Thanksgiving is all about family. More than Christmas – that’s been tainted by rampant consumerism and tales of flying reindeer (don’t get me wrong, we love it) – Thanksgiving is about two of Red Gum BBQ’s favourite things – family and food.
The main attraction is the meal. End of story. And our tobacco chewing, Uncle Jimmy’s inappropriate swearing. Oh, and women gossiping. When I think of Thanksgiving – I think of chaos. Of Mom or Grandma frantically cooking from the crack of dawn in their search of Southern perfection, surrounded by the other women in the family – while the men folk are firmly planted on recliners in front of the TV – beer in hand, watching the Thanksgiving Day football. As a child I was just a spectator to all of this – shifting between sitting in on the family gossip, visiting Granddaddy on his recliner (a spot nobody but I was allowed to inhabit) or playing with Cousin Angie – usually wandering off, as children did then, exploring new paths and creeks in the quaint Savannah neighbourhood, Grandma & Granddaddy called home. While the hours passed over creaming and roasting, stories of family continued…Aunt Vic’s dwindling, precious family heirlooms were lost forever to Cousin Kay. The sad story of Uncle John, lost in the dead of night, found some days later, dead under a bridge (alcohol can get anyone). There’s even a story of an ax-wielding ancestor but we’re not allowed to talk about that – no seriously, we’re not allowed to ever mention it. In and amongst the doom and gloom, there are conversations about pregnancy, infidelity and divorce. And whether the mash needs more mashing.
Lunch begins peaceful enough – with everyone sharing their reasons for being thankful. Traditionally this goes along the lines of – ‘for the food we’re eating, for the blessings of health’ some mention of God… but as the wine and beers flow the responses become a bit more interesting and a bit more truthful (particularly when blessings are less abundant). Hopefully we make it around the table without someone being genuinely insulted. Unlikely.
The meal is the star attraction. The bird is ceremoniously carved by the elder male – who provides his singular input into the meal. My spot at the table was identified by the mayo jar sitting at the top, ready to put my turkey into a sandwich – an act that provided years of taunting by my brothers (who were professional taunters). I still have an extraordinary love of sandwiches – though have matured in my tastes and prefer gravy and dressing to bread for my turkey.
On the table is the same casseroles we remember from year after year and that we may only have on this one day. Southern women pride themselves on a casserole and this meal is like the Superbowl of casseroles. The most controversial dish at the James/Cobb Thanksgiving table was Cheese & Peas. A simple dish of baby peas, chopped sharp cheddar, diced onion, mayo and salt and pepper. Served cold. My brother thought it was worthy of its white trash reputation. I thought it was heaven in a salad. I shared the recipe with friends over the years. Some loved, some recoiled. But everywhere Peas and Cheese went, excitement followed. We renamed it on occasion to Petit Pois au Fromage in order to class it up but this just felt fake. Cheese and Peas, I found out later, a classic Southern dish (of course it was, my grandmother and mother always made it) is what food should be. It is simple and real and makes no pretense otherwise.
What’s apparent as the day goes on is that family, particularly from those across the wide US political spectrum and alcohol – should really only get together once a year. And this time is Thanksgiving. When the love that binds us as family, with all of the shared history of lifetimes and generations – is what trumps all.
And that pie heals all wounds.
And that turkey, like shrimp, a’ la Gump – can reinvent itself in endlessly, wonderful ways.
And that nobody better eat the last cheese and peas. Or else.
Today Thanksgiving in Australia looks a little bit different. Martin is intimately involved in Thanksgiving prep – he’s the man on the meat, of course. And I’m on casserole duty. A tradition I happily indulge and one that connects me to Mom and Grandma and the Americans at home and abroad, busily pulling together the meal of the year. We still have casseroles, sweet potato with marshmallows and of course, Cheese & Peas. Where we can, we host our own Thanksgiving – or attend one with some expat friends. It’s wonderful to now be able to share this with our little Aussie kids – who are learning that they have histories beyond these borders. We share stories of thankfulness and most importantly, take time to gather with friends and family over wonderful food – the trifecta of joy and life that is at the heart of all cultures and that reminds us of what is really important. Pie.