“Giving Thanks”, a beautiful book devoted entirely to the uniquely American holiday coming up this week, shows up on my coffee table every autumn.
We’re into seasonal décor around our house, you see, and once I’ve gotten used to summer flowers and soft pastel throw pillows they suddenly disappear and I’m surrounded by all manner of pumpkins and an abundance of golden and reddish-brown cushions. Then, in no time at all, that autumn motif will be replaced by pinecones in a white ceramic bowl and, over the fireplace, a big photograph of skeletal winter trees in a field of snow. That’s when a hodgepodge of Christmas books will land on the coffee table.
My good friend and literary agent up in Connecticut gave my wife Karen and me our copy of “Giving Thanks” when it came out several years ago. One of the perks of having that particular friend, in addition to his being a darned good agent, is that over the years he’s sent us titles by authors he represents. Like the huge volumes by Margaret George, whose historical novels about Henry VIII, Cleopatra, and Mary Magdalene we’ve especially loved. But of all the tomes that good Connecticut gentleman has sent us, none have been thumbed through as often as the one about Thanksgiving.
In addition to being a handsome addition to the coffee table, it’s a fine compendium of history, traditions, and recipes from the early 1600’s through modern times. A pretty amazing statistic gets trotted out on its first page. In a nation of restaurant-goers and fast-food consumers, nine out of ten Americans sit down and eat a home-cooked holiday feast at Thanksgiving.
The proverbial 1621 meal supposedly shared by the Indians and the pilgrims and all its misty history – what did happen, what might have happened, what almost certainly didn’t happen – is dealt with fairly, taking nothing away from the well-scrubbed, though mostly incorrect, version that found its permanent place in elementary school pageants.
But the heart and soul of this book is its focus on food and family, and all the traditions that come with that rich mixture.
Up in Oakwood I grew up assuming that everybody in the world sat down to roasted turkey and cornbread dressing on Thanksgiving. Then I was served white bread dressing on the two consecutive holidays when I was in the army, which seemed an unpardonable sin at the time. It still does.
That second helping of ruined dressing came when I was stationed in Germany, and I learned a lot about other cultures from fellow homesick soldiers who, like me, missed their mothers’ cooking. One fellow from Massachusetts told me the main dish at his family’s holiday table was oysters; a Puerto Rican kid from Brooklyn went on and on about pork tenderloin. Those guys had never tasted pecan pie (I had to correct their pronunciation of “pecan”), and I praised my mother’s as the best on earth.
More than half of “Giving Thanks” is given over to recipes and the stories behind them. In addition to various preparations of the holiday gobbler, there’s Tourtiere (French Canadian pork pie), roast goose, chicken pie, a 1623 recipe for Indian corn pottage, Pennsylvania German sauerkraut, and Norwegian potato bread. There’s plum pudding, Indiana persimmon pudding, sweet potato pie and pumpkin pie (potato being by far the best, but you probably don’t want me to get on my stump about that again this year).
There’s even a full page Karo syrup magazine ad from the 1950s with a recipe for “easy mix” crust and pecan filling. Mother would have liked that page.
Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie by Kathleen Curtin and Sandra Oliver is a treasure, and we’ve enjoyed our copy immensely. I’m not sure if it’s still in print, but amazon.com has copies available.
Here’s my favorite sentence from the book: “It is a holiday about ‘going home’, with all the emotional content those two words imply.”
This Thursday most of us will go home, whether the journey is geographical – over the river and through the woods – or simply sitting down at our own dining room table with loved ones gathered round. The journey, or part of it, might even be to some place and time that exists only in memory.
And that may be the best one of all.
You have yourself a fine turkey day. And eat a second piece of pie. Pecan pie, if you have a choice.