Thursday, November 28, 2019

(Missing) snapshot & memories: Thanksgiving

It was this year I realized that, in all those shoeboxes, I don't seem to have any family photographs of childhood Thanksgivings. Why would that be? Was everyone saving their film for Christmas? Was everyone too busy preparing food to take photographs? Certainly, the idea of photographing the food itself was not as widespread then as it is now.1 But it still seems odd that I can't easily find any 1970s or 1980s photos of my family on this holiday.

Words will have to suffice for these memories. Before I become any more of an unreliable narrator than I already am, I thought I'd jot some down.

When I was young, we had many of our Thanksgivings at the house on Oak Crest Lane in Wallingford, Pennsylvania.

While there were certainly other Thanksgivings at other locations, I seem to have the most recollection of the Oak Crest Lane experience in the late 1970s and the 1980s. And then my mom, sister and I moved into that house in 1986, so that was "home" for Thanksgiving from there forward.

Earlier than 1986, though, we had some amazing multigenerational holiday meals. I was talking with some co-workers this week and realized that I'm probably in the last generation that will have memories of sitting down to a meal with relatives who were born in the 19th century. Oak Crest Lane was originally the residence of my oft-mentioned great-grandparents, Howard Adams (1892-1985) and Greta Adams (1894-1988).2 Howard, who I called Pop-Pop, was one of the chiefs of the kitchen; he loved to cook.

Here's a look at Howard and Greta with their great-grandchildren, all of whom were born in the 1970s. These aren't Thanksgiving snapshots — we're wearing shorts! — but it's the closest I could find to something we might have taken at a Thanksgiving gathering, if anyone had picked up the camera!

From left: cousin Steve, sister Adriane, Pop-Pop, me, cousin Jeanette, Lamp.

From left: Lamp, cousin Jeanette, cousin Steve, Greta (Mimi), me, Lamp, sister Adriane

For some meals before 1985, we must have tried to cram 11 people around the table, as the group would have also included Mom, Dad, Uncle Charles and his wife, and my grandmother, Helen Ingham (1919-2003). Uncle Charles took over sitting at the head of the table after Pop-Pop died, and I had some turns there starting in the 1990s.

My family probably didn't make a "day trip" to Wallingford for Thanksgiving when we were living in Montoursville; that would have been a bit of a round-trip haul. So we probably stayed overnight. But we certainly could have come over for the day when we were living in Clayton, southern New Jersey, in the late 1970s. It was just a zip across the Commodore Barry Bridge. Either way, when we arrived at Oak Crest Lane, we perhaps looked something like this coming in the door. (This photo is from a February visit, but the idea is the same.)

From left: Lamp, me, Mom, Dad, Adriane.

So what was Thanksgiving Day actually like? It varied over the years, and my mind is a mish-mash of the 1970s through 2000s. I don't recall a lot of TV when I was younger; maybe just the Macy's parade in the background and/or falling asleep to college football after we ate. There were little snacks as appetizers: cheese, crackers, olives. (In later years, shrimp cocktail become a traditional appetizer.)

People had to spread out a little, because the big house had a small kitchen. So couldn't cram too many folks in there while the cook was tending to the turkey and the side dishes. Here's a 1990s Christmas photo that gives you some sense of the tight quarters.

From left: Adriane, liquor, Mom, me with newspaper, cousin Steve.

As for the food at Oak Crest Lane, our Thanksgivings meals were very traditional when I was a kid. The menu rarely varied from this:

  • Roast turkey
  • Gravy
  • Stuffing3
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Succotash4
  • Fresh rolls
  • Cranberry sauce from a can
  • Pumpkin pie

We were right-fine pilgrim cosplayers, I reckon. The big moment, of course, was the turkey coming through the squeaky swinging door and being placed on the table. I liked the white meat and lots of skin. Mom went for the wings. Older relatives often preferred the dark meat.

Other memories: The rolls came in a large wooden scoop, covered in a cloth napkin; they were always amazing. ... Dress was usually semi-formal, with button-up shirts and slacks. ... Thanksgiving dinner was always the big test determining whether you got a passing or failing grade on table manners for the year. ... Cranberry sauce from a can is the greatest, and I will hear no arguments to the contrary. ... I was often the only one at the table drinking milk, and lots of it; those days are gone with the wind, given my dairy intolerance. ... A key was to eat the succotash first, and be done with it. ... As the years passed, post-dinner cleanup became my primary role. I had a good system for it. ... We'd often take the turkey grease and dump it in a back corner of the yard, near the wood pile. ... Hours later came a meal almost as great as Thanksgiving dinner: cold turkey leftovers on white bread with mayo.

I have better photos of the dining room where we ate Thanksgiving dinner at Oak Crest Lane, but here's one I really like from circa 1959.

From left: Pop-Pop, Uncle Charles, Mimi, Mom.

Thanksgiving dinner evolved over the years, of course. People pass on. Grow up. Go away to college. Get married. Have kids. Get divorced. Get remarried. And so the configurations around the table changed. And the menu definitely changed, too, as the 1990s went one. There was more enthusiasm for mixing up the offerings. Succotash was replaced with asparagus, perhaps. Different forms of potato. Shrimp, as I mentioned, and oysters becoming a bigger part of some holidays. Even — gasp — an occasional year without Tom Turkey.5 Adriane's then-husband, Jason, was an extraordinary chef who added a lot of flavor and variety to our Oak Crest Lane meals in the first decade of the 21st century.

One of our last big family Thanksgivings at Oak Crest Lane was circa 2009, when Mom was the only one living there. But we got eight people around the table thanks to the addition of me, Joan, Ashar, Joan's mom (also Joan), Adriane, Jason and Jacob. The meal was nothing like the pilgrim-replica Thanksgivings of yore in Wallingford. After gorging on appetizers, we had beef, lobster, some sort of fancy potatoes, probably green beans and other fixins. If there are snapshots of that one, Joan or Adriane must have them somewhere.

Happy Thanksgiving!

1. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, there's a Wikipedia page for this. It's titled, wonderfully, "Camera eats first" and it's described as "the behavior and global phenomenon of people taking photos of their meals with digital or smartphone cameras before they eat, mostly followed by uploading the photos to the social media." The article also ends with these grim conclusions: "It may disrupt other people dining and spoil the enjoyment of their meal. They may also leave their partners in a state of hunger and impatience. ... (And), while people are busy photographing their food and sharing it online, they will have less time to communicate with their friends and family."
2. I realized while writing this that I got Howard Horsey “Ted” Adams' years of birth and death wrong in several previous posts, due to carelessness on my part, probably exacerbated by later "cut and pasting" of the original mistake. So now I'm kind of very stressed out. He has born in 1892 and died in 1985. I have to go back and fix multiple Papergreat posts. AND, before I forget, I have to go into the Papergreat bound volumes and correct those entries with margin notes.
3. It's possible some of my older relatives called it "filling." I wasn't an observant ethnographer back then, so I can't recall.
4. Full disclosure: It was the most bland succotash possible. Just corn and lima beans, with no zest or spices. It was pretty awful.
5. For me, all red meat and poultry came off the menu in 2013, to the chagrin of some of the meat-eaters around me.

No comments:

Post a Comment