Column – Childhood’s Thanksgiving dinner memories endure
Published 5:07 pm Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Thanksgiving always brings back childhood memories, and it did again this past week.
There was a time, I’m confident, when my mother prepared a special dinner on Thanksgiving Day, but by the time I was 9 or 10, that had given way to having Thanksgiving Dinner on Sunday.
Back then, my father, older brother and eventually I hunted whenever we could, and Thanksgiving Day was invariably spent hunting ducks, deer, rabbits, squirrels — whatever was in season and might be available. Even in the years when I was too young to hunt, there were trips to the woods on Thanksgiving. My mother, who loved the outdoors, would take my younger sister Betty and I on walks around the farm. Fall was still in play, though fading in late November, and she wanted us to appreciate it with her. It’s an appreciation that stuck.
Somewhere along the way, it became convenient to have the family gather after church on Sunday for a Thanksgiving meal. We had Sunday dinner every week, anyway, so Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday just seemed to make sense.
We returned to Thursday Thanksgiving dinners after Anne and I returned to Smithfield following my Navy hitch, but hunting was still a big part of the day and dinner became an evening event that for a number of years grew into a buffet for more people than could be seated around our table. We’ve now settled into an early afternoon dinner on Thursday, with years of more active Thanksgiving Days a distant memory.
Wherever and whenever they’ve been spent, though, Thanksgivings have left indelible and very fond memories.
Speaking of fond memories, many of mine naturally relate to our newspaper years and the wonderful people who made publishing it possible. Foremost among them was Lona Ellis, a native of Rushmere whose life and the paper were inextricably entwined. She was our stalwart ad manager, creative guru and often the glue that held things together. She also had a sense of humor honed by her country upbringing, which played well off mine, often to the chagrin of other staffers.
One fall day, the topic turned to Thanksgiving turkeys, and drifted, eventually, to the topic of how to properly dispatch a Thanksgiving turkey.
Lona’s father, Benny Ellis, raised turkeys for sale when she was a child, and she knew all about how to raise them, care for them and kill them.
We didn’t have turkeys on our farm. Our only fowl were chickens, and I learned early from my mother how to chop off a chicken’s head and let it flop around. The last flutters served to help bleed the chicken before taking it in to be scalded, plucked and cleaned. A chicken being small, the flapping around didn’t hurt it.
Turkeys, however, are big birds, and flailing around can seriously bruise the bird’s meat. For that reason, Lona explained, a turkey was placed in a burlap sack with its head and neck sticking out of a precut hole. Thus trussed up and hung from a rafter or limb, the bird was on its way to becoming a tasty — and unbruised — Thanksgiving centerpiece. The turkey you ate Thursday was handled more or less like that, only in a much more automated fashion.
I recall that we dispatched a turkey in a sack only once, having bought it live before Thanksgiving. Mostly, I watched repeatedly as my mother killed chickens when I was a child, and it never bothered me. It was just part of growing up on the farm. But somehow, seeing that turkey trussed up in a bag waiting for the butcher knife my father wielded made a more lasting impression.
While we’re on the subject of turkeys, I’ll confess they’re not the tastiest bird I’ve ever eaten. Truth is, most fowl have more flavor than today’s factory-grown turkeys, and even when I was young, there were better options.
A fat baking hen has far more flavor, ounce for ounce, than a turkey. And when we baked one, there was always the chance of finding a yet-to-be laid egg. Now, that’s good eating.
Still more flavorful is a goose. I have had more experience with wild ones, but recall a few domestic geese on the table as well.
One of my most memorable Thanksgivings, though, was my first year away at college. In a phone call home, my mother asked if I wanted anything special for Thanksgiving. Joking, I said I’d love a barbecued raccoon. We ate raccoon (and most anything else in the wild game category) but certainly not for Thanksgiving.
No matter. My brother shot a large raccoon and my mother baked it, basted with vinegar, which was customary. It adorned the dining room table, looking (as a raccoon does) much as you would imagine a skinned cat. Alongside it was a Thanksgiving turkey. The turkey was good and the raccoon delicious, and I believe it may have been the last one I ever ate.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.