Extra dollop of care spices Turkey Day tables
In autumn 1621, Plymouth colonist Edward Winslow wrote to a friend in England, “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.”
He continued that the Wampanoag leader Massasoit attended the feast with some 90 men, who killed five deer to contribute to the first Thanksgiving.
The feast also included corn, but the rest of the menu is the subject of educated guesses—possibly shellfish, probably nuts, likely squashes and beans. And, of course, wild turkey.
Which leads us to bags of mini marshmallows on a kitchen counter at First Christian Church Wednesday morning. There can be no question what they were for: to eventually adorn the sweet potatoes busily boiling in covered pots on the big gas stove.
It’s a long road from wild fowl to marshmallow-encrusted sweet potatoes, but the enduring thread is Thanksgiving dinner—the best meal in America.
“It’s kind of the national meal, isn’t it?” said Dan Kirby, coordinator of the culinary arts program at Western Colorado Community College.
“So much significance is placed on the pilgrims and the first settlers and their gratitude for just staying alive,” added Wayne Smith, a chef instructor in the WCCC culinary arts program. “So, I think from a very young age we’re indoctrinated that this meal is a very big deal.”
Which is why Alice Young got up at 4 this morning to put two 20-pound turkeys into the roasters in her garage. And why Wednesday evening, she had a white apron tied around her waist and the Lion House Classics cookbook opened to the dinner rolls page. There were boxes of bread crumbs and a pyramid of canned chicken broth on the kitchen counter nearby, and a cherry pie waiting on the stove for its turn in the oven.
There are 51 people in her Orchard Mesa home today—the seven children of her in-laws, Curtis and Eris Young, as well as the majority of their 19 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. There is football on the big TV and Guitar Hero upstairs. But the meal’s the thing—the turkeys, two 10-pound hams, 40 pounds of potatoes, 10 pounds of yams and enough dessert to make the table buckle.
“We’ve been planning it back and forth, what everybody’s going to bring,” she explained. “We have an email list that’s been going back and forth and we’ve been texting.”
It’s chaos up there, probably, but isn’t that the point? The warm Thanksgiving smells and kids everywhere and bossy aunts and grandpa asleep in the recliner and unavoidable spills and warm laughter? Dinner, then, becomes the symbol of all that.
“We can’t get so caught up in impressing people with our cooking,” Smith said. “It’s more about spending time together and having a nice day. We can’t lose focus on the simple things.”
In fact, despite the best efforts of Michelin-approved chefs and food editors worldwide, Thanksgiving dinner is a basic, sacrosanct thing that resists most change: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, rolls, cranberry relish, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie. Do not mess with this menu.
It’s the menu favored by volunteers at First Christian Church in Grand Junction, who for the third consecutive year will host a free Thanksgiving dinner for anybody who wants to come. Wednesday morning, Sally Lowe and her friend, Verda, tore toasted bread into crumbs while David Morgan oversaw four huge pots boiling on the stove—one for cranberries, three for sweet potatoes.
“This is something we just felt we wanted to do,” explained the Rev. Les Armbruster, adding that everybody needs a good Thanksgiving dinner.
Round tables were set with floral centerpieces and friendly yellow place mats.
There’s a group of widows who attend the dinner and stay for hours, just chatting and enjoying the company, “and I can almost guarantee they’ll sit right over there,” Armbruster said, pointing to a table near the front of the hall.
They’ll sit at that table and they’ll eat their turkey and pie, and feel perfectly, happily Thanksgiving dinner full.