The day and the meal were always the same. The orange-glazed sweet rolls began the day. The smells of baking and cooking mingled together to fill the small house with aromas of spice and roast turkey. There was the traditional green bean casserole, the candied sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes with butter and whole milk, dinner rolls lifting the smell of baking bread into the mix, the hated and dreaded Brussels sprouts, and then as if the nose could experience nothing more there were the pies: pumpkin, mince meat, and if there were good apples to be found, an apple pie for my father. The house was filled to capacity with the smells of Thanksgiving.
As a small child I literally reveled in the aromas, I would dance into the kitchen to drink in the heady sights and smells. If no one was looking I would try and filch a taste of something. Sometimes there were leftover sweet rolls from breakfast, sometimes a hot dinner roll, sometimes just smelling was enough.
For a fairly poor family the “feast” was incredible. But it was, each year always the same. It was a ritual. The foods, the stories, the words, the people seldom varied, and as I grew older what became clear was that this day was more than a feast, it was a day when all of the people that I loved and cared for came together. The feast was an excuse for remembering and storytelling, for laughter and for fun. It was an introduction of one generation to the next of the “family.” There was the odd uncle who had a drinking problem, the aunt who was struggling in her marriage, there was always in the midst of the feast the reality of life impinging on a feast itself, but that, too, was family.
To this day, the smells of some of those ritual foods, bring me in direct contact with the past; they pull me into a crowded room with a table extended to its very limits, elbows brushing against elbows, and a room so warm that in spite of the cold the door or window had to be opened just a crack.
Over the years many faces at that table changed or disappeared. My parents are gone, grandparents long since departed but the foods, their ritual preparation, the tastes return and I am once again at that table watching and waiting, looking to sneak a piece of turkey before the meal begins, once again seeing the smiling faces and experience, no, reliving “family.”
The early morning sleep was interrupted
by the smell of baking, the sweet rolls,
were coming out of the oven and the
sweet smell of the orange glaze drifted
up the stairs and I stirred and then my
sisters, giggling stumbled out of bed,
and tripping and tumbling made their
way down the stairs to the kitchen table,
where the rolls, dripping with the sugary
orange glaze sat as an early morning centerpiece,
an usher to the day, an invitation to the feast.
Each phase of the day was always the same,
the timetable for turkey, pies, green bean casserole,
Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes
and the cranberries made from scratch, were all
so carefully choreographed in the tiny kitchen,
each component was, and had to be,
done in its own turn, with no variation.
There was a sacredness to the ritual,
the day proceeded like fine liturgy,
with each component part presented as
a step by step presentation to the moment
when the meal would begin, the table,
laden almost groaning under the weight
of food and my mother’s best china,
with once a year “silverware” polished and
presented to be used and then carefully
put away, until the next ritual meal.
As the preparations continued, the words
that surrounded the baking and making,
were almost always the same, my mother’s
running commentary on what she was doing,
why one pumpkin pie filling was better than
another, why she couldn’t find good sweet
potatoes this year, and on and on,
the words, were always the same and the fears
about turkey and dressing were mingled with
laughter and expectation and more people
were crowding into the tiny kitchen and
the meal was getting closer and closer
and the turkey basted with drippings and
melted butter was coming closer and closer
to its triumphant moment, and then the carving,
my father, reluctant and hopeful all at the same time
would try again to do it right, to meet some
standard of excellence proclaimed in his own mind.
And then the magic moment, the table filled with food,
every chair filled, the table ringed with three generations,
and my grandmother requesting grace, my parents,
asking the children to say the childhood prayer,
“Come Lord Jesus be our guest and let these gifts
to us be blest.” Amen. And then we ate.
The faces that once ringed the tabled have come and gone,
and now they are only memories as this generation
is introduced to those faces, through food and the act
of remembrance that gives the past,
for one fleeting moment, new life.
Remember and write. Sometimes the family stories, good or bad, can connect us to ourselves in ways that are so necessary in order for us to tell the next generation about the past, so that we might live fully in the present and take the steps necessary for a meaningful future. So remember Thanksgiving and write on.
Michael Brecke is the former pastor of Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church in Juddville and a founding board member of Write On, Door County. Brecke now lives in the Kansas City area.