My family has a bizarre Thanksgiving tradition. It comes from the Thanksgiving when I was in kindergarten or first grade, my parents had done a lot of research on what the Pilgrims actually ate at that “First Thanksgiving” and, together with some of their best friends, they tried to recreate the original Thanksgiving feast. We went to a campground somewhere, and my father, The King Of Overkill, insisted that everything be cooked over an open fire, just like the Pilgrims did.
The kids made Pilgrim hats and Native American Headdresses, and we made popcorn over the fire. I don’t remember much else, except that it was the beginning of the way my family ALWAYS does Thanksgiving.
The menu has gone more traditional, but The King of Overkill (and the Prince, my brother) always try to cook as much outside as possible. This involves digging pits in the ground, filling the pits with hot charcoal, and placing cast-iron dutch ovens on top (with more charcoal on the lid) to cook things as varied as cakes, yeast rolls, and a Pumpkin Splut Surprise (it was a pumpkin spice cake that went terribly wrong at the Thanksgiving of 1994).
My father has the turkey preparation down to an art. He gets up with the sun on Thanksgiving day, builds a roaring fire, and constructs an outdoor oven using ReBar (is that how it’s spelled?), oven racks, clothespins, and heavy-duty aluminum foil. The oven is powered with embers from the roaring fire, which is built under VERY strict guidelines as to what kind of wood (and in what condition) can be used (pine makes turkey taste like turpentine, for example). No one is allowed to throw so much as a paper plate on that fire while the oven is in use. Dad cooks and bastes the turkey outside — rain or shine — in his little oven from about 8am until 12pm. He’s not allowed to have anything alcoholic to drink until 30 minutes before the turkey is going to come off the fire. And he’s generally right on it as far as his estimations of how much time remains until the turkey is done.
As Dad cooks and turns the turkey, reloading the embers powering his oven, the rest of us typically spend the morning sitting around the fire, making fun of each other, and slowly preparing the food for the feast. One nice thing about camping in the cold — very little refrigeration necessary for stuff like apple pie before it’s ready to be cooked. In a Dutch oven. In a pit in the ground.
My job has recently been to make the potatoes (because I make mashed potatoes from scratch, and every time my mother makes mashed potatoes they’re thick and gluey). So my brother Pete sets up a cast-iron tripod over the fire and water and potatoes go into a cauldron hooked to that, boiling until the potatoes are tender. Then I take them off the fire and with a pastry blender, butter, and either sour cream or ranch veggie dip, I make mashed potatoes.
My other specific jobs are to bring enough olives for Jerry (and now Helen and Alice), who has an insatiable appetite for ripe olives, the cranberry-orange relish, and the White Turkey Chili that I make in the cauldron with all the leftover turkey the day after Thanksgiving. It’s one of my signature recipes. I used to make it all the time at home, but Jerry finally got weary of it so I don’t make it much here anymore.
This year, however, we did not go on the family campout. With my surgery, I’m still not up to traveling in a car for long periods, so driving to Virginia would have been very unpleasant for me. And we figured out that to board the dogs and rent a camper or cabin would have cost us at least $1000 total. Not really feasible for us at this time.
So, for the first time since 1989 (which was my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary with the whole family at Callaway Gardens in Georgia), I had Thanksgiving in a dining room. I cooked all of it this time, basting the turkey myself, mashing the potatoes, making the pie, cooking the green beans, making the dressing. All of it. I didn’t make my usual cranberry-orange relish this year, since Jerry’s not a big fan, and I knew that Helen wouldn’t be either. So we just went with regular can-shaped cranberry sauce.
Helen and Jerry decorated the dining room with all of the Thanksgiving art that she has been bringing home from school the past few weeks. So there are about 5 turkeys taped to the windows in there, and several autumn leaf paintings. She was so proud of herself and her contribution to the day!
All morning, Helen asked me if it was time for dinner yet. “How about NOW? Is it time for dinner NOW?” She and Alice had breakfast, mid-morning snack, late-morning snack (at their usual lunchtime), and Thanksgiving Dinner, all before 1pm. They LOVED it. Well, of course Alice loved it — any holiday centered around gluttony is A-OK with her. But Helen ate a lot, too, and Helen’s not a big eater. A big snacker, yes, but not a big eater.
I kept my recipes really REALLY simple, and so it was pretty easy to get everything ready to go and coming out of the oven at roughly the same time.
I’m a little sad to be missing the family tradition this year, and I know that the weather has got to be gorgeous (partly because we’re not there — Murphy’s Law — the weather has been HORRIBLE for about 6 years straight now). But at the same time, I’m treasuring our quiet little holiday with Just Us. There’s no stress, no fear that Alice is going to faceplant into a Dutch oven, and we had a wonderful dinner together at our dining room table.
Hopefully in the future our girls will get to experience both — my family’s weird Thanksgiving tradition, and the more-mainstream, calmer style of gluttony indoors before everyone retires to various sofas for an afternoon nap.
And who knew? — Mashed potatoes actually CAN stay warm for longer than 30 seconds when not exposed to sub-freezing weather at the table. I’ll definitely concede defeat on that point to Jerry — it is exceptionally nice to eat food that stays warm long enough to be spooned out AND consumed. I always thought that was just a Christmas thing…