I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner when I was 15 years old. My mother had contracted hepatitis the January before and had such a bad case she was hospitalized twice that year, 6 weeks the first time and then 7 weeks in August. She was so weak she couldn’t get out of bed from January until that Thanksgiving I made dinner. Dad always went hunting on Thanksgiving day really early and would come home with a rabbit or two. That ordeal of cleaning and dressing a rabbit is a whole other story. I remember barely being able to get that turkey in the sink for washing and removing of the bag of giblets (heart, liver and gizzard) in the hole where the turkey neck used to be and then pulling the neck from up the turkey’s bottom. If the turkey hasn’t thawed enough, then wrestling those frozen parts out is nearly impossible. They also wired the legs together and that is hard to manage. I’m a small person, so lifting that pan with the turkey was a feat of pure will.
I know I made mashed potatoes from scratch and sweet potatoes that year. Usually we’d have green beans or Brussels sprouts that we had from our garden. They are a beautiful plant and the Brussels sprouts are usually not ready until Thanksgiving, so even when the leaves have died the little heads of cabbage are ready to pick.
My father had been a cook in WWII and he was a butcher for years, so I learned most of my cooking skills from him. The only problem was he couldn’t cook for just a few, it was always enough to feed an army, or in his case, the navy.
I do remember a catastrophe making gravy, but it wasn’t at my first Thanksgiving. I loved cooking in our iron skillets and still have three to this day that I cook in regularly. I remember for some reason using a lightweight aluminium skillet with a bowed uneven bottom to make gravy in on that particular occasion. I was rushing to check things in the oven and somehow hit the long handle of the skillet and the whole pan flipped over my arm and hit the floor on top of the heat register. All that gravy poured down into the register and we smelled burnt gravy for weeks it seemed.
I was and still am a good gravy maker. The secret is stirring the butter and flour for at least 10 minutes when you make the roux (thickening agent for gravy), then pouring in the milk and water mixture slowly and stirring until it thickens. It takes a lot of time to keep it from becoming lumpy.
My best friend from college was Japanese — her name was Mieko, but nicknamed Miki. She had come all the way to Indianapolis to go to Herron School of Art. This was way before computers and websites, so I don’t know how she ever found out about such a small college. She didn’t like the class system in Japan and wanted to live middle class. Her family was wealthy with servants, so she had never learned to cook. For years she and her American husband and his family would go out to eat on Thanksgiving. Her husband’s Mom couldn’t cook much either, so her husband was not used to home cooked meals anyway. One Thanksgiving when she was in her 40’s she decided it was time to try cooking a turkey on her own. She got it in the oven and was cooking it overnight. Sometime in the middle of the night she got up to check on the bird. She pulled out the rack holding that big pan and of course it started tipping her way and she knew it was falling so she turned and raised her leg up to catch the rack and branded the hot metal rack into her leg. It was not a pretty sight, but she saved the turkey and that was all that mattered. I worked with her in the art department at Ayres and many a Monday morning I would see the burn marks on her arms and knew she had tried to cook again over the weekend.
In my family, my daughter doesn’t like to cook much, but I’m so proud that the last few years she has made pumpkin pie from scratch — cooking and pureeing the fresh pumpkin. She also has become quite a good jelly and jam maker using berries they have grown in their garden.
My son on the other hand is a professional chef with a culinary degree. He liked to help me in the kitchen when he was only three years old. One Thanksgiving about 15 years ago, when he was working at the Keystone Grill on the northside, he had to carve 13 turkeys. During that same shift he bumped into one of the kitchen staff and ended up with a whole vat of hot gravy all over his front side — right down into his shoes.
For years, I did not have to cook Thanksgiving dinner. When I was first married my husband’s parents and my parents would want us both to come to their house and we would say will try and do both. One would say we’ll do it early, how about 2:30 p.m. and the other would say we’re doing it late, how about 2:30 p.m! For years I was literally stuffed at Thanksgiving. Then for 20 years or so my mother-in-law has done Thanksgiving — and she’s a great cook, but now with her arthritis it’s too hard.
The last couple years we have gone to my daughter’s big house with room to entertain and I have cooked most of the meal with help from my chef son and brother.
This year I’m doing the turkey, ham, dressing, seven layer salad and sweet potatoes for 17 at my daughter’s, but everyone is bringing a dish. My daughter has invited me over to help her and my 6-year-old granddaughter make pumpkin pies from scratch Wednesday night — can’t wait! Happy Thanksgiving!
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