- Cullman, Alabama


November 23, 2012

Southern Style: Thanksgiving traditions

Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday, because it brings back so many fond recollections of my Grandmother Young. She had 11 children, 26 grandchildren and almost 50 great-grandchildren.

Her old house, originally a dog-trot that was modernized long before I came along, holds my dearest Thanksgiving memories.

She always made boiled custard. I still love boiled custard, and surprisingly you can buy it off the shelf in the grocery store even now. It even tastes remarkably like hers — although she milked the cow that donated the base for this decadently rich drink.

It is thick, almost like a dessert, rather than something you would drink with a meal.  

My grandmother made her boiled custard in a huge wash tub because there were so many of us. She gathered dozens of eggs and milked more cows than usual, used lots of vanilla and sugar, and beat all this to a fare-thee-well before cooking it on the stovetop until it was done. Then it was poured up into gallon jars and kept cold until the family arrived.

When assembled, there were as many of us as a small church congregation. My aunts, who were all good cooks, always tried to out-do each other with sweet potato casseroles, congealed salads in rainbow colors, Veg-All and green bean casseroles and whatever was on the cover of Progressive Farmer that season. (Progressive Farmer was the predecessor of Southern Living, back before it got so high-falutin’).

But it was my grandmother’s chicken and dressing, country ham from the smokehouse just outside the back door, oven-roasted turkey, the freshly gathered and deviled eggs from her hens, and green beans from her garden that held pride of place in the center of that long table.

There were, of course, containers filled with grape Kool-Aid, several gallons of iced tea and fresh buttermilk, along with real churned butter, hot biscuits, cornbread, rolls, and hot coffee.

Desserts were an amazing array of the aunts’ culinary talents. Big, white coconut cakes with seven-minute icing, topped with flaky curls of freshly ground coconut, my Aunt Faye’s chocolate layer cake (the recipe from the back of the Hershey’s tin) carrot and red velvet cakes with cream cheese icing and pies the like of which no bakery on earth can contend. Tables groaned with chocolate, pumpkin, apple, lemon icebox, and coconut pies, piled high with fluffy meringue, and golden peach, blackberry and cherry cobblers. All from scratch, of course.

The family would be called to crowd in as closely as possible. Someone would say grace and the meal would commence with gusto.

Traditionally, in our family, the men and boys got to eat first, primarily because they had to be finished before the ball game started, but also because there wasn’t enough room for everyone to be seated at once. The ladies served them, filling and re-filling their glasses with iced tea and making sure that the bowls were replenished from the huge saucepans on the stove, where everything was kept warm. (This was back in the days before anyone ever heard of a microwave oven).

When they were finished, they cleared their plates, whisked the table clean and seated the youngest of the children at various smaller make-shift tables around the room, then filled their own plates and finally sat down to enjoy a meal that had taken days to assemble.

To me, this was the best of all possible worlds. The kitchen would be warm, filled with the aroma of seasoned meats, coffee, and assortment of spices — vanilla and cinnamon being the ones that I remember most. Everyone talked at once; there was always a lot of laughter around that table, and a tremendous amount of love.

I guess that is really what I remember most — all the love packed into that house. My family gathered often, but Thanksgiving was probably the day that stands out most.

There is nothing like food to bring people together; to make the best of memories, whether they be of family and friends or serving strangers in a soup kitchen. The offer of sustenance is a gesture known the world over. No wonder they call it comfort food.

I hope that your family has the opportunity to be together this Thanksgiving. I hope that you make wonderful memories for your children and grandchildren on this day of appreciation for the bounty with which most of us have been blessed. My prayers are with those brave men and women who will celebrate this holiday in foreign lands.

Y’all have a blessed Thanksgiving!  

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