November, 2010


“Mom, what do you want for Christmas?”

“Oh me, you know I don’t need a thing. Look around here,” she said as she looked about her Morgan Road home. “I’ve lived here nearly sixty years and this place is just full of stuff.”

“Well, you have to want something.”

“I really enjoy getting things I can use, like car washes, and maybe a little money  to get a new perm. That’s all I need. I have a closet full of clothes – clothes that I don’t even wear. Goodness gracious! I don’t need another what-not! I have a rooster collection, mouse collection, angel collection, rabbit collection, all kind of collections, and a world of souveniers. Lord knows what all I have in this house! I don’t need another thing, Diane!”

“Bah humbug!”

A Christmas Snowflake, made by Emilee Rose Story

A Christmas Snowflake, made by Emilee Rose Story

“No bah humbug me,” laughed Mama as I pressed her for an answer.

“I thought you liked Christmas, what about a real tree this year?”

“I do like Christmas, but my Christmas’ have changed. Your Daddy’s gone. And ever since that last tree, well, I just don’t want another Christmas tree. My little ceramic trees are enough for me. I’m not able to decorate a big tree anymore – nor do I want one decorated for me.” Mama pressed a tissue to her face to wipe her eyes, “Not since that last one. Your brother put up that tree for me, and I was gonna decorate it that weekend when some of the grandkids come over. But, you know that phone call I got.” Mama fanned herself and wiped her eyes again. “Well, I went to the hospital right away. I stayed there three weeks, until he passed. I couldn’t bring myself to leave him. Lord knows it’s hard to see your grandson leave this earth. It just broke my heart, and then to come home a few weeks later and the first thing I saw was that Christmas tree. It was dead – turned completely brown with the needles on the floor. I couldn’t go no further. I sat down in the living-room and cried my eyes out. I never want to see another live tree in my house again. You could fill this house plumb full of the prettiest Christmas trees in the world, and it wouldn’t fill that empty place in my heart.” Mama took a deep breath, “I enjoy going to my young ‘uns homes and seeing y’alls. That’s what I enjoy.”

“It bothers me that you can’t really enjoy Christmas…”

“Oh, but I do,” said Mama as she regained her composure, “I really do. I love Christmas.” I saw a little twinkle start to shine through in Mama’s eyes as she grinned and said, “I do get a special gift every year. It’s always a surprise, and I can hardly wait for it to come, and it does, every year – just like clock-work – just for me.”

“What? From who?”

“Oh, you could say – from Santa Claus.”

“Santa Claus! What in the world are you talking about?”

Mama laughed and said, “I love all the gifts I get from you kids. But that one gift makes me feel like a child waiting for Santa to come. It makes be plumb giddy with anticipation. I can’t help myself.”

“Tell me what it is!”

Mama laughed hard and said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.”

“It comes at the same time every year. I enjoy Thanksgiving and then I can hardly wait  two days later for Saturday. I get in my car early that morning, and drive up Morgan Road. I turn to the right onto Chamblee Tucker and right again on Lavista, as I get to the Browning District Courthouse…”

“You’re going in one big circle; why not take the short cut?”

“Because, I want to see it head on – that’s why. And the whole time I driving, I’m praying. Please let me get lucky this year. Please, let it be a snowflake for Mrs. Story.”

“A snowflake?”

“Yes, oh, I enjoy the candle and the little drummer boy, but the snowflake is so special. It’s my favorite.”
“What are you talking about?”

“The Christmas decorations the Tucker Fire Department put up on the telephone poles!”

“Are you kidding me?”
“No, I’m not kidding. It’s wonderful! It’s just for me. Well, not really – but it’s on my street! Just behind my house! I feel like I’ve been a good girl when I get the snowflake,” laughed Mama.

This will be the third Christmas without Mama. She now celebrates her Christmas’ with Daddy and her beloved grandson, Lowry. I think of her often, especially near the holidays. Thanksgiving comes and I display a cake in her glass cake dish. I enjoy the day, but I can hardly wait for Saturday morning to come. I find myself driving an hour to Tucker. I exit 285 and turn left at Chamblee Tucker. I pass Morgan Road, take a right onto Lavista, and go past the Tucker Courthouse – Mama would correct me and say, “It’s the Browning District Courthouse.” Anyway, as I pass the courthouse, I look up and maybe, just maybe I’ll get lucky this year. Maybe I’ll  get a snowflake.

“Hey, what’s that Patricia?” I asked my nine year old sister.

“Fingernail polish, I found it in my stocking. Look, a whole set of different colors. Do you want me to polish your nails?” asked my older sister.

”Yeah, let me look at the colors – wow, pink, lavender, blue and green.” My choice was an easy one, since blue is my favorite color.

Patricia polished my nails pearly blue. When my nails dried, I went back to examining the box of sparklers I found in my stocking.

Daddy came into the living-room with his new Gibson guitar. He sat across from me strumming the strings. He really looked tired. “Tom, why don’t you take a nap, now that all the gifts are opened?” asked Mama.

“No, I’ll stay up a while and play for my girls,” he said as he took a cup of hot coffee from Mama’s hand. He played a few Christmas songs and then I noticed something strange about his face. He turned pale as could be and looked startled. He suddenly put his guitar a way and left the room. Something was wrong.

Moments later, Mama burst into the room. She came straight for me and looked at my hands, “What’s that on your nails?”

“Patricia’s fingernail polish…”

Before I could finish, Mama left the room. She came back quickly with polish remover, and took the polish off my fingers.

“Why? I like it.”

“Because you are sick right now, and blue fingernails make you look even sicker. You scared your father to near death. Now, that looks better. Go into the bedroom and show your nails to your father,” said Mama.

“Really, I can stand up and walk in there?”

“Yes, just this one time. It’ll be okay. Go on now and show him.”

I was a little wobbly, so Mama helped me down the hall to the door of the bedroom.”

“Is he mad at me?” I whispered just before I approached the door.

“No, of course not – just show him your nails. Now go on.”

She left me alone to walk into his bedroom. Daddy was lying across the bed with his head buried in the sheets. I walked around the bed to get to his head. There I spread out my fingers and said, “Daddy, look at my nails.”

“No, I can’t,” he sobbed, “I can’t.”

“Why not? Mama took off the blue polish and told me to show you my hands.”

Daddy slowly lifted his head and looked at my fingers, “Let me see them.” His smile slowly returned to his face, as he took my hands in his for a good long look. “Now that looks good. You don’t need any polish on them. I like them just like they are, pink and healthy.”

“I know – I’m not going to polish them blue again, nor lavender nor green – just pink or clear.”

“Clear’s better. That way I can see what color your nails really are. If they turn bluish, I need to know, so I can take you back to the hospital.”

“But we don’t have any clear polish.”

“As soon as Doc Newsom opens his drugstore, I’ll go get you some.” Daddy stood up, put my arm around his neck and picked me up in his arms. He was all smiles now, “What do you think you’re doing walking around? Just ‘cause it’s Christmas? Huh?” Before I could answer, he said, “Let’s go back into the living room and take a look at that Christmas tree. What’s that I saw you playing with? Sparklers? Surely Santa didn’t bring you sparklers!” Daddy laughed.

“Yes he did! The stocking had Diane on it! It’s mine!”

“Santa must have made a mistake! You can’t play with sparklers.”

“Yes I can!”

Daddy laughed even more, “I want to see everything Santa brought to my four girls.”

“Four girls? But you have three girls!”

“I have you, Pat and Barbara and Mama – that’s four.”

“He carried me down the hall where Mama stood, he winked at her and said, “I’ve rested enough, Helen. Let’s enjoy Christmas.”

The swing next to Mama's front door - a welcomed sight. The home where she prepared more than fifty Thanksgiving dinners.

The swing next to Mama’s front door – a welcomed sight. The home where she prepared more than fifty Thanksgiving dinners.

Thanksgiving is a great time of year to get together with family and friends to enjoy good company and the culinary arts. I learned how to cook from my mother, Helen Voyles-Story. And she learned to cook from her mother, Lois Jenkins-Voyles and her “Story” sisters-in-law.  And my Memi, Lois Volyes, learned how to cook from her mother, Cora Maddox-Jenkins. Cora was born in a log cabin at the end of Morgan Road – the road I grew up on. And considering all of that history, many Thanksgivings have come and gone, and I have learned to streamline what I learned. And for better or worse, I still get asked how I cook certain things. So, here goes on the giblet gravy.

 

First of all cook a turkey. Before you cook the turkey, remove the neck and the bag of gooshie stuff in the cavities of the turkey. Don’t forget, there is a cavity in the top and bottom of the turkey. When no one is looking, place the neck and bag of gooshie stuff in a plastic bag and carefully place it in the trash can – there goes your giblets. Mama would not be happy with that. I can hear her say, “Waste not – want not.” She got that way of thinking from her mother, my Memi. But, this is the way I do it.

Take a large heavy skillet and melt two or three tablespoons of margarine. Mix in the same amount of self-rising flour. Mix well for four to five minutes. This forms rue. Slowly add broth that has been carefully drained from the cooked turkey to the rue. Allow the broth to thicken and continue adding turkey broth; in all about two cups of broth. Stir until thickened somewhat and then add a can of chicken mushroom soup. Stir briskly to dissolve the soup into the broth mixture.  Dispose of the soup can the same way as the gooshie stuff and neck. Lower the heat and simmer while adding some bits of turkey meat cut from under the turkey so that no one will guess that any meat is missing. Cut the pieces of meat into small and medium bits. Be sure to include mostly dark meat, because that’s the color of giblets. The bits of mushrooms in the soup also mimic the giblets, salt and pepper to taste.  Just before serving, add two or three sliced hard boiled eggs. If the gravy gets too thick or cold, add a little canned chicken broth to it and stir while heating. If the gravy does not thicken enough, dissolve a tablespoon of self-rising flour in an ounce or so of very hot water and slowly add to gravy, stir.

 Turkey

As far as cooking the turkey, follow the cooking chart on the package. Remember to purchase your frozen turkey about three days before you cook him, because it takes about that long to thaw him out in the bottom of your refrigerator. Keep the turkey wrapped in the original packaging covered with at least one extra plastic bag and always place the turkey in a pan. When thoroughly defrosted, wash well especially inside the cavities. Wash until water runs clear. Place turkey in a large baking pan on a rack. Add two to three cups of water to the bottom of the pan. Salt and pepper turkey liberally. In a skillet, melt two sticks of margarine and add almost  that much self-rising flour to the butter, making a pourable rue. Cook five minutes or so. When thickened, pour the rue over the turkey. The thickening of the butter will keep the butter from sliding off the turkey into the pan. Cook the turkey in an open pan for about thirty minutes on five hundred degrees. That will give the turkey a nice browned appearance. Don’t be tempted to walk away and forget about the bird. You must lower the temperature according to the cooking instructions on the package. If the turkey gets too brown during the remaining cook time, place a tent made of aluminum foil over it. The secret to cooking a good juicy turkey opposed to a dry turkey, is the timing. If you go by the Miss Dull chart, it will be dry. She says to cook for twenty-five minutes per pound. A twenty pound turkey would take almost ten hours to cook. That’s too long. If you go by the cooking instructions on the packaging, it should be juicy. To be certain, insert an oven thermometer into the fattest part of the breast, careful not to allow it to rest on a bone. When your oven thermometer hits one hundred sixty-five, it should be done. If the dark meat is at all bloody, cut away the white meat and return the dark meat to the oven. Wait twenty minutes before cutting the turkey or removing the thermometer. Mama tended to overcook the turkey a bit, because she just could not believe that anything that big could possibly be done in such a short time, and often quoted her friend, Miss Dull. Mama didn’t want anybody getting sick. And if you serve undercooked poultry, your guests could wind up in the hospital. As you can see, timing is crucial.

 

Clean up is also crucial. Wash your hands and counters well to dispose of raw turkey liquids. I could get aggrevated with Mama about the cleanliness thing. As a small child, one year, I sassed her a little bit about it, “How did the Pilgrims survive? I bet they didn’t do all this. I don’t remember reading anything about them hauling bleach over here on the Mayflower.”

Daddy was passing through the kitchen and said, “That’s probably why so many of them died the first year they landed at Plymouth Rock. Listen to your mother.”

Rats! He was always on her side.

 

And of course, it’s not Thanksgiving without the dressing, not stuffing. Mama never made stuffing. It was always cornbread dressing – without sage. She did not care for herbs in dressing – although some do. And here is that recipe – if you can call it that. She never measured or wrote down much of anything.

Mama’s Southern Cornbread Dressing

First of all, make a 9″x12″ pan of cornbread. That’s easy. Mama made it from scratch, but I use a good mix like White Lily or Aunt Jemima’s Self Rising Cornbread Mix. Follow the directions. It’s just the cornbread mix and buttermilk – about half and half. You don’t want the cornbread to be dry. I can hear Mama laugh as she lovingly spoke of her sister, Frances. “Your Aunt Frances was a very good cook, but in her younger years, her cornbread was a little dry. When her pone came out of the oven, you could still see her little hand print on it. Make it wet enough so that your hand print doesn’t show. The best thing Frances cooked was fresh food – right out of the garden. She always had a beautiful garden. But Frances’ greatest talent was playing The Old Rugged Cross on Grandma’s organ.”

Helen and older sister, Frances Voyles.

Helen and older sister, Frances Voyles.

Cook and allow cornbread to cool so you can work it with your hands. Crumble the pan of cornbread into a large bowl. Mama always “broke up” left over homemade biscuits into the crumbled cooked cornbread. Stale white loaf bread will work just fine. If she ran short of cold biscuits, she crumbled up a sleeve of saltine crackers into the mixture. Make sure there are no lumps. Work it. To do a really good job, as Mama would say, “Use the tools the good Lord gave you, your hands.” Add the whole bunch of chopped celery, two large chopped onions, salt and pepper. Go easy on the salt, if you used saltines. Now for the dangerous part – add enough hot broth (from your cooked turkey) to wet down the cornbread mixture. This can be tricky. Too much broth – dressing will be greasy. Not enough broth – dressing will be tasteless. Usually you pour enough to barely wet it down – then finish it with hot water. You want the consistency to be thick but not dry – and never soupy. Use the Aunt Frances hand print test. Last but not least – add six raw eggs to the mixture and stir well. Use a heavy spoon, and don’t go diving straight into the hot broth or you may burn yourself. Pour the dressing into a large greased baking pan. Cook in a quick oven – about four hundred degrees for about thirty five to forty five minutes. It all depends on how thick the dressing is. It needs to cook for about thirty minutes to cook through, and extra time to brown nicely. Just keep an eye on it. You may want to place a drip pan under it to avoid a sticky mess in the oven and a smoky kitchen. No fire alarm dinners wanted.

Cranberry Sauce

I am the only one in my immediate family who likes cranberry sauce, so I just open a can of jellied cranberries for me. If I have guests who I know care for cranberries, I mix a can of jellied cranberry sauce together with a can of whole berry cranberries, then serve it in a small delicate crystal dish with a fancy spoon.

 

There are certain foods that are a must at Thanksgiving, because the Native Americans introduced them to the Pilgrims and probably saved some lives because of it. Those foods are cranberries, corn and pumpkin. In one way or another, those three foods will land on my Thanksgiving table. It is my way of honoring America’s humble beginnings.

 

Helpful Hints:

* The day before – boil eggs and cook the cornbread and biscuits. Frozen biscuits are great. Go ahead and crumble up the bread and crackers.

*Chop the onions and celery the day before and store separately in plastic bags in the refrigerator.

* Always have extra canned chicken or turkey broth on hand in case you have the bad luck of cooking a slim bird. You need enough broth to make the dressing and gravy. After reading this, my sister Pat asked me, “Do you know Mama’s secret for making dressing?”

“No, what secret?”

Pat answered, “She cooked a hen the day before and used mostly the hen broth. Mom said all turkey broth was too strong.”

Aha!

*Chill the cranberries before serving. Make a list of your menu and check them off as you cook and don’t forget – the cranberries are in the refrigerator.

*Figure up the turkey cooking time and write the done time in big numbers on a sheet of paper and look at it often. Opening the oven door prolongs the cook time.

 

No matter how hard you work at perfection, please accept the fact that something will go wrong. At the time, it seems like a catastrophe, but as time goes by, it’s what made us all laugh so hard. One of my sisters, who will remain nameless, decided to cook biscuits one year. She went into Mama’s kitchen and wanted to do something different. Mama was pleasantly surprised and gave her run of the kitchen, and encouraged her to “do your thing.” Mama always made biscuits by hand and pinched off little balls and flattened them on the baking pan with her knuckles. My sister rolled the dough, and used a gingerbread man cookie cutter to make her biscuits. She proudly served them and waited anxiously for us to try them. They were beautiful, but hard. We couldn’t bite them. We couldn’t break them. We couldn’t cut them with a sharp knife. Nothing worked. Finally, Jim, who can be long on humor, and a tad short on manners, stood up and threw his little biscuit man against the wall. The biscuit fell and hit the floor. Mama rescued the little biscuit man and examined him closely. “Not even a crack. How much shortening did you use?” Her only answer was, “Huh?” We all laughed and Mama suggested we share our Thanksgiving with the birds. The little biscuit men survived the winter into spring-time.

 

Years later, in my new Williamsburg home in Dunwoody, I planned a perfect Thanksgiving. Every detail was noted and checked. I even polished the brass chandelier and had the table set two days ahead of time. Food was ready. Just before the guests arrived, I ran upstairs to take a quick shower and put on my Thanksgiving outfit laid out on my bed. Everything was there ready for me to jump into. Out of the shower and putting on my clothes, I suddenly realized my panty hose were missing. How could that be? I lived in a house with a husband and two small sons. What could have happened to them? I looked for another pair – nothing without a run. Time was ticking away; I could hear folks coming in. I settled for a pair of pants and sweater. I hurried downstairs to welcome my guests. After a while, we all gathered in the dining room to join hands and bless our meal. As I walked in the room, I was shocked to see a huge – though skinny – turkey hanging from the chandelier. It had long colorful feathers made of construction paper and the structure was a stretched out coat hanger. Honestly, it was a hideous sight. I looked a bit closer to see what the body was made of, it was my panty hose stretched out over the coat hanger. To this day, I have not received a confession. And every Thanksgiving, I remember that moment, and I always laugh. It was priceless.

A priceless moment is not always a perfect moment.  And as you can see, it is very hard to pass on recipes where recipes don’t exist. I spent many hours, year after year watching Mama cook. “It takes practice,” she would say, always encouragingly. And that’s it – trial and error. I have tried to cover every mistake I made and share a few tips. While cooking with Mama one day at her home on Morgan Road in Tucker, she asked, “You ever watch that girl on the cooking show?  That seventy percent store bought girl. Do you know who I’m talking about?”

“Who?”

“You know, she buys seventy percent at the store and dabbles around with it a little and calls it homemade.”

Happy Thanksgiving Y'all!

Happy Thanksgiving Y’all!

“Sandra Lee, Semi-Homemade?”

“Yeah, that’s her. Can you believe it?”

“Yes, I can.”