Thanksgiving At My House

Thanksgiving At My House

by Melanie Gold

When I was a young girl, I lived with my maternal grandparents, along with my brother and parents. Though it was more than 40 years ago, I still remember precisely the way the sun shone through the kitchen curtains on an autumn day, the butterflies in my belly as I jumped off the backyard tire swing into an earthy pile of raked leaves, and the harvest moon on a brisk night. And of course, I remember the holidays.

In many ways my grandparents were a quintessential Pennsylvania Dutch couple. Their names were Raymond and Eva. They grew up in Depression-era Lehigh Valley on subsistence farms, learned how to get milk from a cow, and made scrapple and planted corn. They attended one-room schoolhouses until grade 8, then left school for work, farming and starting their own family.

Eva was a homemaker, and Raymond worked in the slate quarries, except during World War II when he made bullet shells at Bethlehem Steel. In his retirement, my grandfather, a quiet, gentle man with steel blue eyes, regaled me with silly and nonsensical stories. Take, for example, the nursery rhyme of the story of Solomon Grundy, who was born on Monday and was dead and buried by Sunday. Or the quarry worker named Dunbar, who was known to say, “More rain, more rest!” When the boss asked him to repeat what he’d said, Dunbar replied, “More rain, more grass.”

At the holidays, Gram was well prepared. Days ahead, she and my mother would bake apple tarts and pumpkin pies that made everything smell of warm cinnamon.

Every Sunday, when Pap returned home from church services, he enjoyed a hot sit-down dinner and then visited with relatives. Sometimes I’d find him with his hands in the sink, washing the dishes that had fed him so well. He called me Nell or “the girl,” and occasionally I’d go with him on those Sunday visits, rushing him back home so I could watch TV, write letters to pen pals, or do some other newfangled thing.

At the holidays, Gram was well prepared. Days ahead, she and my mother would bake apple tarts and pumpkin pies that made everything smell of warm cinnamon. And, like most Pennsylvania Dutch wives, Gram had an enviable set of cookie cutters, which she employed at the holidays. Those cutters were used to make cut-out cookies after the dough was rolled out with a wooden rolling pin. Coming from a family of modest means, cookies were used as holiday decorations and, if you were lucky, you might receive a handmade cookie cutter as a holiday gift. (I still have the fluted heart cookie cutter that my grandfather made for me.)

The night before Thanksgiving, Gram would take out her huge White Westinghouse electric roaster for making the bird. By using the roaster for the turkey, she could fit other things in her oven, such as roasted sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts, or baked rice pudding, or her famous baked stuffing, made the Pennsylvania Dutch way with mashed potatoes to keep it moist.

Gram believed in slow roasting, and so all night long on Thanksgiving Eve (and also on Christmas Eve), I would smell the turkey roasting, hear the drippings spitting as they fell into the hot roasting pan, my nostrils teased and my tongue salivating in anticipation of turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. My bedroom – a loft bedroom, so it had no door – was at the top of the stairs and when I close my eyes, I can see myself lying in my twin bed, letting the soft, golden glow of incandescent light from the kitchen enrobe me as I dozed off to sleep, my head full of the scent of Thanksgiving.

The next day, the whole family – my aunt and uncle and cousins – would crowd around the kitchen table, elbow to elbow as the food was passed from one to another, the empty bowls either getting refilled or retiring in the kitchen sink. After days of preparation, that meal was scarfed down in about a half hour. Occasionally we would lift our heads from our plates to notice that Gram never ate with us because, she said, she was “full from
the smell.”

As the only granddaughter, I had special privileges. One of those was receiving Gram’s “good dishes” – white porcelain place settings with a decorative silver edge – when I became an adult and she was ready for me to take over making Thanksgiving dinner. She’d earned those dishes either by buying food from a grocery store or by making deposits in a banking account, but to me they are more valuable than anything from Tiffany’s. After she gifted me with my own tabletop roaster, it was my joy to be able to present Thanksgiving turkey to Gram after so many years of enjoying her food. Some years ago, as Alzheimer’s disease slowly took her memory and sociability, and she became more frail and averse to traveling even short distances, she stopped coming to Thanksgiving dinner. I’d make her a plate and either send it with a relative or deliver it myself the next day.

Gram passed away in 2010, and since then our Thanksgivings have changed. I took a job in the big city and now spend a lot of time commuting, so I no longer have the luxury of planning my work schedule around Thanksgiving preparations, laying out a “fancy” holiday table, or even having the whole family over. I sure do miss those holidays from my youth, and the rope swing and Pap’s silly stories. And I miss Gram’s cooking. But no matter what, I keep her memory alive at Thanksgiving by using her recipes, serving the food on her good dishes, and making sure the house is filled with the scent of roasting turkey.

Gram’s Holiday Stuffing

• 1 loaf of bread, torn into pieces
• 4 celery ribs, chopped
• 2 medium onions, finely chopped
• 6 potatoes, cooked and mashed
• Parsley, salt and pepper, to taste
• Other spices, such as poultry seasoning, to taste
• 1-2 large eggs, slightly beaten
• 2-3 cups milk or chicken broth

Makes one 9 x 13 pan (serves 8-10)

One or two days ahead, set out torn bread pieces to dry, occasionally tossing the pieces to ensure even drying.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a skillet over medium heat, sauté chopped celery and onions in a bit of olive oil or butter for about 5 minutes, or until celery is soft. Let cool.

In a large bowl, combine the celery and onions, cooled mashed potatoes and seasonings. Add the eggs and chicken broth and mix with bare hands until well combined.

Bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove cover and bake an additional 30 minutes.

Gram’s hint: To retain moisture in the stuffing, place a lasagna pan half-filled with hot water in the bottom of the oven.

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