Thanksgiving Day has always had a deep meaning in my family, and each year when it rolls around a flood of warm memories fills my mind. Most revolve around three interrelated themes -- hunting, family, and fine food. I suspect the same holds true for many others, especially those fortunate enough to have grown up in a hunting family with close connections to the land.
There's really nothing new about this. Afew days ago I caught up with James Earl Kennamer, Senior Vice-President for Conservation Programs of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). He was on the road involved with turkey releases as part of the NWTF's ongoing restocking program. This is something the NWTF has done around Thanksgiving for years, rightly recognizing the close historical links between wild turkeys and the first Thanksgiving.
Kennamer had just completed a release near Jamestown, Virginia, site of the first permanent European settlement in North America 400 years ago. The first Thanksgiving celebration, with wild turkeys figured prominently in the fare, would be held less than two decades later. Implicit in the NWTF's linkage to history is the fact that hunting has always loomed large in our country's past.
In my family Thanksgiving hunting was tradition. It brought the opening day of both bird (for the uninitiated, in this part of the world "bird" is a synonym for quail) and rabbit seasons, occasions which had to be "celebrated" no matter what. Accordingly, we usually had our family feast in the evening rather than at noon.
Dad and I, in company with some of his adult buddies, my adolescent friends, and a whole host of beagles, would spend happy hours on the cottontail trail. My uncle, partial to bird hunting with rangy pointers, would pursue similar joys in broom sedge fields and fence rows. At day's end, with the promise of a bountiful feast, we would gather to share the day's experiences, talk of canine wizardry, relive past hunts and wisely stay out of the way while womenfolk worked their culinary magic.
All the while, tantalizing aromas drifted through the house, fostering keen awareness that the hunter's reward lay ahead. During my teen years, when Grandma Minnie and Grandpa Joe were still alive, the assembled family group would be quite large -- our immediate family; my grandparents; and several aunts, uncles, and their offspring.
The menu was what an unimaginative soul might call monotonously predictable, in that it was the same year after year. The poet or lover of fine food, on the other hand, would consider it pure paradise, and to me it was unbridled, belt-loosening delight. There would be either a huge roasted turkey or two or three chickens, along with Mom's special cornbread dressing with an ample infusion of meats from the Chinese chestnut trees which grew in our yard. As scrumptious adornment for both poultry and dressing there would be rich, savory giblet gravy.
On a groaning table with the above items as centerpieces would be enough side dishes to bring tears of pure joy to the eyes of a country boy gourmet. They included fluffy white mashed potatoes; sweet potato casserole topped with brown sugar and pecans; a mixture of turnip and mustard greens cooked with streaked meat; green beans Mom had lovingly strung, broken, and canned during the summer; canned apples from our Golden and Red Delicious trees; Aunt Emma's congealed cranberry salad and lima bean casserole; Grandma's sweet pickles, pickled peaches, and watermelon rind pickles; fluffy cathead biscuits; stewed turnips (Grandpa was mighty partial to them); creamed corn; and more.
No matter how much you gorged, there was always a wee bit of greedy gut caution tickling the back of your mind. The reason was simple; enough desserts awaited serious attention to sate even the sweetest of sweet teeth. For me, there was literally almost too much of an abundance of riches.
Mom always made pumpkin chiffon pie from pumpkins we had grown. She would also, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, bake a half dozen or so applesauce cakes. These were really intended for Christmas, and they got better with the passage of time and the occasional addition of a bit of wine or apple juice. Still, one of them would be available at Thanksgiving.
Alongside these would be one of my enduring favorites, Grandma's stack cake. This was six thin layers of homemade cake, interspersed with nicely spiced sauce made from apples Grandma had dried. So well soaked with applesauce that slices fell apart if cut were too thin (that was never a problem with me), her stack cakes represented traditional mountain fare at its finest. Add a dessert side dish of Aunt Emma's ambrosia, and we ate wonderfully well as we gave thanks for another year of family togetherness.
Such was thanksgiving as I knew it for the first 25 years of my life. Marriage changed that, although one of the most memorable of all my holidays came on a late November bird hunt with my father-in-law. Up until that point we had mentally circled each other like two male bird dogs meeting for the first time, but by day's end, with the heartening heft of a goodly number of bobwhites in the game bags of our Duxbak jackets, we had a better understanding of one another. Henceforth ours would be a better, warmer relationship.
He's long gone, as are the big bevies of bobwhites which once graced the Southern heartland, but the bright thread of sport continues to run through the fabric of Thanksgiving as my family knows it. This year my daughter and her family will join us, and my good wife will grace the table with many of the same dishes described above. My son-in-law and I will have hearty appetites thanks to time spent in the woods deer hunting.
In short, in my family as in our country, Thanksgiving always has been and remains a truly special time. May it always be so. I'll conclude with a simple wish that your family gathering this year brings an ample measure of eating pleasure, family togetherness, and if you are truly blessed, an opportunity for the special sort of relationships forged in the enduring American ritual of hunting.