day. Daddy carefully planned the visits, because we knew we would eat a Thanksgiving meal twice that day; lunch at Mamaw’s, and then later in the evening, we ate dinner at Mama and Poopdeck’s, where we spent the night. The next year, we switched the order of the visits. Two Thanksgiving meals in one day made it overall, quite the caloric laden holiday.
Mother and Daddy instructed us “not to tell” either set of grandparents, that we had already eaten Thanksgiving dinner. I am not sure why we couldn’t just say we had already eaten, but it was extremely important to our parents to ensure that each of their parents, in turn, assumed they were the primary providers of the turkey and its trimmings.
Both of my grandmothers were fantastic cooks; they treated us to real butter and whipped cream, turkey dressing thick with the juices of the organ meats, and sumptuous pumpkin and pecan pies. We didn’t worry about cholesterol and calories in the fifties and the journey through the smorgasboard of holiday foods and the ritual of the family gathering was certainly worth a few pounds more.
When we went to Mama and Poopdeck’s for Thanksgiving, there were always many extra people there. Cousins, great aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends. The adults sat in the dining room and the kids ate at a smaller table in the kitchen. I remember one year in particular when Mother’s sister, Kay, and her family celebrated Thanksgiving with us in Springfield. There were nine kids that year, as the youngest on both sides and the family had not been born yet-no Yordy or John.
My cousin, Nancy Jean and I were in the kitchen sitting on stools watching Mama prepare the organs and extraneous body parts for the giblet gravy-a nasty task. She placed the liver, the heart, the gizzard, the giblets and the neck in a pot of water, salted and peppered the concoction and boiled the parts until they were thoroughly cooked and tender. We smelled the aroma of the steam as it wafted throughout the kitchen and watched her work her magic with the preparation of the food. No one in my family ate the turkey neck. It was the one body part that was discarded or reserved for the current dog of the house. Apparently, when there are six kids in a family, no food is wasted or thrown away so when my cousin, Nancy Jean proudly announced she was going to eat the turkey neck, I stared at her in surprise and retorted “No one eats a turkey neck-that’s for the dog.”
Nancy Jean was older, tall, and skinny, and always portrayed this air of confidence and independence that I admired. I tried to convince her of the indelicacies of eating a turkey neck, but regardless of my advice, when Mama retrieved the neck from the pot, she eagerly picked up the neck and devoured the tender meat on the bone. All I saw was dark, stringy turkey meat that did not look the least bit appetizing. Nancy Jean threw down the gauntlet and proudly finished off the neck, challenging anyone to try to stop her. I was not going to stop her-she was older and taller than me.
The irony is that she has been a vegetarian for decades and would now never consider eating any part of a turkey, let alone a neck. I suspect that the last turkey neck she ate was in Mama’s kitchen in Springfield, Kentucky in the fifties. The memory of that particular Thanksgiving remains with me and reminds me that this holiday is about family, sharing our blessings in life and celebrating the people we love.
Nancy Jean was named after Mother, who died on ThanksgivingDay in 1990. John F. Kennedy died on this same day, and I like to imagine that he came down to greet Mother and guide her through her next journey. On this special day, I hope Nancy Jean enjoys this Thanksgiving with her family and friends around her and thinks about her Aunt Jean.
As for me, I am off to Sissy’s for the day. Her husband is in charge of the turkey, and Sissy and I have the rest of the meal covered. I am thankful that I only have to eat one Thanksgiving meal, but the cranberry relish will be less than perfect. Mother never wrote down her recipe, and no one has successfully duplicated the exact taste or texture. I am certain it was “a little bit of this and that” with, as always, she threw in that special Strange touch. Happy Thanksgiving to all!
In loving memory of my mother
4-29-25 to 11-22-90