Friday, December 4, 2009

thanksgiving memory redux

Twice a year, we would have two very formal meals at my house: Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. My grandparents always came for Thanksgiving-- my father’s mother, and my mother’s parents. We would add all the leaves to the dining table because that would make us nine for dinner. We ate in our dining room every night as a family, and my mother loved the trappings of a good table, so we always ate off of good china. But at Thanksgiving, the table would be set with a long, heavy white linen table cloth with embroidered linen napkins cleaned and pressed every year by a service provided at the local sanitarium which gave those less fortunate than us a way to earn a little spending money. I always wondered what they hoped to spend their hard-earned pennies on.

The table would be set with my parents’ wedding china, a beautiful and simple center pattern of brown wheat-like sheaves with a spray of turquoise and terra cotta dots for flowers. The pattern was English and called “Autumn” as my parents were married at the beginning of September. The wedding silver was substantial and ornate with monograms engraved at the bases. I have no idea where it came from, whether it was registered for at the local jewelers in Cincinnatti where my parents grew up, or if the set had belonged to someone in the family and been bequeathed. It would take days to polish after the close of the holiday season. Heavy, cut crystal water goblets and wine glasses made in Ireland marched down the length of the table. Then, there were all the silver serving dishes: platters and bowls and shell-shaped extravaganzas. On the side-board, the silver coffee service -- to be taken in the living room after dinner -- would be set up with small bone-white and gold demitasses, minute silver spoons, a claw-footed dish filled with sugar cubes, and a claw-footed pitcher filled with cream.

The meal itself was achingly simple and traditional. My mother, who is actually a good, solid cook, doesn’t like cooking as much as she likes setting the scene: preparing the table, putting fresh flowers in every room, ironing bleach-white hand towels that were bought as souvenirs from faraway travels, and orchestrating a grand meal. In the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s, the town I grew up in didn’t have caterers, but there were women who cooked. They would hire themselves out to cook and present for engagement or holiday parties, ladies’ luncheons, or large family gatherings. My mother knew two women who were considered queens of the local kitchen: Fanny and Charlie-Belle. Sometimes they would work together, sometimes they would work separately, and they were classic soul food cooks. My mother would book them for the following year’s holiday meals at the finish of the present year’s holiday to be sure she had their expertise. To have Fanny and Charlie-Belle cook for you at any time, let alone a family holiday, I’m sure was quite an accomplishment in the small-town social strata of Southern Indiana.

Cocktails would be served in the living room with shrimp cocktail and cheese and crackers which my sisters and I would pass around, my mother making every effort to teach us to be young ladies. We were expected to dress for dinner, and I always got presents on Thanksgiving which proved to be a bit confusing as I got older: a new coloring book, or set of Pilgrim paper dolls. In hindsight, I’m sure this was my mother’s way to try and keep me occupied for the afternoon, and out of her hair. The menu was always the same: cruditĂ© of carrots and celery served with a tangy sauce a lá Russe (made with cottage cheese, mayonnaise and Heinz 57, I’m almost positive), black and pimento-stuffed green olives, then whole-roast turkey with savory stuffing, mashed potatoes, thick turkey gravy (the one thing my mother would make for the dinner), peas, and creamed onions. Both apple and pumpkin pie were always served, to be followed by the dark, strong coffee in the living room.

But the crowning glory of that meal was not the crispy skin on the turkey, or the perfect velvety smoothness of the potatoes, or any of the other sleights of hand performed by the those kitchen magicians Fanny and Charlie-Belle. It was in the unquantifiable goodness of Charlie-Belle’s Parker House Rolls. The Parker House was an elegant hotel in Chicago known in mid-century culinary circles for these rolls served at table. Charlie-Belle was famous for these rolls all the way into the next county. I don’t know where she got the recipe or learned to make them—I wish I could go back in time and ask her now. Oh, how many things I would ask her! The recipe was a carefully guarded secret and added to Charlie-Belle’s mystique. Charlie-Belle knocked it out of the ball-park every year. The memory of the taste of those warm, soft, slightly buttery and yeasty flavors mingling with the cold fresh butter we would watch melt into the fine web of the crumb, still lingers.


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