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As a kid, growing up on the coast, I always had mixed feelings about what I considered “adult” holidays – like Thanksgiving. Unlike the huge children’s days – Halloween and Christmas – Thanksgiving involved a lot of adult activities like dressing up in Sunday clothes and greeting lots of older relatives. It also involved being banished to kids’ tables in the kitchen.
Thanksgiving also meant dealing with foods like creamed boiled onions. There were also strange things called” yams” and huge serving bowls of turnip.
Sure, Christmas involved a lot of the same strange foods, but Christmas also involved huge piles of presents, which more than made up for the yams and creamed boiled onions.
Thanksgiving held out no promise of presents or Halloween-type candy. All it did is serve as a reminder to children everywhere that Christmas was still a lengthy four weeks away – which is at least ten years in kid- time.
It’s a good bet that the ones who dreamed up the traditional Thanksgiving menu didn’t have kids in mind.
At my childhood Thanksgivings in the 1950s and 60s, relatives would start arriving around mid-morning, toting all kinds of strange foods. There seemed to be no rules for what was acceptable. Aunts from up the coast brought things like herring, boiled salt mackerel and cold glazed salmon.
Other aunts from upcountry would bring all kinds of pickled things – including spouses.
No matter who brought what, you could always count on Aunt Gertrude to bring along some of the most peculiar items on the menu. There were pickled watermelon rinds, rhubarb relish, pickled string beans, red cabbage, green tomatoes, something called chow-chow and winter chili sauce. It was as if Aunt Gertrude had taken everything in her kitchen garden, chopped it up and thrown it all into a huge vat of vinegar.
It was always a bit astonishing to me to see how the “old folks” would load up on Aunt Gertrude’s scary relishes as they made several successful rounds of the dinner table on fancy cut glass relish trays.
Even now, so many years later, I still get a little queasy thinking about some of those foods.
Thanksgiving never included – and probably never will include – items for kids. We never had macaroni and cheese, or hot dogs or peanut butter and jelly. Even at that age I knew that the best part of Thanksgiving would follow for days afterward with the turkey sandwiches. But it seemed like a lot of trouble to endure just for those terrific turkey sandwiches.
As I grew older, I realized that Thanksgiving was not the total loss I thought it to be. I liked most of the relatives who came to visit; and I liked the excitement and sense of anticipation that always filled the house before it filled with relatives. When that many relatives got together under one roof at the same time you never know what might happen when touchy subjects like politics or religion came up – which they always did.
Once the dinner was over and dishes were done, most everybody gathered in our large front parlor for stories and songs
Grandfather would often start the stories by telling of Thanksgivings gone by. He had been born and raised in a house less than a mile from where we sat and had gone to a one-room schoolhouse jut down the street. At fourteen, he went to sea on a schooner named the “Orion” out of Searsport. I never tired of his stories about those days.
These days, my Thanksgivings don’t include pickled herring or creamed boiled onions, and I don’t mind a bit. But I sure do miss Grandpa’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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