When I was young, it wasn’t unusual for a huge group of family members to assemble for holiday dinners at my maternal Grandparents’ home. It was a small house outside a rural village, and they’d moved from their tenant farm because my Granddad was into middle-age, and had given up farming for the less physically demanding job of night watchman.
It was there that various aunts, uncles and cousins would sometimes come together for holiday dinners, stuffing that little house as full as – OK, I’ll say it – the turkey baking in the oven. The women would all be cooking and trying to stay out of each other’s way in the crowded kitchen, the men would be playing cards or listening to the radio, and the kids would be getting into trouble — or trying to stay out of it.
I was always at a disadvantage in one very fundamental way — my girl cousins far outnumbered the boys, by a ratio of something like three to one. You don’t have to be a math wizard to see how things added up when it came to getting attention. (Apparently it’s in our family genes — my sister ended up having three daughters.)
Meanwhile, the food managed to get prepared — turkey of course, but chicken and noodles too, a couple of different kinds of potatoes and an endless variety of other side-dishes. Some of the women had gardens and canned during the growing season, so a number of jars of good stuff were popped open and prepared.
My Grandma’s famous yeast rolls were by then filling the house with their distinctive aroma, even overcoming the roast turkey we’d been smelling all day. They came out of the oven golden brown, and she’d take a hunk of deep yellow country butter and slide it around the tops, making them glisten.
That butter, and the whipping cream that would later be on top of the pumpkin pie, came from local dairy farms, sometimes through barter. Jars of canned vegetables – or possibly home-made preserves – would be given in exchange for big square prints of butter, or jars of cream so rich and thick that it almost didn’t need whipping. Of course, none of these edibles came anywhere near a Board Of Heath inspection, and the folks involved knew nothing about FDA regulations — or cholesterol for that matter.
If the number of people was high enough we ate in shifts, with the men and older boys gorging themselves at the main table and the kids fighting each other at card tables set up in every space available. Once the men were sated and groaning, the women would sit in their places and leisurely eat with less urgency but probably more appreciation — after all, it was their labor that had created the feast.
Eventually it was time for clean-up and the men disappeared, some to find a place for a nap, others moving outside to smoke, chew, spit, cuss and tell jokes. You wouldn’t catch these guys doing any dishes – it wouldn’t have even occurred to them – but that’s just the way it was at that time.
But if Granddad was in the right mood, he’d get out his harmonica and play for us. One of his favorites was a song that dates back to the Civil War or earlier, and was also a favorite at barn-dances — “Turkey In The Straw.” Unfortunately, I don’t have a recording of Granddad, but here’s a video of the song in a rare early filmed performance by Freddie Fisher’s Schnickelfritz band. Silly, but fun.