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It’s the time of year when families begin to gather to celebrate the holidays, which for me means reminiscing about days gone by. I’m sort of distance-deprived when it comes to most of my family these days, since nearly everyone I hold dear lives at least a plane flight or day’s drive away.
As a kid, everyone I knew lived right where I did — all of my immediate family, my aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents were within a few miles radius. Because we didn’t have a lot of money, our meals were generally pretty sparse. Mom did her best to keep everyone fed, but it wasn’t uncommon for our fare to consist of fried bologna sandwiches, creamed chipped beef on toast, or Sloppy Joes. Just thinking about any one of those culinary catastrophes still elicits a pretty strong gag reflex — and it’s been more years than I care to count since any of those items have been on my diet.
The holidays were always a great time for our family because, how can I say this delicately? There was enough food to go around! Even the heartiest of chickens leaves much to be desired when you are attempting to feed seven hungry people. My father was forever trying to convince us that some of the tastiest meat was on the part that went over the fence last. I can still gross my friends out by telling them we used to fight over who got the heart, or liver — or gizzard.
Although there are many drawbacks to growing up somewhat deprived, this didn’t translate to our holiday get-togethers. There were so many people in our extended family back in the ’60s and ’70s; we generally rented out a church basement or a room at the local YMCA so everyone could attend. I can recall long lines of card tables covered in cheerful holiday tablecloths filled with turkeys and hams, sweet potatoes, green bean casseroles, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, and deviled eggs — and that’s only a sampling!
There was always another table brimming with an assortment of pies, cakes, homemade candies — and strange stuff like Jell-O with fruit. To this day I don’t know how anyone can call that a dessert with a straight face — but I’ve even seen versions of this delectable delight with pretzels as part of the mix. Whoever makes that really does not like children!
In those days we always had to dress up for holiday events, which made overeating even more miserable. Feeling stuffed into an itchy wool dress, or a tight taffeta frock is about as uncomfortable as you can get. Fortunately, the massive intake of sugar helped many of us run, twirl, skip, jump and in general, overdo it long enough to offset some of the food’s effects.
Back in 1996 while I was dealing with the harsh realities of breast cancer treatment, my entire family drove from Indiana to Iowa to spend Thanksgiving with me. My husband and I owned a restaurant back then called Grumpy’s Grill.
Grumpy’s was the perfect setting for one of our big holidays feasts. Our restaurant had huge ovens and lots of stoves, so everyone pitched in and created their favorite dish. The result was an overwhelming array of food and family. It had been years since I’d participated in one of these traditions, so I felt particularly blessed — not only was I going to beat breast cancer — but I was able to spend time with the people I love the most.
At some point during the meal, one of my brothers reminded us all of the year mom had decided to forego the traditional turkey and prepare a duck instead. So much time had passed, she thought we were making it up — but each of us held fast to the memory, and had our own version of how this new fangled food had fared. Luckily, other family members had come through with the usual fixings, because somewhat like its long lost cousin the chicken, a duck doesn’t provide a lot of meat. Not only that, Mom’s culinary ability when it came to preparing this dish left much to be desired.
The end result was a sort of shrunken, greasy and overcooked offering that gave new meaning to the word foul… excuse me, make that fowl! Whenever mom would turn her back or go into the other room, one of my siblings would grab the duck and throw it to another family member. The object of this “game” being to get said duck back on the platter before she noticed. Everything was going just fine until my brother Ted had to show off and throw a high pass, nearly hitting Aunt Mildred in the head with our dinner. Luckily, someone said “DUCK” and she did! Unfortunately, the duck ended up in the dumpster. I think if it hadn’t been for the fact it was a holiday gathering, we would all have been sent to bed without our dinner.
Thankfully, Aunt Mildred was quick to forgive, and our mother managed to give each of us enough stink-eye to keep us on our best behavior for the remainder of the day. On our way home, packed like sardines in our Nash Rambler, my dad worked his usual magic on Momma reminding her of all we had to be thankful for. And he was right! Since the duck had been inedible grandma had insisted we take home what was left of the turkey. Daddy patted mom on the knee and said “You know one of the best parts of having a turkey is being able to make sandwiches for the next week!”
If we’d been able to move our arms, all of us stuffed in the back seat most certainly would have clapped our hands in delight. As it was, all we were able to do was say, “Gobble, gobble, gobble,” which made Mom laugh, because no matter how often we tested her patience, she really did know what she had to be thankful for! And so did we.