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As a kid I always had mixed feelings about what I considered "adult" holidays - like Thanksgiving. Unlike huge children's days - Halloween and Christmas - Thanksgiving involved a lot of adult activities like dressing up in Sunday best and greeting lots of older, distant relatives and being banished to kids' tables in the kitchen It meant dealing with foods like boiled onions and yams and huge serving dishes of turnip.
Sure, Christmas involved a lot of the same things like dressing up and strange foods, but Christmas also involved piles presents that more than made up for the yams and boiled rhubarb relish.
Thanksgiving held no promise of presents or special candy. All it did was serve as a reminder that Christmas was still a long four weeks away. And it's a good bet that the ones who dreamed up the Thanksgiving menu didn't have youngsters in mind.
At my Thanksgivings i the 1950s and 60s, relatives would start arriving sometime around mid-morning, toting all kinds of strange-sounding foods. There seemed to be almost no rules. Aunts from down the coast brought things like herring, haddock, boiled salt mackerel or cold glazed salmon. Some years there'd be relatives who had ventured in from Penobscot Bay islands bearing creamed finnan haddie or baked cod or flounder. Other aunts from up country brought all kinds of relishes and lots of pickled things - including spouses.
No matter who brought what, you could always count on Aunt Gertrude (yes I did have an aunt named Gertrude) to bring along some of the most peculiar items on the menu - pickled watermelon rinds, rhubarb relish, pickled onions, pickled string beans, red cabbage, green tomatoes, something called chow chow (don't ask and I won't tell) and winter chili sauce. It was almost as iff Aunt Gertrude had taken everything left in her garden, chopped it up and threw it into a large vat of vinegar.
As a youngster, it was always astonishing to me to see how many of the old folks would load up on Aunt Gertrude's scary relishes as they made several successful rounds of the crowded dinner table on fancy cut-glass relish trays.
Even now, so many years later, I get a little queasy just thinking about some of that food.
Thanksgiving tables never included - and probably never will include - items for the kids. We never had mac n’ cheese, or hot dogs, or potato chips or peanut butter and jelly. Even in those days I knew the best part of Thanksgiving was the leftovers that would follow for days afterwards - but it sure seemed like a lot of trouble to endure just to get those terrific turkey sandwiches.
As I grew older, I realized that Thanksgiving was not a total loss. I liked most of my far-flung, seldom seen relatives who came to visit; and I liked the excitement and sense of anticipation that filled the house from one end to the other. When you got that many diverse relatives together at one time, you never knew what might happen when "touchy" subjects like politics or religion came up - as they always did.
Once dinner was over and the dishes were done, most everybody gathered in the large front parlor for songs and stories.
My Grandfather would often start the stories by telling about Thanksgivings gone by. He had been born in 1878, and was raised in a large Victorian house less than half a mile from where we all sat. He had gone to a one-room school house that was still standing just down the street, and at fourteen, he went to sea as a cabin boy on a schooner named the "Volunteer" out of Searsport. I never tired of his stories about those days.
Grandfather would tell about the holidays when he was at sea or in some foreign port. He would tell of fierce November storms in the North Atlantic and about some of resulting shipwrecks.
Those who didn't want to hang around and listen, and didn't mind the blustery winds would go for long walks on the shore path that ran in front of the house. Others would just sit around, as their dinner quietly digested. But most would sit in the parlor listening to one story after another.
These days, my Thanksgivings don't include servings of things like pickled string beans and I can't remember the last time I saw some cold glazed salmon, and I don't feel the least bit deprived. But I sure do miss Grandfather's stories.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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