A Retro Thanksgiving: You Can't Go Home Again

A Retro Thanksgiving: You Can't Go Home Again
Thanksgiving Turkey by Norman Baugher

 

A Retro Thanksgiving: Can’t Go Home Again
It doesn’t feel like it was all that long ago, oh, oh
You can dream about it every now and then
But you can’t go home again. Lari White

                                                                                                
 Bag of Baguettes by Norman Baugher 

I loved Thanksgiving at home. It was the best food day of the year, and a far cry from our usual fare. Week-day dinners (only we called it supper, dinner was eaten at noon) usually consisted of some kind of fried meat (I was raised in a little southern town where anything that went in a  skillet was fried), vegetable from a can, and a lettuce and tomato salad. As a rule, we didn’t have dessert.

But Thanksgiving—that was another story. Preparations began early in the day when my mother baked the pies—always pumpkin. She used the Libby’s recipe from the back of the can. The filling was wonderful—the crust, not so much. My mother, God love her, never met a pie crust she couldn’t burn. She made green bean casserole, again using a back-of-the-can Campbell’s mushroom soup recipe. Since we didn’t know you could make the dish with fresh green beans and mushrooms, we were good with preparation, and mom had it down cold. Of course she made mashed potatoes (light-as-a-cloud), and whipped sweet potatoes baked in the oven with marshmallows on top. Cranberry sauce came from a can—the jellied kind. And she made Parker House rolls. I’ve gotta’ hand it to Rose with those rolls. Like most good Southern cooks, she worked miracles with yeast dough. Rolls, hot from the oven, lots of butter. It just didn’t get any better than that.

Ingredients for a Thanksgiving Meal by Norman Baugher

Ingredients for Thanksgiving Dressing by Norman Baugher

And while all these things were good, they paled in comparison to my aunt’s roast turkey and dressing. What’s so special about turkey and dressing? You wouldn’t ask if you had tasted my Aunt Lena’s. First, she cleaned the turkey—it always came from the local farmers with a few feathers attached—and threw the giblets and neck into a pot with water to make giblet gravy (the one part of the dinner I could live without). She sprinkled salt and pepper liberally over the bird and stuffed an apple and an orange into the cavity along with one or the other into the neck opening. I don’t know why. Maybe it was a Southern thing. After covering it with cheesecloth, she melted a pound or two of butter and began basting. Into a fairly low oven it went, where it cooked happily for hours with frequent butter bastings. I can still remember the aroma emanating from the oven as the bird soaked up the butter and browned.

Meantime, she made the dressing—yes, dressing, not stuffing. Our turkey was never stuffed. She used dried out bread (Aunt Betty Bread from Junior Steger’s bakery, the local version of Pepperidge Farm) which she tore into big pieces and put in an enormous bowl with sage, poultry seasoning, salt, and pepper. She fried (there we go again) chopped onions and celery in more butter (are your pores closing) until they were golden and put them on top of the bread with some eggs. Now that I think about it, I guess our dressing was a lot like a savory bread pudding. Then—and here’s where the magic came in—she took drippings and broth from the turkey and moistened the dressing until it was literally swimming in liquid. As it baked, it became soft and creamy in the middle and crisp on top. But not before we kids got to eat huge amounts of it “raw”. We weren’t so concerned about uncooked eggs then. For good measure, she made a deadly corn pudding with creamed and niblets corn (both from a can), a whole stick of melted butter, eggs, sour cream, and packaged cornbread mix. Whooeee!

A Thanksgiving Side Dish  by Norman Baugher

 Tomatoes on the Side by Norman Baugher

About six o’clock, we all sat down to eat—in the dining room (which was a big deal because we only visited our dining room on holidays and the occasional Sunday), with real china, silver, and cloth napkins. We drank water from my aunt’s cut crystal goblets (which I have now, but never use—they’re not dishwasher safe). It was a crowded table then: five kids, mom and dad, my aunt, uncle, and grandmother. Dad carved, mom fussed with passing food, grandma’ complained about everything, and we ate—you would have thought food was going out of style and they were going to come up with something new the next day. When dinner ended, we picked at the leftovers and got our hands slapped by my uncle, who hated picking.

Squashes for Roasting by Norman Baugher

 Ready  for Roasting by Norman Baugher

Can’t Go Home Again
 Can’t go home again, though [I’ve] traveled many miles,
Can’t go home again, no matter how [I] burn inside.
Can’t go home again, all I can say is, I wish I could. 

Today, I cook Thanksgiving dinner alone, sometimes for my own small family, and sometimes for an imported family of friends and neighbors. Pretty much, I don’t mess with tradition. I forget about calories and fix the turkey the way my aunt did, swathed in cheesecloth and drowned in butter. A huge casserole of “dressing” and a dish of corn pudding keep it company. Praline has replaced marshmallows atop my sweet potato puree, but the back-of-the can Libby’s pumpkin pie recipe still reigns supreme (although a year in a Parisian cooking school taught me not to burn the crust. Sorry, mom). My cranberry sauce is freshly made, and I have eschewed the Campbell’s soup casserole for sautéed green beans with mushrooms. Norman, my husband, carves the turkey using my dad’s old knife, made razor sharp with dad’s steel. That knife slices through more than fifty years.

Shirley On Her Own by Norman Baugher

Shirley On Her Own by Norman Baugher

I don’t go back to my home town. Nobody does. Hardly anyone even lives there anymore. My parents are gone. The five kids have scattered across the country. The old house was razed to make way for a VFW hall that is mostly empty these days. As the song says, “…nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town”. But sometimes, sitting in a different dining room in another time, there is a trick of the light. And I see us all the way we were. My aunt beaming at her beautifully appointed table. My dad, the patriarch, his carving knife poised over the turkey. My mother in a rare moment of repose, basking in our togetherness. The five kids being civilized to each other. There is, for one brief moment, a wrinkle in time.

You can’t go home again
 And trying to hold yesterday is like arms around the wind.  Rita McNeil

Wherever you are, with whomever you may be, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. And, if you are so inclined, tip a glass to the Lewis family in deserted old Cairo, Illinois.  They will thank you.

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