The Not-So-Pitiful Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving morning I awoke to the usual rattle of milk pans. Grabbing my shoes and stockings, I raced barefoot to the warmth of the kitchen stove. Papa was straining the milk. “Where’s Mama?” I asked.

“She coughed all night” he said, “so I told her to stay in bed and you’d get breakfast ready.” He set the pans of milk in the pantry and went out to tend the cows.

“Oh, no,” I wailed aloud, “Mama can’t be sick on Thanksgiving Day!”

Helplessly I regarded the old cookstove. In bright, shiny letters across the oven door was written FROM KALAMAZOO DIRECT TO YOU. Such good things had come from that oven, I remembered, especially at holidays. For the first time in my memory there had been no bustle of baking the day before Thanksgiving. Mama wasn’t up to it, and Grandma had gone to Moccasin to spend a few days with Uncle Fred and Aunt LaVern. She had said that the family was too big now for all of us to be together on Thanksgiving. To top that off, we got a sad little note from my two oldest sisters, Annie and Kate, who were away at school, saying they couldn’t find a way home from Cedar City.

Mildred, just older than I, was helping Sister Cripps. What a situation! There would be no plum pudding bobbing up and down in its little cotton sack in the boiling kettle, and there would be no row of pies cooling on the pantry shelf.

The fire crackled and steam spouted from the copper teakettle, reminding me that I had better stop feeling sorry for myself and get busy.

Absolutely the only thing I’d ever cooked was mush. I had had no reason to learn to cook, what with Grandma, Mama, and my three older sisters around. Mama had the gift of making something out of nothing, especially when company unexpectedly appeared. My sisters had all learned to cook because they often worked out for people, and then there was Grandma. She lived next door to us, but did her cooking on our stove. She used to run the Isom Hotel at Virgin during the oil boom, and she delighted in cooking for big crowds.

As I poured the boiling water into the mush pot and stirred in the cracked wheat, I thought of other Thanksgivings. Last year when Grandma was taking flaky crusted pies out of the oven with a towel, her thumb accidentally touched the hot tin pan and she dropped a currant pie upside down on the kitchen floor. Steaming red juice trickled across the clean linoleum, and I thought it was a disaster until Grandma said, “You youngsters can have that pie.” She wasn’t one to waste anything. I remember my aunts saying that Grandma was so saving that if a mosquito lit in the molasses, she’d lick its legs before turning it loose. Maybe so, but no pie ever tasted so good as the one she dropped.

Thanksgiving meant lots of relatives. Three years ago everybody in Hurricane had Thanksgiving dinner together in the little wooden meetinghouse before it was torn down. The grown-ups ate first because “children must learn their proper place and respect their elders.” It was one of the rare times that it snowed in Hurricane. While the grown-ups ate, we scraped enough snow together for a snowman; then it was our turn to eat. Politely we sat at the long, wonderful table. I had never seen so many kinds of scrumptious food in my whole life. And what fun it was to eat with playmates and cousins while even the men, wearing happy faces and big aprons, served us.

Stirring the mush smooth, I put on the lid. My little sisters were giggling in their room and singing “Over the River and Through the Woods.” That got to me. Slipping into my coat, I ran to the barn where Papa was pitching hay into the manger.

“Papa, aren’t we going to have any Thanksgiving?” I cried.

“I guess it’s up to you,” he replied, ramming the pitchfork into the hay and climbing down from the loft.

“Me!” I said aghast.

He patted my shoulder. “You’re almost twelve, aren’t you?”

“Eleven,” I corrected.

He took my hand and we walked to the house together. “I’ll tell you what. We’ll put these nice white beans Mama set to soak in this big kettle, like this. Then we’ll put in a piece of fresh pork.” Stepping outside, he brought in a flour sack of meat that had been hanging on the shady side of the house and cut off a hunk for the bean pot. “Now for a little salt, then the lid, and we’ll slide it on the back of the stove. You keep the fire going and the beans will be ready for dinner.”

“But Papa! It’s Thanksgiving! Are beans all we’ll have?”

“With plenty of brown bread and butter and fruit, nothing could be better.”

Grandma always said Papa was a very practical man, and I knew it was true.

Mama ate breakfast with us, then went back to bed. Papa went to fix the corral gate. My little sisters, Edith and LaPriel, did the dishes while I tidied up the house. I looked at the pictures of pilgrims and turkeys that they had colored with crayons and pasted in the front window. Of course we’d never had a turkey, because we didn’t raise them. We ate what we grew. Papa had butchered the pig and Mama had bottled sausage, but she hadn’t rendered out the lard yet.

Quietly I slipped into Mama’s room. Feeling my presence, she opened her eyes.

“Mama, I wish I knew how to make something special for dinner,” I said.

She patted my hand. “The first step to becoming a good cook is to want to. Run down to Aunt Mary’s house and borrow half a cup of lard and I’ll teach you how to make a cake with sugar in it.”

“Sugar!” I exclaimed. Usually we had molasses cakes.

I flew to Aunt Mary’s with my tin cup and she filled it with fresh, creamy white lard. Then I ran all the way home.

“You might want to write this down for the first time,” Mama said, “but in no time at all you’ll be cooking from memory.”

The good cooks I knew gloried in the fact that their recipes were in their heads. We didn’t even own a cookbook.

“We’ll start with two cups of flour.”

I wrote it down.

“Now remember this rule: For each cup of flour, you use one teaspoon of baking powder. Then add a good pinch of salt.”

“How much is a good pinch?”

“About half a teaspoon. You’ll get used to that. Sift these together. In a separate bowl put half as much sugar as flour. How much would that be?”

“One cup,” I replied.

“Now add half as much lard as sugar.”

“One-half cup lard,” I said out loud as I wrote.

“Cream these together. I’m sure you know how to do that because you’ve watched me. Now, since the chickens aren’t laying too well, we’ll use just one egg today. Another rule you might remember is to use the same amount of milk as sugar. This is basic,” she explained.

“From these simple rules you can make many kinds of cake. I’ll leave it to your imagination. You can add a teaspoon of lemon or vanilla extract or a teaspoon of nutmeg—whichever you like.” After explaining how to alternately mix in the flour and milk she said, “Now run along and have fun making your first cake.”

I kept popping back into her room with questions, but finally the cake was in the oven.

“If you’ve kept just enough fire to keep the beans bubbling gently, your cake should be done in half an hour,” she said.

Anxiously I watched the fire and the clock. An angel must have sat on my shoulder because the cake browned just right, springing back to my touch as Mama had said it should.

Remembering Grandma’s cake topping, I ran down to the cellar for a glass of plum jelly and spread it on the cake as it cooled. Cream on the pans of last night’s milk for tomorrow’s churning reminded me of what else Grandma would do if she were here. I ladled some into a bowl for whipping.

Down the cellar once more, I scanned the shining store of bottled fruit. Himalaya berries! Today we would open a two-quart bottle of them! Sweet pomegranates in a basket on the dirt floor caught my eye. Some of them were already splitting, exposing ruby red seeds. I selected the biggest one.

Edith and LaPriel had caught the excitement of the day. They kept the woodbox filled, put the best white cloth on the table in the living room, and even fixed a bouquet of pink chrysanthemums they had rooted out from under the yellow leaves beneath the cherry trees.

Papa came in and scrubbed up. Mama came downstairs and said she felt much better. The table with its flowers and the cut glass bowl of berries and the bread, butter, and beans looked like Thanksgiving. We bowed our heads and Papa thanked Heavenly Father for the bounties of the earth and for a couple of hundred other things; then he blessed the food. He had just barely said, “Amen,” when the brakes to Ether Wood’s freight truck squealed outside our front gate. Ether is the Good Samaritan of our town who always remembers students who are away from home.

Annie and Kate burst in through the front door at the very moment that Mildred opened the kitchen door, announcing that Sister Cripps didn’t need her anymore. My heart almost popped the buttons off my dress. I wanted to laugh and to cry. Everybody hugged everybody else. We put on three extra plates and, chattering like sparrows, passed the beans.

When it came time, I brought out the cake. Like jewels, pomegranate seeds sparkled from the whipped-cream topping. It looked so pretty everyone gasped.

“I made it myself. Mama told me how,” I explained.

Papa said it was fit for a king and Mama said it was perfect and everyone else said I should try one again soon. I looked at the happy faces of my family around the table.

“My goodness!” I exclaimed, “This isn’t a pitiful Thanksgiving after all!”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann